Notes from a Sick Bed

It may seem as though the only thing I have the energy to do is sit around being cranky about food legislation. That’s not true, for in fact I can be cranky about a great many other things. At the moment I’m cranky about other peoples’ crankiness, specifically the two people who wrote in to take me to task for defending fast food, and lecture me about how greedy and evil (greedievil?) companies like McDonald’s are. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, since I’m regularly accused — despite how often I encourage people to buy fresh, locally-produced goods — of being some sort of corporate food stooge.

First off, let me say that the point I was trying to make yesterday was simply that despite how passionate one may be about tackling a certain problem, there’s such a thing as a bad solution. A selective law is just such a thing. It might not seem so when the thing that’s being singled out is something you despise, yet selective laws are pernicious things. Sooner or later someone’s going to get around to passing one against something you care about.

As to the broader point, the accusation of food-stoogism, I claim innocence, though I can’t say I hold any special grudges against a company like McDonald’s. Sure I tend not to eat there, but I don’t see what McDonald’s does as anything especially problematic. In fact in a way it’s kind of miraculous. Yes McDonald’s is a monolith, though most people never stop to ask why and how it got that way: the needs that it served, the advantages it brought. But then that’s a drum I’m constantly beating here at, that we forget, forget, forget.

Once upon a time, say, prior to World War II, eating out was an extremely dicey affair. There weren’t many restaurants in the sense we now know them. A few of the bigger hotels in the bigger towns had “fine dining” establishments in them, but people who ate out mostly did so at diners (known then as “lunch counters”) and road houses, which were almost uniformly dirty, poorly run, and served extremely low-quality food. Why was that? Simply because their patrons were almost entirely men. Then, most women lived and worked in the home, where their primary job was food preparation. Men knew next to nothing about the art, which is why, since convenience food, carryout and pizza delivery had yet to be invented, single men, traveling businessmen, truck drivers and other lonely souls were utterly dependent on cheap greasy spoons for sustenance.

It was not a relationship that fostered, shall we say, a commitment to customer satisfaction. Food poisoning from lax food handling, poor refrigeration and even poorer sanitation, was rampant. Ever heard hash described, in diner-speak, as “Gentleman Takes a Chance”? Brother you better believe it. The week’s dodgy leftovers mixed up with a few diced potatoes and heated on the griddle: the cheapest item on the menu.

Chain restaurants offered an alternative to all that. In sharp contrast to the diners of the day, McDonald’s were clean, bright and cheerful. They welcomed women (who were increasingly working away from the home) and they provided safe, high-quality food at reasonable prices. In short, they were the kinds of places families felt safe going to — a big change from just about anything that had come before. What was so shocking to consumers of the day was not only that McDonald’s was able to do such a thing once, but over and over again, enforcing their cleanliness and quality standards at eateries across the country. Which of course gave increasingly mobile families confidence that wherever they went they could find something decent to eat. It was the post-war heyday of the franchise, when pretty much all of the big fast food chains we now know got started.

Today with chains so dominant it’s easy to romanticize the last of the old time diners and road houses (Alton Brown’s very entertaining, if smug, Feasting on Asphalt for example). It is true that fast food chains put most of those independent spots out of business, though it’s fair to ask whether that was really such a bad thing. By putting out of business thousands of unsanitary, low quality, male-only eateries and forcing those that survived to dramatically raise their standards, one can make an argument that chain restaurants actually paved the way for the eating scene we currently enjoy. Today we take for granted that pretty much any restaurant we go into will be clean, safe, welcoming, and have men’s and women’s bathrooms. Much of that is attributable to the advent of the chain restaurant.

At this juncture it’s reasonable to argue that now we’ve got too much of a good thing. Or maybe just too much of a thing, depending on your viewpoint. Fair enough. But I think knowing how and why chain restaurants came to being — answering a real demand from consumers instead of a call from the Dark Lord Voldemort — makes their existence much easier to bear. At least it does for me. And if that makes me a stooge, eh, I guess I can live with it.

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