June 22, 2012

Sitzbook: "Fast Food Nation" and "Water For Elephants"

When I found out my brother was going to come visit us at the end of May, I decided to get some stuff delivered to his house so that he could schlep it down here with him. As his departure neared, time was getting close so I decided to sign up for a year of Amazon Prime, which includes free two-day delivery. I'd tried it over Christmas last year on a free trial and I liked it quite a bit. It's also pretty nice for a few other reasons. One cool aspect, which doesn't work in Costa Rica, unfortunately, is that you can get unlimited streaming video from Amazon's collection. It's not got everything, of course, but it seems to be pretty similar to Netflix's offerings. But, like I said, it doesn't work in Costa Rica, so that kind of sucks. 

I'm getting to books, I promise.

Anyhow, another cool thing about Prime is that you can "borrow" one free Kindle book a month from the Kindle Lending Library. I have a Kindle so that's a pretty cool deal, considering that digital books are arguably overpriced and not able to be re-sold like a paper book, and it's also cool since I'm still doing my Sitzbook project in which I read one book a week. The deal is that you can only borrow one book at a time, and only one per month. But it's better than a kick in the ass, as they say, and I've already gotten through two books and am waiting for another one at the start of July (if you know about this program and have any recommendations, I'd love to hear from you-- I've been thinking Moneyball, but you may know of a better selection).

The only downside to the Lending Library program so far seems to be a fairly limited selection of books. Sure, they've got tens of thousands of titles, but a lot of them look like crap, to be honest, sort of like soft-core supermarket paperback smut. But they did have Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, which seems to be big in the US now because they made a movie out of it (?). Also, I found Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, which seemed to be pretty talked-about about 10 years ago. I don't have much to say about Water For Elephants except "I liked it," so I'll talk a bit about Fast Food Nation today.

FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser

I probably shouldn't have read this so soon after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma if I ever wanted to eat any food in the US again, but I didn't know that both would be so depressing when talking about where American food comes from. On the whole I think I liked and benefited more from Dilemma since it approaches food from a more general perspective, but Fast Food Nation certainly had its moments, too. I made quite a few notes, but many of them were along the lines of "Ugh, shit..." or "Stupid Greeley!" Yes, that's Greeley, Colorado, home to quite a lot of my extended family. In fact, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, both Colorado cities, also play prominent illustrative roles in the book. But Greeley stands out the most.

I really don't care much for Greeley. The biggest reason is that every time I try to go there, I somehow get lost in that stupid city. The other reason is the smell. The book mentioned Greeley quite a bit because it is/was the home of Monfort, the nation's largest feedlot at one time, and also a major plant for ConAgra, a huge slaughterer and food producer. It's not a very sweet-smelling place, and I believe the book refers to it as a "rural ghetto." (Note: I've referred to my present town, Berlín de San Ramón, Costa Rica, quite a few times as a "mountainous slum," so I'm not saying that I'm better than Greeley folks, of course; what I am saying is that both smell like livestock crap fairly often).

I'm getting off track again.

Here's a good summary of the book's point; it's from "page 9," according to the Kindle:

"I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now haunting the United States. In some cases (such as the malling and sprawling of the West) the fast food industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends. In other cases (such as the rise of franchising and the spread of obesity) fast food has played a more central role. By tracing the diverse influences of fast food I hope to shed light not only on the workings of an important industry, but also on a distinctively American way of viewing the world."

And that he does. He talks about basically every stage of fast food, from the potato fields and cattle ranches, to the waste deposited in the landfills and watersheds. He also looks closely at the marketing and advertising of fast food. It's a fascinating but troubling book. It also talks about how even schools have succumbed to the desire to get money through fast food marketing. It mentions Fort Collins a few times and indeed, my own high school in Fort Collins had 4 fast food chains in lieu of an actual cafeteria. That's something that I personally experienced and I shrug it off now, but I realize it must be hard to eat healthily without a lot of effort. A few of the notes I made in the Kindle were basically to that effect, saying things like "Man, this makes me not want to have kids if I gotta find a way to deal with all this crap."

Another thing that really caught my attention was that the book wasn't just about food, but really touched on the American experience in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, at the beginning of the book it tells the story of the founder of Carl's Jr., and I kept thinking, "This sounds like my grandpa's story!" Many aspects of the story, such as a post-war rags-to-riches success struggle, the upward-moving impulses of the middle class, the movement towards domestic convenience, as well as the general westward migration from the Midwest to California, and then later from California to Colorado, is mentioned in the book, and also happened to my grandpa.

The book is also chock-full of sobering and disgusting statistics, but the ones that were most baffling to me were the ones related to Americans eating in cars. This is evidently still a common thing as evidenced by this article a few days ago about how Popeyes Chicken is now going to make fried chicken that's easier to eat and dip in the car. It also mentions in passing that about 17% of restaurant meals in the US are eaten in cars. C'mon, society. That's just crass.

Other freak-out facts in the book:

-Kids recognize Ronald McDonald more than Mickey Mouse
-There are more prison inmates than farmers in the US
-The largest meatpacking plant in the nation is in Greeley
-A steer produces about fifty pounds of urine and manure every day
-"The two Monfort feedlots [with up to 100,000 cows each] produce more excrement than the cities of Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis--combined." (p. 149)

There are others, of course, but it's hard to read this book, especially combined with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and not feel that we need a massive change in how we feed, produce, slaughter, market, and even think about the plants and animals we put into our bodies. I feel like I may be at a slight advantage in this regard, living in Costa Rica, since I believe it's less industrialized here, and also because we personally hardly ever eat fast food (although looking at eating trends, the nation as a whole seems pretty hell-bent on eating the greasiest, crappiest food possible). Angela and I prepare most of our food at home, but we're still stuck with the question of where those ingredients came from, and that's a question that's usually hard to answer satisfactorily. But for now, I guess each of us can try to do our part. For me, that'll include trying to find out more and more about where the food I eat comes from, trying to cook more at home while using more fresh and whole ingredients, eating less meat, and staying away from Greeley whenever possible.

Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. If you have any comments or want to join in on the discussion, you're welcome to leave a comment. Have a nice weekend!

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AnnaLisa said...

Hi Ryan,

I liked , too.

Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? It's nonfiction--author's family decided to spend a year eating more mindfully by only buying local and raising their own. You'll find plenty of shocking facts and statistics here, too, but overall I find it a more hopeful look at the "what we eat" dilemma because it always comes back to solutions. On a small scale, but still.

Another revealing food-related book you might appreciate: Twinkie, Deconstructed. Takes the ingredient list of the Twinkie and traces where each item comes from in terms of geography and processing. I know this sounds impossibly, mind-numbingly boring, but I thought the chapters that deal with enriched flour and the many byproducts of corn were pretty fascinating (if sometimes gag-inducing).

AnnaLisa said...

Sorry, bad typing first line above.

I liked Water for Elephants, too.

Sitzman said...

Hey AnnaLisa,

Thanks for the comment! I've not actually read anything by Kingsolver, but I've heard a little about her. I'll have to check out that book, as well as the Twinkie one. Thanks for the recommendations!