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Wednesday, August 22nd, 2001


Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

by Eric Schlosser

A review by Rebecca Schuman

Forget the urban legends about rats in chicken buckets and bodily fluids in the deep-fryer. Eric Schlosser's new Extra Value Meal of a tome is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential with twice the heart and one-tenth the budget. Incomprehensibly svelte (from the neck up, anyway, in his jacket photo), Schlosser ate "an enormous amount of fast food" during the two fry-soaked years he spent researching Fast Food Nation, and fortunately for us, he lived to tell the tale.

Like the three-for-one double cheeseburger specials whose origins and social ramifications Schlosser probes, Fast Food Nation is much, much denser than it originally appears. America is the real subject here, and Schlosser, an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, shows us in painstakingly researched detail the intricate and far-reaching cultural impact the fast-food phenomenon has had on the American economy and social structure.

In "Why the Fries Taste Good," a chapter that is at once historical and sociological, informative and moving, the author deftly captures the oddly nostalgic environment of one of nonagenarian billionaire J.R. Simplot's fry-processing plants in Idaho: "Streams of sliced potatoes pour from the machines. The place has a cheerful, humble, Eisenhower-era feeling, as though someone's dream of technological progress, of better living through frozen food, has been fulfilled."

If I'm the author right now, I'm looking over my shoulder for a Biggie-Sized Charlton Heston bearing down on me. Schlosser attacks Gingrich's Contract with America for favoring deregulation and opposing an minimum-wage increase, which "fit perfectly with the legislative agenda of the large meatpackers and fast food chains." This, he points out, was in 1994, fresh on the tail-end of the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli breakout.

Fast Food Nation chronicles the rise of "all-American" fast food from its West Coast beginnings to its present-day expansion overseas, managing to both fascinate and depress with more revelations than a Big Mac has grams of saturated fat. Schlosser's impressive debut won't compel you to check your next Whopper for foreign substances, but it might give you a little sociological melancholy with your indigestion.

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