Tag Archives: fast food

When Junk Science Meets Junk Food

Laurie and Debbie say:

eating in a settlement house kitchen

Scientists at the University of Toronto have released a report claiming that the very existence and availability of fast food somehow makes us be in a hurry. “Fast food represents a culture of time efficiency and instant gratification,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, who co-wrote the paper with colleague Sanford DeVoe to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. “The problem is that the goal of saving time gets activated upon exposure to fast food regardless of whether time is a relevant factor in the context. For example, walking faster is time efficient when one is trying to make a meeting, but it’s a sign of impatience when one is going for a stroll in the park. We’re finding that the mere exposure to fast food is promoting a general sense of haste and impatience regardless of the context.” They did three experiments, each with less than sixty participants (less than thirty outside of the control groups), all of them University of Toronto students. So we already know we aren’t looking at real science. Their theory, which they “confirmed,” was that fast food logos, such as the ubiquitous Macdonalds’ golden arches, make people more impatient, and make them do tasks in more of a hurry. The experiments consisted of subliminal or peripheral vision flashes of fast food logos during other tasks. (We wonder if the control group got subliminal flashes of Alice Waters and the food at her restaurants.) While they don’t actually say in their paper that they are talking about why poor people make bad decisions, they do talk about “density” of fast-food restaurants, which we all know tends to happen in lower-income neighborhoods. (Fast food isn’t exclusively, or even perhaps mostly, the food of poor people. Know any white men in the tech industry? Any gamers?) Nonetheless, Kathryn Hughes, writing in the Guardian, has an excellent class-based critique: The panic around the moral and psychological damage of fast food … was always [fueled by] a much deeper suspicion of what it represented: ignorance, indifference, a wilful inability to imagine a better way of feeding the future. It’s for that reason that, back in the early 19th-century, moralists including William Cobbett churned out a whole array of “cottage economies” and “penny cookbooks” aimed at stopping the working classes from squandering money in the pie shop. These prim moral primers were full of bright suggestions for turning the scrag end of lamb and on-the-turn turnips into something that not only nourished body and soul but also saved pennies for a rainy day. … What all those Victorian moralists missed – just as the Toronto report ignores – is that fast food is the emblematic product of maturing and late capitalism. Urban workers, forced to work longer and longer hours, do not have the time to invest in cooking from scratch. Those who are obliged to live in shared accommodation and rented digs may not have the right equipment for making real food slowly (Agas don’t fit into bedsits; microwaves do). When you are exhausted after a 10-hour shift, then soup is fiddly to consume on the way home. Burgers and kebabs, by contrast, are easy to eat with one hand and require neither plates nor knives. Far from being the refuseniks of capitalism, unable to master its first principle of delayed gratification, the people who rely on fast food outlets are its honourable foot soldiers. We should salute them. Hughes is right on target for most of her essay, and is invoking a long and fascinating history of missionaries, settlement houses, and other do-gooder efforts aimed to make “the poor” eat “right,”  but we disagree with her that delayed gratification is a capitalist virtue, especially in 21st century capitalism. While she excoriates the study for ignoring how workers are pushed into fast food, she also ignores how consciously and carefully fast-food corporations engineer the attraction and desirability of fast food. Just to be clear, neither we nor Hughes are saying that fast food is a good thing, or good for us. Working through purchasable state legislatures, the corporations work hard to ensure ridiculous amounts of salt and sugar in every school cafeteria. Working with urban planners, they carefully calculate which street corners, neighborhoods, and strip malls will be most profitable for new locations. And working with food scientists, they carefully study exactly how much fat, salt, and sugar will make you reach for the next Dorito. So who exactly is into instant gratification? Who is trying to move fast, make immediate moves that might not be so sensible in the long term? Who is impatient? Well, fast food customers perhaps–but fast food owners, demonstrably. And no one is going to fund tiny, silly studies of what the owners do when their own logos flash subliminally onto a screen. Thanks to Annalee Newitz at i09 for the pointer.

Anthony Bourdain: False (and Useless) Justification of Cruelty

Debbie says:

Anthony Bourdain, well-known “bad boy” chef, TV personality, and excellent writer, doesn’t read his own books (or even his own interviews). Bourdain is getting a lot of well-deserved grief just now for this piece, in which he relates his no-holds-barred campaign to keep his daughter from having any interest in fast food.

This is just one act in an ongoing dramatic production, one small part of a larger campaign of psychological warfare. The target? A two-and-a-half-year-old girl. The stakes are high. As I see it, nothing less than the heart, mind, soul and physical health of my adored only child. I am determined that the Evil Empire shall not have her, and to that end I am prepared to use what Malcolm X called “any means necessary”.

His “any means necessary” include casting Ronald McDonald in his daughter’s eyes as someone who steals children, as well as planning to wrap something that will upset his daughter (“Nothing dangerous, but something that a two-and-a-half-year-old will find ‘yucky!’ – even upsetting – in the extreme. Maybe a sponge soaked with vinegar. A tuft of hair. A Barbie head.”) in a McDonald’s wrapper so she will be aversively conditioned against the golden arches.

Let’s start with the important points:

There is nothing most children are more afraid of than being taken away from their parents, and there is absolutely no excuse for inventing reasons for children to experience this fear. Just because the mass media fans this fear on a daily basis doesn’t absolve Bourdain from personalizing it for his daughter; in fact, the crazytown social climate makes what he’s doing even worse.

Leaving scary things for children to find is just plain mean. I have to wonder what Bourdain would do to someone else who played such vicious tricks on his “adored only child.”

Here’s the ironic part. In explaining why he must be so vigilant against Mickey D, Bourdain says:

What’s the most frightening thing to a child? The pain of being the outsider, of looking ridiculous to others, of being teased or picked on. Every child burns with fear at the prospect.

I disagree. I think (and Bourdain’s actions bear me out) that the fear of being taken away from your parents is more frightening. Nonetheless, he’s still right that most kids want to be included, accepted, part of the gang.

As a long-time Bourdain reader, I also remember his account in Kitchen Confidential of what made him an adventurous eater, and a gourmet, in the first place, when his parents took him and his brother to France on a foodie vacation. In fact, I could grab it right off my shelf to quote from:

My folks had by now endured weeks of relentless complaining through many tense and increasingly unpleasant meals. They’d dutifully ordered our steak hache [hamburger], crudites variees [raw vegetables], sandwich au jambon [ham sandwich], and the like long enough. They’d taken my brother and me, the two Ugliest Little Americans, everywhere.

Vienne was different.

They pulled the gleaming new Rover into the parking lot of a restaurant, … handed us what was apparently a hoarded stash of Tintins … and then left us in the car.

I had plenty of time to wonder: What could be so great inside those walls?

I decided then and there to outdo my foodie parents. I’d show
them who the gourmet was!

To recap, by his own arguments and experience, Bourdain’s active and intentional cruelty to his daughter will ensure that she feels left out and encourage her to become fascinated by the things he’s excluding her from. Meanwhile, of course, by conflating his food politics with her psyche, he’s setting her up for a disturbingly unhealthy relationship to what she eats. (I do agree with a good deal of his castigation of fast food; that’s not the point.)

If he’s not doing his level best to raise an unhappy, confused McDonald’s junkie, it’s hard to see how he could do better. I’m just appalled that he’s not only willing to misue his child in these ways, he’s downright bragging about it. I hope she grows up to eat whatever the fuck she wants, and throws his moralism in his face.