I just popped in Robert Keener’s documentary Food Inc., with no initial intent to write about it, because I figure plenty of people on the Internet are better equipped to cover the politics of the food industry than I am. But I began to think about the number of times I’ve considered a road trip with the express purpose of touring the vast expanses of Americana — along the way, sampling as many local fast food chains as possible. Fast food is a unique, inextricable part of the American landscape, and to tour Middle America is to take in the industry in all of its myriad regional forms.
I’ve actually acted on this impulse in the past. The first time I visited New York City with two of my college pals, we took the subway to the Empire State Building — so we could eat at the White Castle across the street, a fast food novelty unavailable in California outside the frozen food section. When I flew to the South for the first time to visit my then-girlfriend now-wife’s parents in Asheville, N.C., I made sure to stop at Waffle House and Chick-fil-A (before I knew of their less-progressive tendencies).
But after watching Food Inc., and seeing Tyson chicken coops packed wall-to-wall with chickens so fat they can barely walk — because they’ve been bred to have large breasts — I might have to rethink the way I approach the American food crawl. I don’t mean that watching a documentary has turned me into a born-again Slow Foodie; I’m only human, and it’s tough for me to resist the urge to scarf down Jack-in-the-Box after a long run. Plus, I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where locally sourced ingredients are plentiful and cheap. But it might lead me to keep an eye out for regional cuisine when I tour America not just between the coasts, but anywhere and everywhere.
At a forum I post on, a thread took a dark turn in which people started to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the Denny’s franchise; a member from Europe then wise-assedly remarked that Americans turn any and every discussion into a debate about fast food. That got me thinking about how fast food, despite its rapid crawl to other countries, is a distinctly American concept, and what form of landscape it took for such a concept to turn into a national institution. According to Food Inc., the spread of fast food literally shaped the way Americans ate in the decades to follow, not only at individual chains but in its contact effect on the U.S. (and global!) food industry.
America, for all its global influence, is a really bizarre country. A full half of it was basically unfit for farming as Europe “found” it, but taking advantage of irrigation to an unprecedented extent, this issue turned out to be a piffle. (For a much fuller look at the spread of American irrigation, Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is unparalleled, and actually quite a page-turner.) The endpoint is that America came to consist largely of farmland serving a few enormous food companies. Co-mingled with light-speed U.S. ingenuity and industry, fast food quickly rose to the forefront of American culinary culture — but you already knew that, because it’s all around you.
I’m simplifying a complex process, but as an explorer of cities with suburbia among my stomping grounds, cheap, crappy food is sometimes the only option. When I was temporarily stranded in Little Falls, N.J., I made a dinner of Combos and mango Naked Juice from 7-Eleven while waiting for an express bus to Manhattan. This was a relatively well-off area of New Jersey, so I didn’t shed any tears for residents, but Food Inc. sheds light on more economically troubled communities where the lack of choice — and relative expensiveness of shopping at grocery stores — makes Burger King and KFC the more affordable meals.
I’ve already admitted that I’m on a pretty cushy throne growing up in the Bay Area, where you stumble over guilt-free food on practically every block, and I’ve never been much of a soapboxer. But Food Inc. was still eye-opening from the perspective of someone interested in the history of American expansion, and the next time I take to a city on foot, I’ll have a rounder view on the meals I meet and eat along the way.