If It Weren’t for Domino’s, We’d All Be Dead

In her article, “In Praise of Fast Food,” Rachel Laudan offers up the kind of nitpicking skepticism only a historian can bring to a conversation.  Hers is a general critique of the slow food movement.  Although Laudan admits she tends to choose natural, fresh food over processed, she recoils from any moral or political motivation attached to these tastes. The reason? As a historian, she says, she simply “cannot accept the account of the past implied by [the slow food] movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present.”  In short, Laudan accuses slow food advocates of culinary Luddism, and claims that their picture of the past is not only a distortion, but also indirectly supports a plethora of less-than-pleasant historical realities, from sexism to labor abuse.  If the slow food movement could turn away from its nostalgia and take a look at the past with a historian’s austere eye, she reasons, food advocates would find a food culture couched in forced labor, unbreakable gender roles, widespread starvation, and food adulteration. Therefore, Laudan claims, slow food should abandon their political and social aims and begin working within the industrialized food system, rather than outside it.

Is Laudan right? Does slow food cater to our sense of nostalgia? Does it invoke some eternal, literary conflict of man versus technology? Are slow food advocates just caught in their own Isaac Asimov novel?

Unfortunately for Laudan, if one looks to Slow Food’s officially-stated philosophy as a yardstick, the answer to these questions is probably no:

We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work. 

This sounds less like nostalgia and more like relevant, progressive social policy.  In addition to this philosophy, Slow Food defines and achieves its mission through the support of local farmers, the connection of people to their food source, and the revival of endangered food varieties as an alternative to industrial monocropping.  Again, I fail to see images of rolling meadows or happy peasants, so I have to assume that Rachel Laudan has made the common mistake of creating and attacking a caricature. 

We could leave it at that. But what fun would that be?  Because in addition to her unfair attacks on slow food, Laudan, for all her claims of authority, shows an incomplete, bordering nonsensical understanding of food policy, both past and the present. As her title suggests, Laudan “praise[s] fast food” in her article. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons fast food deserves praise.

One, food of convenience is not a modern invention. Fast food is just another interpretation of a very old idea to help people live their every day lives.

Laudan argues that fast food is only new in form, not function. “Hunters tracking their prey, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home,” she notes. “The Aztecs ground roasted maize and mixed it with water.”  Here, Laudan appears confused about the definition of fast food.  The absurdity of comparing roasted maize mixed with water to pink slime in commercial hamburgers is not only misleading, but shows a real misunderstanding of what is at issue.  It’s not the speed with which these foods can be prepared, but the manner in which they’re produced and consumed.  A hamburger from leading fast food restaurants is hardly worthy of the name.  While you’re promised beef, bread, and a handful of other ingredients, what you often get is a mixture of corn, water, artificial sweeteners, low-grade meat, and harsh chemical additives.  Had the Aztecs been turning their maize into high fructose corn syrup and studies were suggesting it was making their children obese, perhaps Slow Food would have developed in the 15th century. 

Two, industrialized food allowed men to get out of the fields and women to get out of the kitchen. Turning back the clock would be to confine groups of people back to lives of “servitude.” 

Making the claim that industrialized food has freed people from toil and abuse is at best, sloppy, and at worst, racist. The industrialized food system, particularly industrial ag, is addicted to cheap, migrant labor that is extremely vulnerable to abuse. Because farm workers are not privy to the same rights as workers in other industries, food production has become a sort of apogee of worker abuse.

Organizations like the United Farm Workers of America and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have formed to combat abuses in the food industry, especially involving people of color. There is a spectrum of worker abuses in farming, from withholding wages to outright slavery. The foundation for these abuses is not industrial agriculture alone, and they certainly can exist on small farms, but to present industrial agriculture as some sort of remedy to social inequality is dishonest … and, really just stupid. For more reading on slavery in agriculture, check out the book Nobodies by John Bowe.

Three, industrialized food gives us a choice in what we consume. If something goes wrong in the kitchen, we can “pick up the phone and order a pizza.” If we went back to old times, we would again become dependent on nature, and “many of us would be starving.” 

Proponents of the Green Revolution are fond of arguing that higher crop yields caused by better technology is the only way to combat world hunger.  However, since the Green Revolution, world hunger has not decreased, but increased by over 11%.*   Additionally, Laudan’s claim that industrialized food provides consumers with more freedom in their food choices is nothing more than an illusion, one that is best articulated by historian and anthropologist Sidney Mintz.  Although it may look like we have a multitude of choices in our grocery store aisles, the reality is that a handful of companies produce and process around 80% of US beef, Monsanto genes are in 80% of genetically-modified US corn, and if you do eat chicken at a fast food chain, you’re more than likely eating Tyson-processed chicken (they supply Yum! Brands).  Most recently demonstrated by the egg recall, concentration describes our current food system, not choice.

While I don’t have the same credentials as Laudan, getting my master’s degree in history gave me plenty of opportunities to use the historian’s favorite argument, “Things have always been this way.”  But unfortunately for Laudan, today’s food industry is one of the few spaces where that argument just doesn’t apply.  Industrial ag as we know it is a new development, only 50 or 60 years old.  In fact, the idea that industrial food ‘has always been around’ is a powerful weapon used by this industry to convince us of its own utility, to paint homemade food as unsafe and inferior, and to claim particular health benefits for their products.

Finally, just to end on a positive note, Laudan does make one good point.  She points out that “what we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it.”  That I can get behind.  I don’t think anyone expects McDonald’s to go out of business (there’s one in the Red Square for Christ’s sake).  What I would like to see, though, is a more responsible, honest product from these fast food companies, one that, as Slow Food lays out, respects our health, the environment, and food workers.

* Source: “Nobodies” by John Bowe