How Convenient! What Does Fast Food Mean In The U.S. Today?

 Photo: William Eggleston

Photo: William Eggleston

No food is more perversely nostalgic than fast food. Sadly in their youth, many people have experienced McDonalds, KFC, or Pizza Hut: either in some rebellion against vegetables, a wrong turning on a high street, or hypnosis from advertising. However, no food can make you more fat and depressed, which confirms the correlation between sadness and nostalgia: the Portuguese call that feeling, saudade.

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser remarked in his Happy Meal-burning expose, Fast Food Nation, how the “basic thinking” behind fast food corporations (especially McDonald’s) as homogenizing the high street has become the exemplar for modern retail economy. At the time of the book’s 2001 publication, America’s commercial centres were a conveyor belt of Gap, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Foot Locker, shutting out the independents. Seventeen years later, the same streets are look unremarkably identical.

It’s been years since I last had a Big Mac, but given that I was writing about fast food it seemed amiss not to reacquaint myself. The first bite felt curiously narcotic: the additives inducing a gastronomical high. However, it wasn’t the squares of jaundiced Play-Doh, nor the perfect discs of cow that left me drooling, but the “Special Sauce”. I remember when I was a teenager, I thought the sauce was great. Better than Bechamel. Turns out it’s nothing more than “specially” mass-produced Thousand Island dressing:

Soybean Oil, Pickle Relish (Diced Pickles, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Vinegar, Corn Syrup, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Spice Extractives, Polysorbate 80), Distilled Vinegar, Water, Egg Yolks, Onion Powder, Spices, Salt, Propylene Glycol Alginate, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Mustard Bran, Sugar, Garlic Powder, Vegetable Protein (Hydrolyzed Corn, Soy and Wheat), Caramel Color, Extractives of Paprika, Soy Lecithin, Turmeric (Color), Calcium Disodium EDTA (Protect Flavor).

It wasn’t the squares of jaundiced Play-Doh, nor the perfect discs of cow that left me drooling, but the Special Sauce.

Notice the mention of sugar and its syrupy counterpart four times! Notice the many -ides and -ates - it’s a cholesterol swimming pool of preservatives! This Frankenstein construction of foodstuffs, satisfies our interpretation of what fast food is - cardboard carbohydrates that could survive a nuclear war - but the CDC (Centers of Disease Control) suggests otherwise.

In a recent report by the CDC’s it was highlighted that over 37% of adults consume fast food on a regular basis. The mainstream news rubbed their hands with obesity glee as it made news in the New York Times. No, this does not necessarily mean that over a third of Americans are waddling under the Golden Arches everyday, it also means slim urbanites buying sandwiches from their local cafe. FERN’s Leah Douglas investigated the CDC provided a rather broad description of what fast food means. Douglas noted that the study’s lead author Cheryl Fryer admitted that the salad chain Sweetgreen was among the restaurants classified from the self-reported participants.

 Photo: William Eggleston

Photo: William Eggleston

In a recent report by the CDC’s it was highlighted that over 37% of adults consume fast food on a regular basis.

Sweetgreen, who are dedicated to “inspiring healthier communities”, have a farm-sourced salad menu that inspired envy in Goop. Their menu features puns: ‘Kale Caesar’, and Shroomami and chef collaborations, “Koginut Squash Bowl by Dan Barber. Sweetgreen X Row 7”. We can see what the ingredients are, and not a preservative or ten tablespoons of glucose listed.

This must mean we have to count Whole Food salad counters as fast food. Burritos and sushi, too. They are all “prepared and served quickly” (thanks for the definition, Merriam-Webster), therefore we can presume we can be classified alongside the preservative loaded burgers and fried chicken. U.S. food culture is definitely shifting to mindful, natural eating. My recent Big Mac made me feel dirty, tired and rejected like a Christmas tree in January. So if defining salad and sushi as 21st century fast food is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Words: Nikki Hall