Fast Food

Oct. 24, 2010

So is there any fast food worth eating?

I want to consider this question in a fairly straightforward way. Yeah, I know that pulling into the drive through is just another mindless way to participate in giant killing complex that causes death and destruction in untold numbers. I know that the major fast food franchises are contributing to the burning of the rain forest, tightening of the grip of the military industrial complex and exploiting the credulity of the American taxpayer who must subsidize the cost of ingredients in those happy meals, then pay again to support the emergency room health care of the minimum wage workers who are paid part time so that the franchisee can avoid the burden of health insurance. I know all those things, but I didn’t sit down in front of my computer on one of the last semi-sunny Sunday afternoons in Michigan October to launch myself into yet another downer blog on how unfortunate it is that we humans are so freakishly obsessed with this thing called eating. Just give it up and join the social movement, I say.

No, no! Wait a minute… Don’t give it up, and don’t give up the idea that growing, cooking and eating can be, in addition to good politics, enjoyable. So bracket all your worries about endorsing the violence implicit in the industrial food system for about five or six minutes. Have a brief episode of amnesia about your desire to trouble the complex of actors and machines that conspires to configure the consuming public as a willing sewer pit. Just for millisecond stifle your rage over the way we are treated as stooges who will pay for the privilege of allowing corporate sleazeballs and bean counters to deposit sludge and slime into our up-turned and eager mouths… Now damn it! There I a go again.

No what I really wanted was to spend just a very brief time thinking about whether there is any food served by the major fast food chain restaurants that is actually any good to eat, that one could truthfully be said to savor or sincerely anticipate with anything more than the bland and joyless expectation that one’s hunger pangs will be satisfied after enduring only brief insults to one’s palate, one’s digestive tract and that with decent genes, a little luck and two hours on the treadmill will not permanently compromise one’s prospects for leading a reasonably healthy life beyond age 60. That’s what today’s blog is supposed to be about.

And my answer is, well, not really. BUT THERE USED TO BE! My idea is that the menus with which some of our most venerable fast food chains started their climb to the top of the industrial food chain were actually a lot better than what we tend to get there today. And I’m thinking about two items in particular. One is the original McDonald’s hamburger. Cooked with onions on the grill then served with a dollop of ketchup, mustard and sliced pickles, when this burger was still 15¢ it was also pretty good. It’s still what I eat when I go to McDonald’s (which, I must admit, I did once last week), but frankly I don’t think it’s what it used to be. Maybe this is just my own growing curmudgeonedness showing itself (When I was a boy, we walked 14 miles through blinding snow storms to get to and from school… And we LIKED it!).  But although I don’t discern great change in the ketchup, mustard and pickle, I do not think the bun and especially the burger are anywhere near as good as they used to be. I’d like to know if I’m alone in this.

But the thing I really miss is the Taco Bell burrito with green sauce. I don’t mean any of these fancy burrito-esque concoctions they are serving now. I’m talking about the days when you would go into Taco Bell and there were only five things on the menu, and each one had a pronunciation guide. Who recalls the taco (TAH-co), the tostado (toh-STAH-do), the burrito (burr-EEH-to), the pintos & cheese (PEEN-tohs) and the beverages (beh-ver-AHH-jays)?  Okay, I made that last part up. But in those days, only the TAH-co came with meat, and there were no choices like hard or soft, much less the plethora of layers and volcanoes you see today. Your burr-EEH-to was going to come in a big flour tortilla with beans, chopped onions and grated cheese. The only choice you had to make was whether the sauce was red or green.

Taco Bell’s beans were and still are pretty decent. No lard, by the way. The tortillas are nothing to brag about, but no one has as yet figured out a way to screw up chopped onions (the Vidalia and the 1016 notwithstanding) and the cheese was not a big taste item in the Taco Bell bean burrito, in any case. What made this into something you might actually savor was the tomatillo sauce, which was kept hot on a steam table and ladled out into the burrito as it was being assembled. Of course, given that Taco Bell felt it necessary to tell people how to pronounce “burrito”, they were not going to call it tomatillo sauce, so they just called it green sauce. Mmm, good.

I’m told that there are still some parts of the U.S.A. where the Taco Bells serve green sauce, though I haven’t been in one that had it in anything but little plastic squeeze packets in a couple of decades. Here in the Midwest, even the squeeze packets are nowhere to be found. If you mention green sauce in a Taco Bell, the counter attendants immediately do the small-mouth bass impersonation that I presume they are taught to perform if unruly customers engage in disruptive or threatening behavior. Not wanting to press my luck, I usually stop there and revert to the regular bean burrito (which comes with red sauce), which I order with extra onions. And out of the Southwest, I’ve stopped asking altogether for fear that the Homeland Security Police have determined that requesting green sauce is a key sign of someone who wants to resist the violence inherent in the system, trouble the authorities and rage against lives being lived in quiet desperation.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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