There’s been a lot of writing about food lately. Three-hundred-page love letters on the glories of sun-dried tomatoes and porcini this and pine nut that. You wouldn’t think anyone could make Italy boring except for Henry James and Thomas Mann, but now they’ve got competition. Of the twenty or so food books I read before starting my own, I discovered they were not unlike erotica: an overblown significance attached to something actually so prosaic it’s laughable. I’m guessing the popularity of food books stems in part from us becoming such a fat country. However, except for muckraking exposés and an article in Consumer Reports every two or three years, little has been written about fast food. I think that’s snobbish and needs to be remedied.
Before I go further, I should say that all the bad things that have been said about fast food are true. It’s full of fat and sugar and flavorings, and, passing health department ratings aside, a typical fast food kitchen is less hygienic than your own bathroom at home. And, as we all know, the typical franchise is staffed by teenagers: just how often do you meet one of those (God love them) that you’d trust with anything that mattered much? Such as what’s in the hidden part of your burrito.
Okay, so what are the glories of fast food? What is there to write about? Is there really a difference between a Wendy’s Single and a Quarter Pounder?
Truth is, not really. One has a thin slice of mealy tomato and the other doesn’t. They both cost the same. And they’re both made with beef from a cow that has been shot full of antibiotics and hormones and raised in horrific conditions. And don’t even get me started on what they do to chickens these days. It’ll make your knees buckle.
So again, is there anything worth saying about Arbys and KFC and Long John Silver’s?
I’m going to answer a question with a question: what makes your Tuscany a la Orange Pork or Asparagus Soufflé with Mango Chutney so special? Is it because you cut the recipe out of a magazine that’s half ads, half vacant prose? Just what makes those dishes superior to a Meat Lovers Supreme or a box of McNuggets?
Okay, this gets us into some tricky territory, and believe me, I’m not a relativist. In my book there is good and bad. I don’t think all writing is just little squiggles on the page whether it’s Aristophanes or Anne Rice, and I do believe there’s an art to good cooking. However, there’s an essential difference when comparing food to something like literature: it takes a substantial amount of time and effort to cultivate an ability to truly appreciate a great novel. You have to read hundreds of books, think about them and the genre as a whole, and then, after all that, you can probably feel safe in your judgments, although you’ll still be wrong sometimes. However, with food, your judgment is all visceral. Your tongue’s running the show. I know you have to teach kids to eat their peas, but that process doesn’t even bear comparison to something like a person learning to laugh at a book like Moby Dick. (For more on that, see my first book, Melville and the Whale.)
So food is one of those few areas of human endeavor where quality is actually relative. After a life of championing the mot juste, the well-considered opinion, and the neatly arranged kitchen cupboard (with apologies to my lovely Anne), I find myself forced to admit that even though I might not care for that roast beef sandwich with the rainbow sheen on the meat, doughy bun and sugary barbecue sauce out of a packet, I can’t say that sandwich is bad or even less good than your Sicilian Braised Hen with Wild Chestnut Dressing.
Which brings us to the real problem with the food books. Nothing wrong with liking your Northern Italian fare and telling everyone about it, but please, don’t make it sound like the 58 recipes you’ve scrounged from the eight hotels you stayed at on the money your husband made filing lawsuits are the answer to spiritual emptiness. Or please don’t go find twenty diners and food stands and roadside barbecue pits and then write 299 condescending pages in which you both praise the food and poke cheap fun at the people, all the while subtly congratulating yourself for “getting back to basics.” If you really like the basics so much, why don’t you stay in that little diner and cook pork chops and eggs in a hundred degree kitchen for the rest of your life? See what kind of book you write then.
So in my book, fast food is okay, despite all its problems, and we’d be better off as a culture if we had the honesty to write a few food books about Arbys and Carl Jr.’s instead of the romanticized dribble we produce about Low Country Gullah and Tex-Mex Nouvelle. Fast food is what people eat and we should be honest about that. Therefore, for each city and town I write about, fast food will get as full (and dignified) a treatment as the five-star places. It deserves no less, in part because of the people who started it. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Carl Jr.’s, and many others were begun by hardscrabble men, working people, and their restaurants were built to serve working people. My book will be democratic, or it won’t be at all.