Hold the Fries

When Eliza Zamot gets out of bed at 5:15 on Saturday mornings, her two little sisters are still dreaming. The morning is shrouded with darkness, and the highway beside her house is quiet. It's half a mile to Eliza's job at McDonald's. When she gets there, the manager helps her turn on the ovens, pull out the paper cups, microwave the frozen pancakes, prepare the scrambled egg mix. At seven o'clock the restaurant opens. Eliza spends the next seven hours standing at the cash register. By the time she walks home, she's too tired to do much more than watch TV. Eliza's saving most of her earnings to buy her first set of wheels; the rest disappears on clothes, shoes, and school lunches. She's 16 years old.

About two-thirds of the nation's fast-food restaurant workers are under the age of 20. Seeing their faces behind the counters at Burger King or Pizza Hut has become so commonplace that most of us never bother to wonder how it is that teenagers became the preferred employees of one of the nation's more dangerous industries; in 1998 more restaurant workers were murdered on the job than police officers.

That same year, writer Eric Schlosser published a two-part article on the fast-food industry in Rolling Stone magazine. Where does fast food come from? How is it made? Why is it so popular? Schlosser spent two years finding the answers to such questions, interviewing cattle ranchers, potato farmers, restaurant employees, industry pioneers, slaughterhouse workers, franchise owners, and government employees. His articles for Rolling Stone generated more mail than any piece in recent years, and his new book on the topic, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin), is a model of dedicated investigation, a work that combines the well-crafted phrasing and narrative structure of Ian Frazier with the social acuity of Mark Kurlansky.

Fast Food Nation dissects the workings of an industry that, in just 40 years, has permeated every facet of American society. As Schlosser explains, "The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine, so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for granted, like brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light. It has become a social custom as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen and reheated apple pie."

In following the golden arches to their trough, Schlosser reveals the cogs and principles behind the industry's aluminum counters and backlit menus. He traces the rise of McDonald's, which began as a modest hamburger stand that catered to California's budding automobile culture. He gives the history of the American French fry. He visits "flavor factories" in New Jersey where lab-coat-clad scientists engineer the taste of Big Macs in glass tubes. He explains why so much of McDonald's marketing is aimed at toddlers, and why the docility of teenage employees is so profitable. He analyzes how, by encouraging the development of consolidated "chicken processors," the Chicken McNugget has turned poultry employees into modern-day sharecroppers. He talks with slaughterhouse workers who have been slashed and maimed while earning poverty wages at companies that turn profits by selling tainted meat.

Page after page, Schlosser presents damning evidence against the industry, yet Fast Food Nation never turns into a stiff academic treatise or political harangue. "The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men," he recognizes. "They are businessmen. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit." As Schlosser proves, they will also do anything and everything possible behind the scenes to the same single-minded purpose. And their tactics are setting the tone for every Gap, Starbucks, and franchise business in the nation.

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