Praising Fast Food

At Utne Reader, Rachel Laudan has written a magnificent essay on food and the realities of “all natural” and “organic” offerings. In Praise of Fast Food is well worth a read. An excerpt:

Historical myths, though, can mislead as much by what they don’t say as by what they do say—and nostalgia for the past typically glosses over the moral problems intrinsic to the labor of producing food. Most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking.

“Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home-cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for 8 to 10 people 365 days a year. She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been. She could at least buy our bread. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas.

In the first half of the 20th century, Italians embraced factory-made pasta and canned tomatoes. In the second half, Japanese women welcomed factory-made bread because they could sleep a little longer instead of getting up to make rice. As supermarkets appeared in Eastern Europe, people rejoiced at the convenience of ready-made goods. For all, culinary modernism had proved what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, people grew taller and stronger and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor; women had choices other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day.

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