In Praise of Fast Food

We need a culinary ethos that comes to terms with industrialized food


| September-October 2010



In Praise of Fast Food Image

Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle / www.minimiam.com

This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, read Food Fight , Waste Not, Want Not , The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry , and The First Family’s Fallow Gardens . For more writing on food from the alternative press, visit utne.com/FoodFight .

Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television programs, and in cookbooks. It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone-ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples while despising modern tomatoes; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding crops and to home economists who invent recipes for General Mills.

My culinary style, like so many people’s, was created by those who scorned industrialized food; culinary Luddites, we could call them, after the 19th-century English workers who abhorred the machines that were destroying their way of life. I learned to cook from the books of Elizabeth David, who urged us to sweep our cupboards “clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring.”
I rush to the newsstand to pick up Saveur with its promise to teach me to “savor a world of authentic cuisine.”

Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade—and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.

As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

 

melanie
12/18/2010 10:05:02 PM

I echo Robyn in "strawman" and "false dichotomies". Further, an assumed connection between going backward and fresh/natural/organic/local is made. This is unnecessary and leads to equally unnecessary insults like "Luddite". Fresh/natural/organic/local can all, separately or together, be goals of very progressive individuals and communities who are looking forward to a better future, not backward to an imagined past. As an historian, Laudan's bias is understandable, but fundamentally flawed as a jumping off point for this particular topic.


melanie
12/18/2010 9:03:09 PM

I echo Robyn in "strawman" and "false dichotomies". Further, an assumed connection between going backward and fresh/natural/organic/local is made. This is unnecessary and leads to equally unnecessary insults like "Luddite". Fresh/natural/organic/local can all, separately or together, be goals of very progressive individuals and communities who are looking forward to a better future, not backward to an imagined past. As an historian, Laudan's bias is understandable, but fundamentally flawed as a jumping off point for this particular topic.


melanie
12/18/2010 9:01:29 PM

I echo Robyn in "strawman" and "false dichotomies". Further, an assumed connection between going backward and fresh/natural/organic/local is made. This is unnecessary and leads to equally unnecessary insults like "Luddite". Fresh/natural/organic/local can all, separately or together, be goals of very progressive individuals and communities who are looking forward to a better future, not backward to an imagined past. As an historian, Laudan's bias is understandable, but fundamentally flawed as a jumping off point for this particular topic.


melanie
12/18/2010 8:58:49 PM

I echo Robyn in "strawman" and "false dichotomies". Further, an assumed connection between going backward and fresh/natural/organic/local is made. This is unnecessary and leads to equally unnecessary insults like "Luddite". Fresh/natural/organic/local can all, separately or together, be goals of very progressive individuals and communities who are looking forward to a better future, not backward to an imagined past. As an historian, Laudan's bias is understandable, but fundamentally flawed as a jumping off point for this particular topic.


melanie
12/18/2010 8:56:24 PM

I echo Robyn in "strawman" and "false dichotomies". Further, an assumed connection between going backward and fresh/natural/organic/local is made. This is unnecessary and leads to equally unnecessary insults like "Luddite". Fresh/natural/organic/local can all, separately or together, be goals of very progressive individuals and communities who are looking forward to a better future, not backward to an imagined past. As an historian, Laudan's bias is understandable, but fundamentally flawed as a jumping off point for this particular topic.


mishelle shepard
12/17/2010 1:39:22 PM

Let's not forget also that some of us would love to toil our lives away working on the land, it's meditative and healthy and it would be nice if we had a place to sell our surplus locally, which we do not.


pe_5
12/17/2010 1:30:42 PM

Comments have done the job, yet I'll add that this 'historian' is unaware of the Law of 1891 under which artisanale (old-style) baguettes can be made, hardly a '20th-century' invention. When putting others down, be sure of your footing. My observations of long lines at McD led me to the Law of the Conservation of Fast, by which the Fast is so concentrated in the food that service by underpaid underskilled workers of all ages is molasses. An apple is even Faster than a banana. Don't peel; no need to bury the peel near a rose. As for victims of fermenting foods, avoid yogurt and sourdough if you will, shun sauerkraut, fear kefir, but this sour, inaccurate putdown of old-style diets is ludicrously misplaced.


abbey
12/17/2010 12:40:10 PM

This is a good article, most of the negative comments come from people with the "Luddite" mentality! Just because it shows something other than a narrow opinion, is no reason to be so nasty by many of the responders. For those ripping on this article, I would strongly suggest reading your history, actually understanding the events and times predating 1930 or so. Most of the negative comments show a total lack of knowledge of history. Just because she presents a view so different from what you have allowed yourselves to be brainwashed into believing, does not mean her comments and facts are without merit. Most of the comments sound as though they are coming from spoiled children, crying because you did not get your way, Sad, very sad. Not much to be said for being open to ideas with merit, overall a good, balanced article, discussing the changes in food over the last 70 or so years. What I really see here is a number of very narrow minded people with no understanding of history, reality or facts. Mostly shows why Unte is read by so few and will stay that way. Good bye.


jar
12/17/2010 10:03:29 AM

Matthew Kennedy--the very nature of religion doesn't base itself on "provable facts" from a humanist perspective. In this discussion, religion absolutely falls in the realm of "opinion." Try sticking to the facts trying to be discussed.


tara
11/12/2010 2:55:50 PM

I'm glad so many other commenters were disgusted by this article, though there were a few things which I wanted to make sure got across as well. The author is not in any meaningful sense a historian, and most certainly has no understanding of climate change, anthropology, or labor history. Our topsoil is being used up at a terrifying rate. The industrial food system, environmentally ruinous, is also reliant upon a transportation system which is burning the planet up. The industrial food system is fundamentally not sustainable because it consumes the ground underneath it while leaving nothing for the future. And the whole concept of slaving away over a stove or grinding food for 5 hours is absolutely misguided. Yes, women traditionally labored for hours - they also raised their children at the same time rather than shipping them off to nannies or daycare. They also did their work in communities, usually socializing with one another. Farmers didn't flee the land - they lost it due to the enclosure movement. No longer able to be self-sufficient, they were pushed into the cities to find work. I guess the centuries of agrarian revolt just weren't interesting enough, so you settled for an insulting portrayal of agrarian society in the Middle Ages, quoted some Hobbes to make yourself feel good, and ignored thousands of peaceful and sustainable traditional indigenous communities who managed to grow food without poisoning themselves or the Earth? Utterly absurd article.


chris macdonald
10/21/2010 9:34:22 AM

I think if we want to learn something, we need to allow the author a little room for rhetorical flourish. Sometimes it's worth setting up a straw man just to get everyone to state clearly that it is, in fact, a straw man. My own response to this article is here: http://food-ethics.com/2010/10/20/in-praise-of-industrialized-food/ Chris MacDonald The Food Ethics Blog


michael kopp
9/21/2010 9:06:53 AM

Unsurprisingly, this article and most of the comments come from a selfish, urbanized perspective. Is this food good or bad for me? Does it taste better or worse to me? Does it save me time, or is it worth my time to find local food and cook from scratch? (Less selfishly): does it damage the environment? Lost in the shuffle is some understanding of the perspective of people who grow the food, particularly the vast majority of people who were once farmers (in this country) or who still farm in developing countries. The author seems to assume that farming sucks, no one wants to do it, and those family farmers who were "liberated" by tractors, hybridized crops, and agrochemicals couldn't wait to get to the big city and take factory jobs. Wrong. I'm sure some couldn't wait to leave the farm, but many people mourned the loss of their farms and moved to the city only reluctantly. Farming is hard work, but ennobling work. Both of my parents came from farming families, and I have many relatives who still farm. They like what they do, and were it not for increasingly oppressive economic conditions for small farmers, I imagine my relatives would continue farming for generations. Farming may not be for everyone, but don't assume that people don't want to do it, or that some crappy office job is "better" than farming because it lets you sit on your ever-growing butt all day and stare at some flickering monitor. No thanks.


abigail blake
9/20/2010 5:08:41 PM

Thanks to Ms. Laudan for a reminder of how far we've come and how much we take for granted. I remember reading the "Little House" books and wondering how Ma had time to brush her teeth between all the grinding, baking, salting, preserving, sugaring, drying, hog butchering and waiting for Pa to shoot something or produce a good crop. I sure wouldn't want to go back. Sure, there are serious problems with our industrial food supply and those problems need to be addressed. Bt the answers are not necessarily to be found in centuries past. Romanticizing a reality that never really existed doesn't help any of us and it's about time someone pointed that out. And Matthew - you want to know Ms. Laudan's credentials? Here's her CV from her website: http://www.rachellaudan.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/curriculum-vitae.pdf And yours?


joel maharry
9/20/2010 3:17:48 PM

I'm suspicious that this article is either a Cato Institute-like front for big agriculture, or a joke. I'm not a "Culinary Luddite," nor am I "timorous" about industrialized food. I spent my childhood eating that shit! No, I want good, healthy food that's delicious and varied. And that's what millions of Americans want, as well. Cloaking the drive to healthy and fresh and flavorful food with a backward-looking nostalgia is a deep and churlish insult.


joel maharry
9/20/2010 3:16:11 PM

I'm suspicious that this article is either a Cato Institute-like front for big agriculture, or a joke. I'm not a "Culinary Luddite," nor am I "timorous" about industrialized food. I spent my childhood eating that shit! No, I want good, healthy food that's delicious and varied. And that's what millions of Americans want, as well. Cloaking the drive to healthy and fresh and flavorful food with a backward-looking nostalgia is a deep and churlish insult.


jenna_3
9/12/2010 4:16:18 PM

(continued) Again, this was supposed to be about fast food, and not about industrial food. Very well- fast food and industrial food are related - one supplies the other. But fast food as described here is not fast. Mixing water and maize makes polenta or grits - and trust me, rough grinds of those is NOT fast-cooking. Nor is it particularly portable in some ways. Fast food of the modern age includes sugar, sugar, and more sugar. It includes genetically modified corn, which guess what? Leads to sterilization in mice by the 3rd generation. Um, that means my grandchildren are screwed. Yes, 80% sterility in those mice, and then low birth weight, high infant mortality, and smaller litters in those that are capable of bearing little baby mice. Great. And I'm just supposed to say YAHOO! and chow down? Hell no. That toil her mother no longer has to do? It's now done by millions of slaves and underpaid migrants. Congratulations, you've passed the toil buck. Me, I buy grapes from the guy that picked them and dry them into raisins myself. Then, at least I'm not endorsing the jerks who pay 20 cents per flat of grapes picked to starving migrant workers. Yes, that entire *case* of raisins at the grocery store resulted in 20-40 cents paid to an actual worker. Don't you feel great about industrial food? I'm not pretending that the past was all pretty and happy, and I'm not ignoring the feces-covered cows or untested genetics either. I weigh each issue as I go.


jenna_3
9/12/2010 4:04:39 PM

Um, I thought this article was about FAST food?? Industrial food is a related, but different animal. Damn straight I used canned tomatoes out of season - That's *preservation* on an industrial scale, and preservation was the difference between surviving the winter or not! Preserved tomatoes are picked at the height of their ripeness... which I can't get from a grocery store tomato, which is picked green. I understand the toil to which her mother referred... which is why I cook for 2 people and not 10. I intentionally have a small family. I made a choice that very likely her mother didn't feel she could have made at the time - and that's a delay of women's rights, and not the fault of food. I can make a healthy breakfast in about 15 minutes (WITH greens!). If I want to make a slow-cooked dish, like grits or oatmeal, I can make extra and set aside the rest. (before more modern, affordable refrigeration, women did not have this luxury, so fair point on how the past wasn't always better) If I want to make an in-depth dinner, it can take about 90 minutes - with me putting it in the oven, I get to surf the web for 45 of those. Not exactly slavery. And yes, I'm cooking from scratch, with real ingredients. A quick dinner can be done organically in my house - I average between $6 and $10 for 2 people, usually with leftovers, in 25 minutes. Again, not slavery, and cheaper than 2 big mac extra value meals. Not to mention healthier. (continued)


jenna_3
9/12/2010 4:03:11 PM

Um, I thought this article was about FAST food?? Industrial food is a related, but different animal. Damn straight I used canned tomatoes out of season - That's *preservation* on an industrial scale, and preservation was the difference between surviving the winter or not! Preserved tomatoes are picked at the height of their ripeness... which I can't get from a grocery store tomato, which is picked green. I understand the toil to which her mother referred... which is why I cook for 2 people and not 10. I intentionally have a small family. I made a choice that very likely her mother didn't feel she could have made at the time - and that's a delay of women's rights, and not the fault of food. I can make a healthy breakfast in about 15 minutes (WITH greens!). If I want to make a slow-cooked dish, like grits or oatmeal, I can make extra and set aside the rest. (before more modern, affordable refrigeration, women did not have this luxury, so fair point on how the past wasn't always better) If I want to make an in-depth dinner, it can take about 90 minutes - with me putting it in the oven, I get to surf the web for 45 of those. Not exactly slavery. And yes, I'm cooking from scratch, with real ingredients. A quick dinner can be done organically in my house - I average between $6 and $10 for 2 people, usually with leftovers, in 25 minutes. Again, not slavery, and cheaper than 2 big mac extra value meals. Not to mention healthier. (continued)


keith_3
9/10/2010 8:56:31 AM

Here is a killer response to this article: http://www.dissertationtodirt.com/2010/09/if-it-werent-for-dominos-wed-all-be.html


linda eatenson
9/7/2010 12:04:44 PM

Good grief! Need fast food? Eat a banana. Need convenience? Prepare once for several days. Appreciate today's apple that's sweeter and meatier than those in the past? Of course! Want to avoid hormones, pesticides, drugs, and other chemicals in food? Of course! We need to look for the best of all the worlds, not just act like silly children arguing and name calling. Surely we're smarter and more creative than that!


lars_2
9/7/2010 11:49:00 AM

Glad to see the majority of comments here calling out the strawman fallacies made by the author. No need for me to add anything.


doradufran
9/7/2010 9:20:52 AM

Thanks Robyn M. for clarifying the ways in which the author commits logical fallacies in this article. If one didn't catch that, her claims might seem to make sense. "timorous Luddism" characterizes the slow food movement??? Not in my neck of the woods! Busy moms who want to nourish their families with whole real food rely on modern technology to get the job done. She clearly hasn't walked in our shoes. Her assumptions are way off base. And her omissions are dishonest. She neglects to mention any of the many ways & means to slow food that don't support her hypothesis. I suppose if traditional food meant what she thought it did (her description of it is laughable, if not deliberately misleading), or if the ways in which our great great grandmothers preserved their harvest qualified as "processed food" as she claims (canning,fermenting, salting = industrial food processing? come on!), or if any of us thought eating fresh and natural meant abandoning modern technology in favor of grinding our wheat between two rocks, she MIGHT have an actual point, but since her assumptions are as incorrect as her arguments, she has done nothing but display her own lack of understanding about why and how the trend against processed food is growing. I agree with commenter Donald's conclusion: Ms. Laudan has clearly demonstrated that on this particular subject, she shouldn't teach - she either lacks the necessary depth of knowledge or is deliberately misrepresenting the topic.


mike holland
8/18/2010 9:57:03 PM

@Robyn M Thanks for your post. My thoughts, as well, only your version was much more elegant and concise.


mike holland
8/18/2010 9:52:00 PM

This is a confused mess. Historian? Of cherry picking your argument? You follow a well reasoned article by Pollan. You had your best chance to attack the questions of yield, animal rights, taste, but you used cross-logic and confuse things Pollan is fighting in food such as synthetic dye, synthetic flavor and synthetic preservatives with salt! Salt? This is not a cogent argument. I'm not worried about my daughter and salt. I'm worried about synthetic pesticide and the like.


matthew kennedy_2
8/15/2010 9:28:31 PM

Yeah, and she's NOT apologizing for the current food industry. That's the problem.


leon
8/15/2010 3:18:33 PM

I am amazed at the reaction of the food police to Lauden's article. I think she's spot on. She's not completely dismissing organic, slow food, nor is she apologizing for the food industry. She's opening a debate, a welcome one at that. She's presenting facts--in many ways we are better off than we were generations ago--and there is no way we can go back to the days when everyone had a plot, grew a few crops, and bartered for others. Read some of Stewart Brand's latest thoughts and you'll see what Lauden is talking about. Just because you say something over and over again does not make it true. We have to reconcile our food choices--walk down the aisles of supermarkets around the world and you'll see what she's talking about. Thanks Professor!


matthew kennedy_2
8/14/2010 6:54:41 PM

Food pulled from the ground is "comical"? Ah, what have we become? Is there nothing about "organic" that is just plain better than "chemical" - especially when so little is known (or published) about the long-term effects of these preservatives and GMO's? Sure, there is an appeal - even a necessity for convenience. But this is not at all what the whole debate is about. If the corporations truly cared about people's health, 90% or more of the supermarket shelves would be emptied. It's about profit and immorality. When people truly desire to do the right thing; when people eventually begin to see others as 'other selves" - nothing will look like things look now. We can do better and that is where our focus should be.


realfoodmama2_2
8/14/2010 6:19:40 PM

@Donald: I cannot argue with your statement that the variety has increased. Of course it has, things are trucked to us from all over the world these days. I will, however, argue with your statement about the quality. Were you aware that the average piece of conventional produce has lost nearly 30 percent of its nutritional value since 1980? The reasons are multiple. First, the transport distance requires that fruit be picked when unripe in order to keep it from going bad before it reaches its destination. Secondly, when hybrids are bred for conformity (tomatoes all the same shape and size) and abundance, the sheer amount produced by a single plant lessens the nutritional content of each individual fruit. Not to mention the fact that conventional foods grown in compromised soils (read: over farmed and over fertilized) have access to fewer nutrients making them, once again, less nutritious. However this doesn't address the processed food issue since that all relates to fresh foods. Of course the author's argument that buying local and eating seasonally is somehow backwards is relevant. When you buy local produce, it is picked fresh! When you eat an apple in October instead of February, it's fresh! I have nothing against processed food such as flour (which is "processed" by grinding), or bacon (which is cured), or dried apricots. But I do think that accepting and even encouraging the chemical pollution of the food that keeps us ALIVE is ridiculous and ignorant.


donald_5
8/14/2010 4:40:29 PM

I grew up on a farm after living for years next door to a Monsanto plant. I would love to see Monsanto go bankrupt. Some readers puritanical belief in the mystical properties of food pulled out of the ground by your own hands is comical to say the least. Our current selections at the grocery stores are a quantum leap in quality and availability from just 40 yrs ago and will only get better. Ms. Robyn M. please don't teach! Teaching is a gift. You are a preacher. Logic is the domain of science, and your inability to understand the truth in the article is frightening. Again, please DON'T teach.


donald_5
8/14/2010 4:30:58 PM

Wow, apparently no amount of fact can penetrate a closed mind. I grew up next door to a Monsanto Plant in St. Louis, Mo. The criminals at Monsanto cannot be forgiven, but describing ALL processed food as some crime against the human diet is indeed sophmoric. Read the label, smell the meat, feel the fruit, we are far beyond the fear and disease that un-processed food used to cause us and our parents. Just because some processed food is nutritionally void does not mean that it ALL is unhealthy.


realfoodmama2_2
8/13/2010 10:22:50 PM

While the author may be an historian she clearly knows very little about modern food! First - modern industrialized food is created using a large number of corn and soy by-products. While both these crops are highly subsidized, allowing processed food to be inexpensive and accessible, the average American farmer makes under $20,000/year and is typically hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. How is this unlike the slavery the author refers to? Apparently it is ok with her if only a small number of people are enslaved this way. Second - the historical processing (curing, fermenting, etc.) referred to by the author are all ways in which people saved food without the aid of refrigeration. Modern processed foods has nothing to do with preserving the harvest. Comparing a traditional processed food (like prosciutto - salt cured pork) to a modern processed food (chicken nugget - chicken skin, cartilage and connective tissue combined with fillers, chemical preservatives and flavor enhancers) is a failure on the authors part to understand what she is talking about. Third - stating that you can either buy industrialized bread in a supermarket or spend 5 hours making your own misses a huge gray area. We used to have things called "Bakeries" and "Butcher Shops" where a skilled person (or people) would make local and fresh bread and sausage so you didn't have to. As an historian the author should know this!


matthew kennedy_2
8/13/2010 10:15:06 PM

I'd like to know Ms. Laudan's credentials - possibly, manager of McDonald's or spokeswoman for Monsanto? She's like the huckster who invented Mormonism - "Let's see, just how ridiculous can I make this religion and still get converts?" ...apparently, you can sprinkle a few unrelated facts all over patent absurdity and at least get published! "Food, Inc." is a definitive evil in the World - the fact that Laudan diminishes this in her brazen attempt at presenting her background in History as some sort of gravitas in food science - shows that she is merely another one of those ever popular stuffed shirts, spouting absolute nonsense to a likely easy audience, drunk on their own hubris.


robyn m._2
8/11/2010 4:57:03 PM

I'd suggest that the author look up the fallacies "strawman" and "false dichotomy" and spend some time meditating on just how badly these fallacies have been committed here. Good grief. I think I'll use this article in my Critical Thinking classes as an object lessons it's so bad.


rbrink21
8/10/2010 12:20:07 PM

An industrial fast food apologist. Have you ever taken a look and thought about what exactly is IN your industrial food? Do you think all of those ingredients that you can't pronounce are actually healthy? You also apparently seem unaware of the fact that industrial food uses 3 calories of fossil fuel energy to create just 1 calorie of food energy. From that standpoint, industrial food is completely unsustainable. You also seem to overestimate the amount of work it takes to feed a family handmade food. My husband and I both work full time (I also have a consulting job as well), grow and raise 80% of our family's food and process/cook/bake/preserve it ourselves. Along with that we still have time to enjoy time with our friends and family and be involved with other hobbies. We buy whole grain and grind it for bread. I make my own masa harina for corn tortillas from the corn I grow. I don't slave over food preparation for hours every day. And I'm also not the only one that does this. To say it's impossible to live like this today is false intellectually dishonest. We now have refrigeration to help keep foods from spoiling as quickly, which also in turn, allows us more time to do other things. I can pick a couple of gallons of cucumbers one day and then make pickles days later when I'm not busy doing something else.