As some of you may or may not know, I am one of those “shop/eat local” fanatics that so many people hear and read about. As for eating locally, this article, originally by Anthony Bourdain from his book, “The Nasty Bits”, very well sums it up. (pardon the language, he likes to swear).
I’m on the subway after a long, hard day in the kitchen, my feet swelling up like twin Hindenburgs; my back killing me; fourteen hours of hot, sweaty, uncomfortable toil and two hundred eighty dinners under my belt; and I want to sit down. There are three seats in front of me in the crowded subway car. Unfortunately, one miserable, fat bastard is taking up all three of them. As he sits glumly but defiantly in a center seat, his gigantic butt cheeks and thighs spill out of the molded plastic bucket onto the seats on both sides, and his beady eyes dare me to try and squeeze my bony ass into one of the narrow spaces next to him.
Dream sequence: I’m on a packed commuter flight and we’re going down for a forced landing in a Midwestern cornfield. Engine one is on fire, the cabin fills up with smoke, panicky passengers overturn their meal trays as they rush the emergency exits. The pilot manages to plow the plane belly-down onto soft earth, but the the plane – in flames now – comes to a full stop and the emergency doors pop free, the three-hundred-pound ectomorph in the window seat becomes lodged firmly and inexorably in the small doorway. At the dead of the aisle, another giant fuck collapses wheezing onto the floor, blocking egress. As my hair catches fire, the last thing I see is jiggly, crenelated back fat.
Whose fault is it? Who made my fellow American obese – if not morbidly obese? How did the age-old equation that poor equals thin and rich equals fat change so that now our working poor are huge and slow-moving and only the wealthy can afford the personal trainers, liposuction, and extended spa treatments required, it seems, to be thin? In whose evil snail tracks across the globe can we watch thighs expand, bellies pooch out over groins, so that fewer and fewer every year of the flower of our youth can even see their own genitals without benefit of a mirror? Who is making each generation from once normally proportioned countries swell up like grain-fed steer?
We know the answer. America’s most dangerous export was never nuclear weapons or Jerry Lewis – or even Baywatch reruns. It was, is, and probably always will be our fast-food outlets.
The Evildoers of the major chains live nowhere near their businesses. Like crack dealers, they know what they sell is not good for you, that it makes neighborhoods uglier, contributes nothing but a stifling sameness to society. Recently, with Eric Schlosser, the author of the brilliant and terrifying Fast Food Nation, I debated two representatives of the fast-food industry at a “multi-unit food service operators” convention in Texas. Our position, unsurprisingly, was that everybody in the room basically sucked. The opposition countered with tortured recitation of numbers and statistics, mostly to do with what a valuable service their industry provided, employing – for a few months at a time – hundreds of thousands of people who (they implied) might otherwise be sticking up liquor stores, setting fires, and sodomizing pets. They neatly deflected Schlosser’s own accurate and sobering numbers, mostly to do with workplace injuries in the meat-cutting industry, average length of employment, bankrupt “nutritional” value, the quantifiable path of ballooning thighs following in their businesses’ wake across the globe, and so on. But when I asked these folks, one by one, if they would live anywhere near their own overlit, maniacally cheery looking restaurants, I got, more often than not, a stunned look and a “Fuck, no!” When I mischievously suggested (opportunistically taking advantage of the current fervor of flag waving) that their chosen enterprise was basically unpatriotic; that they were deliberately targeting children with their advertising, then knowingly raising them to be no-necked arterially clogged diabetics who’d “never in a million years make it through basic training. God help us if we ever have to hit Omaha Beach again, those doughy overfed punks’ll drown like rats!” – they looked, actually…guilty. They know, you see. You think they eat their own gruel anywhere near as frequently as the average rube? I don’t.
But is fast food inherently evil? Is the convenient nature of the beast bad, in and of itself? decidedly no. Fast food – which traditionally solves very problems of working families, families with kids, business people on the go, the causally hungry – can be good food. If you walk down a street in Saigon, or visit an open-air market in Mexico, you’ll see that a quick, easy meal, often enjoyed standing up, does not have to be part of the hideous, generic sprawl of soul-destroying sameness that stretches from strip malls in San Diego, across the USA, through Europe and Asia and around again, looking the same, tasting the same: paper-wrapped morsels of gray “beef” patties with all-purpose sauce. The unbelievably high-caloric horrors of beef-flavored-sprayed chicken nuggets, of “milkshakes” that contain no milk and have never been shaken, of “barbecue” that has never seen a grill, “cheese” with no cheese, and theme monstrosities for whom food is only a lure to buy a T-shirt, is not the way it has to be.
There is delicious, even nutritious, fast food to be had in the world – often faster and cheaper than the clown and the colonel and the king and their ilk produce. In Japan (and increasingly in the West), there are quick, affordable sushi joints. In Tokyo, you can purchase yakitori, small skewers of grilled poultry and meat, from yakitori vendors clustered around business districts to serve executives looking for an easy after-work snack. In Spain, tapas (or pinchos) are served standing up; you grab something good at one tapas joint, then move over to another, a movable series of snacks, inevitably delicious – and again, usually good for you.
In Vietnam, fast food is everywhere, right out in the street: freshly made, brightly colored sandwiches on homemade French bread; steaming bowls of pho, noodles served from a portable kitchen carried on a yoke on the proprietor’s back; grilled shrimp kebabs skewered on sugarcane; tiny bundles of rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves; spicy calamari; crispy little birds; hunks of jackfruit; caramelized bananas and mango – all of it made and served by individuals, lone entrepreneurs for whom pride is not a catchphase or a slogan but an operating principle. In Mexico, one is likely to find happy swarms of people slurping posole, a sort of soupy stew, or menudo, a similarly delicious concoction, around primitive cars right out in the street, electric power provided by a chugging gas generator. A few pesos and a few seconds and you’re eating better than at any place run by evil clowns or steroid-overdosed action movie front men. Turn right and there’s an old woman making absolutely fresh quesadillas of zucchini flowers and farmer cheese, turn left and a mom and pop are slicing up a tender head of pork and rolling it into soft tacos with salsa fresca so fresh and wonderful you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Total time elapsed from time ordered to actual chewing? About twelve seconds.
Even in Russia they’ve got blintzes and piroshkis, served on fire-engine-red plastic trays – in the worst American tradition – but again, made by a human, fresh, on site, from real, recognizable ingredients, not shipped in frozen, pre-portioned vacu-seal bags from some meat-extruding facility near a far-away turnpike. And that cherished idea of the Russian as stocky, Krushchev-like babushkas is way wrong, friends. Most of the Russians I saw recently? The guys all looked like Dolph Lundgren and the women were tall, slim, and hard-looking enough to handle themselves in a street fight.
In Cambodia, a desperately poor cyclo driver, munching on a crispy little bird at a market, engaged me in conversation. “Is it true,” he asked, “that all Americans eat only hamburgers and KFC?” He looked truly sorry for me.
I wouldn’t really care what they put in those burgers – if they tasted good. And though I do care that the rivers of Arkansas are clogging up with chicken shit to satisfy the world’s relentless craving for crispy fried chicken fingers, I don’t believe that we should legislate these cocksuckers out of business. My position is kind of the Nancy Reagan position on drugs: “Just Say No.” Next time you find yourself standing slack-jawed and hungry in front of a fast-food counter – and a clown is anywhere nearby – just turn on your heels and head for the lone-wolf, independent operator down the street: the pie shop, a chippie, a kebab joint, or in New York, a “dirty-water hot dog,” anywhere that the proprietor has a name. Even that beloved British institution, the chippie, is preferable to the the clown’s fare; at least you are encouraging individual, local business, an entrepreneur who can react to neighborhood needs and wants, rather than a dictatorial system in which some focus group in an industrial park in Iowa decides for you what you will or should want. Deep-fried cod or plaice with vinegar, haggis with curry sauce; these may not be the apex of healthy eating, but at least they’re indigenous to somewhere – and washed down with enough beer or Irn-Bru, they’re quite tasty. The kebab shop makes food that is at least fresh, and a beef shawarma does not require the addition of beef flavor to make it taste like food.
Whenever possible, try to eat food that comes from somewhere, from somebody. And stop eating so fucking much. A little portion control would go a long way in slimming down our herds of heavyweights in their tent-like T-shirts, Gap easy-fit pants, and baggy shorts. (Apparently taking body-sculpting cues from some of our more humongous rappers, these guys ignore the fact that many of their heroes probably have to wash themselves with a sponge at the end of a stick.)
You may as well stop snacking on crap while you’re at it. You don’t need that bag of chips between meals, do you? You’re probably not even enjoying it. Save your appetite for something good! Take a little more time! All that rage and frustration, that hollow feeling so many of us feel – for so many good reasons – can be filled up with something better than a soggy disk of ground-up assholes and elbows. Eat for nourishment, yes, but eat for pleasure. Stop settling for less. That way, if we ever do have to get in there and “smoke the evildoers out of their holes,” at the very least, we’ll be able to squeeze in after them.
from The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (2006: Bloomsbury Publishing):