Fast Food Nation

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Work and “The Good Life” Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety Theme Icon
Greed, Corporations, and “The Bottom Line” Theme Icon
Independence vs. the Social Contract Theme Icon
Bureaucracy and Complex Systems Theme Icon
Work and “The Good Life” Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fast Food Nation, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Work and “The Good Life” Theme Icon

Throughout the book, Schlosser talks about the natural beauty of the North American continent, especially the West, and of the people who (used to) work the land, raising cattle and farming potatoes, starting small businesses, and helping to feed their communities. These workers have a holistic relationship to what they do—ranchers see the cattle they raise, and men and women running small businesses have a more direct connection to the places they live.

In contrast, large companies, the suburbanization of America (especially the West), and the desire to push less-healthy food at a profit causes people’s quality of life—and the quality of the food they consume—to decrease. Fast food, then, is just one symptom of a world that is at odds with Schlosser’s ideal vision for America, in which companies are not “people” but are instead composed of individuals, who feel they have a choice in what they eat, what they do, and how they live their lives.

Schlosser further argues that his vision, though it sounds romantic or utopian, is in fact not so difficult to put into practice. Schlosser pushes for reforms that would make the food industry more accountable, rather than massive revolutionary changes that would entirely dismantle the global food-production network. Schlosser believes that workers should be trained to perform a skill, and should be paid fairly for their work. He is opposed to governments that give in unnecessarily to the interests of wealthy corporate interests, especially when they run counter to the interests of the “regular people” buying the conglomerates’ products. Schlosser also believes that large parts of the country, in particular in the West, present a natural beauty that can be swallowed up by cars and Golden Arches crowding already over-developed roadsides.

For Schlosser, American food development since World War Two has brought on immense technological advances, but created a world in which workers no longer feel immediately connected to a “good life,” an integrated life of food and community. Schlosser’s book, published in 2001, perceived many of the climatic and food-based concerns that have become widespread issues of political conversation a decade later.

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Work and “The Good Life” Quotes in Fast Food Nation

Below you will find the important quotes in Fast Food Nation related to the theme of Work and “The Good Life”.
Introduction Quotes

The key to a successful franchise, according to many texts on the subject, can be expressed in one word: “uniformity.” Franchises and chain stores strive to offer exactly the same product or service at numerous locations.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Schlosser's primary objectives in Fast Food Nation is to understand in social and historical terms the rise of the fast food chain restaurant. One of the keys to the chain is the reduction of the eating experience to a set of smaller, more easily replicated tasks, both for the producer of the food and for the consumer. This is why franchises must be uniform - they must operate such that practices in one location can be used, with only a minimum of modification, in another.

Schlosser recognizes that this uniformity and "franchising" of fast food restaurants is part of a larger sweep, in the "modernizing" West, of economic policies favoring the wealthy over the poor, and the corporate over the individual. Fast food restaurants seem designed to produce profit for those with stakes in the restaurant, rather than to create an eating experience enjoyable for the consumer, or a working experience that is satisfying or sustainable for the average employee. What is most upsetting to Schlosser is the idea that these forms of eating and cooking have replaced other more individualized, local, and fulfilling kinds of food consumption. 


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Fast food is now so commonplace that it has acquired an air of inevitability, as though it were somehow unavoidable, a fact of modern life. And yet the dominance of the fast food giants was no more preordained than the march of colonial split-levels, golf courses, and man-made lakes across the deserts of the American West.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser sees the rise of fast food as being coupled with the rise of the suburb and the car in American life. The fast food restaurant, after all, derives from the McDonald's franchise model - wherein restaurants were placed in easy-to-access locations at the exits of major freeways across the United States. As middle class families, often white families, moved out of cities and into the suburbs, they used cars to travel, and in traveling they needed places to stop for a quick bite to eat. Thus the fast food restaurant was no more "preordained" than the highway and the car and the suburban subdivision. These restaurants, instead, were a part of a plotted policy, which moved middle-class American life away from cities and into more spread out, "planned" communities.

As in the first quotation, this shift from city to suburban eating went hand-in-hand with a "streamlining" of the food production process - which meant consumers all along a given highway were, in a McDonald's restaurant, eating the same burgers assembled using the same mass-production methods. 

Chapter 1: The Founding Fathers Quotes

The southern California drive-in restaurants of the early 1940s tended to be gaudy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs. They were “Circular meccas of neon,” in the words of drive-in historian Michael Witzel, designed to be easily spotted from the road.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another depiction of the symbiosis between the rise of the fast-food restaurant and the rise of the highway. Just as a city or town would be viewed as a blur from a speeding car on a highway, a fast food restaurant could be recognized only by the bright lights and colors it produced. Thus the car was once again the functional unit for the transportation of people in mid-century, middle-class American society. And restaurants therefore catered to the car and centered on the car - were geared toward people whose lives were lived, for better or worse, in cars.

Nevertheless, Schlosser also seems somewhat wistful for the early days of fast food, if only because the novelty of these restaurants, and of the highways they were placed along, was something striking and somewhat individual in the postwar American boom of economic development. The optimism of higher-quality, mass-produced food might be traced, ultimately, to a utopian, if flawed, idea - that producing food in large quantities according to streamlined processes might actually benefit, rather than hinder, people's health and wallet - and thus create more free time for them to spend with their families. 

Richard McDonald . . . though untrained as an architect . . . came up with a design [for McDonald’s stores] that was simple, memorable, and archetypal. On two sides of the roof he put golden arches, lit by neon at night, that from a distance formed the letter M.

Related Symbols: Golden Arches
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

The Golden Arches, in Schlosser's estimation, are one of the great design innovations and trademarks of mid-century America. They are instantly recognizable, and were no small reason why McDonald's became lodged in the American consciousness so soon after the war. The Arches were associated with a cheap, fun, easy place to eat - and to eat as a family, after a ride along the highway, especially in California where the brand began. The Arches thus took on the optimism, indeed the utopian quality that early franchised fast food assumed in the American consciousness. They were, in short, arches symbolizing progress over backwardness, cleanliness and comfort over difficulty, uniformity and expectedness over messy, unpredictable individuality.

Over time, the Golden Arches have remained a symbol of McDonald's, and they have moved that symbolism into other countries, where McDonald's is now prevalent. The Golden Arches are thus, in many parts of the world, a symbol not just of cheap food but of American influence, of the manner in which fast food-style eating has become the norm for people in all walks of life. 

When I first met my wife . . . this road here was gravel . . . and now it’s blacktop.

Related Characters: Carl Karcher (speaker), Eric Schlosser
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl Karcher of Carl's Jr. believes, and not incorrectly, that fast food restaurants played a large role in the modernization of the American West. They certainly did - it is hard to dispute the idea that freeways, suburbs, and fast food shaped the way Americans recreated and moved through space. What separates Karcher from Schlosser, however, is the idea of this being a good, or positive, development for American society. Karcher sees fast food as an engine of economic growth that made the West, along with myriad suburban developments, livable for a large number of people. Before Karcher, the West was nothing more than a set of paths and land for grazing livestock. 

But this idea of the West as a rugged, natural, untouched place is, for Schlosser, an important one. Fast food really did change the American landscape, and Schlosser argues it did not change it for the better. Patterns of food consumption are one thing. But as the book progresses, Schlosser will go on to describe the ways that food production - namely farming and herding techniques - were negatively altered in order to accommodate large food conglomerates. 

Chapter 2: Your Trusted Friends Quotes

This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ‘em, and I’m going to kill ‘em before they kill me. You’re talking about the American way of survival of the fittest.

Related Characters: Ray Kroc (speaker)
Related Symbols: Golden Arches
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Ray Kroc's idea of McDonald's franchising, and the business model that keeps McDonald's afloat, is very different, in this telling, from the positive image the company projects in its restaurants and advertising. McDonald's succeeded, and continues to succeed, according to Schlosser, because it is a restaurant that understands the amorality and occasional brutality of the market. McDonald's restaurants therefore are strongly anti-union, because they consider labor law to be an impediment to corporate profits and growth. They are also opposed to any of the social safety net policies that might protect their workers over time. Indeed, McDonald's restaurants run best, for Kroc, when they are staffed with people who do not stay very long - who therefore can claim no seniority and therefore no higher wages or extra benefits.

Likewise the franchises, once established, must perform well and court customers or else risk being taken over by other nearby restaurant chains. McDonald's strategy of ruthless competition therefore prizes corporate profits above all else - and makes the dining experience all the more "streamlined," meaning mass-produced, impersonal, and, ultimately, inexpensive.

Chapter 3: Behind the Counter Quotes

Despite all the talk in Colorado about aerospace, biotech, computer software, telecommunications, and other industries of the future, the largest private employer in the state today is the restaurant industry . . . [it] has grown faster than the population.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser takes great pains to link the fast food industry to what he views as the larger, underlying economic dislocation that has happened in the American West since the Second World War. He chooses Colorado because it is, in his words, a place a lot like California was in the 1950s (he is writing in the 1990s) - a region with lots of land, lots of people willing to work for relatively low wages, and a combination of high-tech and service-industry jobs.

Schlosser then notes that, despite the media emphasis on Colorado as a place where new technologies are created and used, its economy derives its strength largely from the kinds of jobs that go unreported: jobs that involve people working at Hardee's or McDonald's or Chik-fil-A, often without much by way of training, and with significant turnover. By explaining this aspect of the fast food industry, then, Schlosser is helping to describe an important part of the "boom" economies of the end of the 20th century in the United States, and suggesting why such "booms," when they are built on such high-turnover, low-skill work as the fast food industry, inevitably lead to "busts." 

Every Saturday Elisa Zamot gets up at 5:15 in the morning. It’s a struggle, and her head feels groggy as she steps into the shower. Her little sisters, Cookie and Sabrina, are fast asleep in their beds. . . .

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), Elisa Zamot
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

What makes Elisa's story so impactful - and causes Schlosser to relate it here - is not that it's unique, but rather it is the norm for a great many workers in the fast food industry. Wages for people in Elisa's position are often extremely low, and hours can be hard to come by; thus workers will take whichever shifts are offered, which is why Elisa must wake up so early to commute to the closest McDonald's.

In examining the labor practices of the fast food industry, Schlosser takes pains to show that workers are treated not so much as individuals, but rather as "components" of a much larger system of food production. This system, he argues implicitly, is mirrored in the packing of meat and in other aspects of the factory farming that provide the food for McDonald's to cook and process. In this way, the fast food industry's practices have shaped the practices in related fields - to the detriment of those working in the industry. 

The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to a higher proportion of its workers than any other American industry. Consequently, a low minimum wage has long been a crucial part of the fast food industry’s business plan.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most important aspects of the fast food industry is the continual depressing of costs. Because fast food can be produced using a system of linked smaller cooking processes, rather than a single cooking process undergone by one person from start to finish, the actual labor involved in fast food production is relatively easy to convey. 

Thus, McDonald's tends not to value this labor particularly highly, and makes sure to resist any efforts to unionize on the part of workers - which would make it more difficult to hire and fire workers, thus forcing McDonald's to pay wages appropriate to the work that is already being done. Schlosser notes the fine line McDonald's, and similar fast food companies, maintain - they wish to retain workers long enough to stack their stores, but not so long as to cause those workers to earn raises, which would in turn raise the company's cost and eat into its profits. 

Chapter 4: Success Quotes

As franchises and chain stores opened across the United States, driving along a retail strip became a shopping experience much like strolling down the aisle of a supermarket. Instead of pulling something off the shelf, you pulled into a driveway. The distinctive architecture of each chain became its packaging . . . .

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Related Symbols: Golden Arches
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser here notes a feature of suburbanized American life in the 1990s and early 2000s - the transition, in local economies, from local "Mom and Pop" stores to larger chains, whose economies of scale allow them to sell goods and services at much lower prices, and thus force local stores, who do not have these economies of scale, out of business. Big box stores and other national chains are, like fast food companies, designed to be uniform. Variation between one store and the next is frowned upon. Thus commercial strips on highways in the suburbs surrounding major cities look largely the same. They contain the same stores, in the same configurations, and sell mostly the same products for the same prices. 

Schlosser argues that this system, which is good for the big box stores participating in it, is not nearly so good for the consumer, who often has a more limited set of choices as to where to buy goods. This, not to mention the monotony of encountering the same several stores on each commercial area in a given suburban region. 

Chapter 5: Why the Fries Taste Good Quotes

McDonald’s began to sell J. R. Simplot’s frozen french fries the following year. Customers didn’t notice any difference in taste. And the reduced cost of using a frozen product made french fries one of the most profitable items on the menu—far more profitable than hamburgers.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), J. R. Simplot
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser isolates the invention of the french fry, by J. R. Simplot, as one of the great innovations in fast food history - and for good reason. The french fry becomes a staple of fast food not only because it is delicious for consumers, but because it is easy to produce, immensely cheap, and its production can be streamlined to maximum efficiency by freezing.

Although unfrozen french fries are by no means the healthiest or most natural of foods, according to Schlosser they were at least somewhat closer to food in its original state - food that has not been manufactured to highest efficiency at the cost of its original taste and integrity. Schlosser believes that the french fry, as well as similar developments in burgers and chicken nuggets, sped the growth of fast food chains by making products more or less exactly the same across stores. This causes customers to expect - and to receive - the same products regardless of location, thus creating another efficiency of production and sales, but a dehumanization of food production and consumption. 

Since 1980, the tonnage of potatoes grown in Idaho has almost doubled, while the average yield per acre has risen by nearly 30 percent. But the extraordinary profits being made from the sale of french fires have barely trickled down to the farmers.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes another example of what Schlosser considers the economic erosion of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. Because of the nature of ruthless economic competition in the farming industry - and the practices that cause farm conglomerates to form increasingly fewer, and vastly larger, corporations - the margins on any particular crop are driven far lower. This makes it difficult for small farmers to make money selling most crops. Only the largest of companies, who sell the most crops at a particular low price (and for low profit), can sell enough to continue to stay in business.

This economic system, in which money is concentrated within an industry among conglomerates, is not a "true" or "good" manifestation of market capitalism (Schlosser believes), but is instead an unfortunate byproduct of it. He believes, further, that certain forms of regulation could ensure economic competition and keep prices reasonable while also keeping smaller-scale farmers in business. 

Chapter 6: On the Range Quotes

Toward sunset we spotted a herd of antelope and roared after them. That damn minivan bounced over the prairie like a horse at full gallop, Hank wild behind the wheel . . . we had a Chrysler engine, power steering, and disk brakes, but the antelope had a much superior grace, making sharp and unexpected turns, bounding effortlessly . . . .

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), Hank
Related Symbols: Ranchers
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

In a book of economics and summarization, this is a scene of more or less pure description. Schlosser takes up Hank's story (and includes this scene of admiration for the natural beauty and power of the antelope) because Hank, he believes, is an exemplar of what he considers best in American farming: a sense of integrity, a willingness to work hard to make one's living, and a belief that ethical business practices are best for nature, the environment, and the consumer. Hank, however, is a rancher from the old guard, and most new factory farming ranch outfits do not care about the land the way he does. Factory farm companies are not invested in protecting the farms around Colorado Springs because they do not, largely, exist for the benefit of local communities. Instead, large factory farm companies are multinational, seemingly based nowhere, and they produce goods only to maximize profit and serve the bottom line.

As Schlosser will report, too, these large farming conglomerates are not kind to small business owners, and people like Hank, who try to work "the right way," are largely shut out of the industry before long - unable to provide for their families. 

The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers in the US is now about three times higher than the national average. The issue briefly received attention during the 1980s farm crisis, but has been pretty much ignored ever since. Meanwhile, across rural America, a slow and steady death toll mounts. As the rancher’s traditional way of life is destroyed, so are many of the beliefs that go with it.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ranchers
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser is clearly affected by the death of Hank, who commits suicide in part over despair at his inability to make a living cattle ranching in Colorado. Schlosser does not necessarily hold large agricultural companies directly responsible for the upsurge in farmer suicides, but he does believe a wide variety of factors, including economic difficulties, put an incredible burden on farmers that is very, very difficult to lift. And without adequate public health services, including mental health services, many of these farmers' needs go unanswered.

Schlosser walks a fine line in the text between advocacy for the positions of disenfranchised farmers like Hank and for fast food workers continually bilked of their already meager pay by management. But he also wishes to report on things - not so much to editorialize as to make clear just how out-of-joint the fast food industry can be. Occasionally, however, this reporting becomes tinged with a personal anecdote, like the story of Hank - making that story all the more affecting. 

Chapter 7: Cogs in the Great Machine Quotes

Greeley became a company town, dominated by the Monfort family and ruled with a compassionate paternalism. Ken Monfort was a familiar presence at the slaughterhouse. Workers felt comfortable approaching him with suggestions and complaints.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker), The Monfort Family
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser again walks a fine line between valorizing an old economic system, which he understand to have problems of its own, and attempting to depict honestly the real difficulties and deficiencies of the system of agricultural production that replaced it throughout the United States during the era of deregulation, which Schlosser dates to the 1970s and '80s. The Monforts were by no means a perfect family, and they did not run their business as a charity; they were businessmen, and their workers were not paid any more than they had to be. But those workers were at least supported in their work, knew their bosses, and the Monforts believed in helping those who worked at the plant at least to some extent.

The system replacing this, in which a large and depersonalized agricultural conglomerate slashed wages and benefits, produced no such goodwill between workers and their bosses. This might have resulted in slightly higher corporate profits, but it did not help to support those families whose incomes derived from the meatpacking industry. And this, by degrees, harmed the towns in which these meatpacking plants were located. 

Far from being a liability, a high turnover rate in the meatpacking industry—as in the fast food industry—also helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much easier to control.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the same logic that Schlosser identifies in the fast food industry itself, where McDonald's, for example, wishes only to train workers sufficiently so they can stay on the job for a matter of months, only to quit or be fired. Workers with a small amount of experience are somewhat useful, but meatpacking, like the fast food industry, has become so streamlined as to require relatively little human activity or skill. This means that human beings, once so central to the production of food in the United States, are rapidly becoming secondary to that process.

Schlosser notes again and again that in meatpacking, as in fast food, the concept of "throughput" is increasingly important: that is, the amount of material that can work its way through a production system in a timely manner. If throughput is all that counts, and if machines can aid in parts of the production of meat, then humans amount to no more than a small sliver of that production process. 

Chapter 8: The Most Dangerous Job Quotes

Workers often bring their knives home and spend at least forty minutes a day keeping the edges smooth, sharp, and sanded, with no pits. One IBP worker, a small Guatemalan woman in graying hair, spoke with me . . . telling the story of her life . . . the whole time sharpening big knives in her lap as though she were knitting a sweater.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser does not have to try hard to make the meatpacking industry seem extraordinarily unpleasant for those involved in that labor. The only physical connection that a person has to the meat being "produced" is through the complex system of cuts and incisions made along the assembly line, by workers so specialized that they might make a single cut, over and over again, many hundreds of times in a given shift.

This act of distributing the labor of meatpacking among a large number of people, each working in a small area of production, is similar to the manner in which cars are made - a "Fordist" model, which works well in producing "output" but renders the manufacturing job itself dull, numbing, and difficult because of its sheer boredom. This boredom, as Schlosser notes, can be especially dangerous in the meatpacking context, as those not paying attention can find themselves in danger along the production line. 

Epilogue: Have It Your Way Quotes

[At the fast food counter], think about where the food came from, about how and where it was made, about what is set in motion by every single fast food purchase, the ripple effect near and far, think about it. Then place your order. Or turn and walk out the door. It’s not too late. Even in this fast food nation, you can still have it your way.

Related Characters: Eric Schlosser (speaker)
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Schlosser makes plain that he is not blaming or vilifying people for eating fast food. Nor is he necessarily and always blaming those who produce fast food. New technologies in manufacturing and related fields have, in the twentieth century, produced great capabilities in industry, opportunities for humans to do good for one another, to make far more food available for one another - literally to feed the world. But Schlosser argues that there are good ways to do this and bad ways. There are ethical ways, that take into account economic and physiological realities, and there are unethical ways, that focus only on the short-term monetary gain for a relatively small number of people.

Thus Schlosser asks only that the reader consider all the aspects of food production before making a choice about food consumption. It might not change the world entirely, or in one day - but it would perhaps cause changes in consumption that could eventually alter the methods by which food arrives ready to be eaten. This kind of enlightened consumption would then be a start to a healthier and more fairly distributed system of reward in the food industry. Schlosser earnestly believes this might work - and urges the reader directly, in this passage, to take his message to heart.