Eric Schlosser begins his account of the American fast food industry by focusing on one region of the United States in particular: Colorado’s “Front Range,” or a group of cities including Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins, just east of the Rockies. Schlosser believes that this expanding, suburbanized region of the Mountain West is an emblem of late 20th-century economic growth, and the problems that go along with that growth.
Although Schlosser’s account attempts to describe the attitude of all—or a great many—Americans toward fast food, and the impact of fast food on all Americans’ eating, Schlosser chooses to set his narrative in a particular place. This allows Schlosser to track, within a relatively small geographic area, a cross-section of society as it relates to food production.
Schlosser notes that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, near the Front Range, is one of the most technologically advanced military installations in the world, hidden in the mountains, known only to select government employees with high-level security clearances. Yet there, like many, many other places of work, employees still order pizzas from Domino’s, and burgers from Burger King. This station relies on the same kinds of fast food eaten down the road, by men, women, and children from all walks of life.
Behind Schlosser’s account of the US food production industries is a larger, sometimes implicit critique of how power—economic and political power—shapes Americans’ lives. McDonald’s and other fast food companies are enormous businesses with impressive buying power that gives them the ability to affect large portions of the American economy—and Schlosser makes plain that the relationship between the American food industry and the US government is a complex and important one.
Schlosser writes that “this is a book about fast food, the values it embodies, and the world it has made.” He vows to trace the impact of fast food companies both “backward” and “forward” in the food chain—from the farmers who raise steer and grow potatoes, to the agribusinesses that process the food, to the restaurants like McDonald’s that sell it, to the consumers who eat it.
This “backward and forward” movement will be important to Schlosser throughout the book, as he moves from individual cases (Hank, or Kenny, in later chapters) to larger, “institutional” biographies, which chart how companies come into being and grow.
Schlosser begins by focusing on McDonald’s—to many, the symbol of American fast-food culture. McDonald’s is, as Schlosser writes, one of the largest companies in America, one of the largest retail property owners, and one of the major buyers of meat, bread, and potatoes. The techniques McDonald’s developed to make money from the sale burgers and fries—ideas like the franchising of stores, or the speeding-up of the food assembly process—have swept across the fast-food industry, into Taco Bells, Wendy’s, Burger Kings, pizza chains, and every other imaginable type of food.
For Schlosser, McDonald’s serves two purposes. It is, on the one hand, a very sensible subject for any treatment of the American food industry, as its buying power is vast, and its franchises are located in all fifty states. But McDonald’s, in addition to being an economic force, is itself a potent symbol—of the way Americans eat, and of the new “efficiencies” that have drastically altered our relationship to food.
Schlosser notes that he is not interested in making fun of, or writing judgmentally of, people who consume fast food—who often, though certainly not always, are people in lower-middle or working class families. Instead, Schlosser wants to write a history of American fast food in the 20th century that is also a history of larger social and economic processes in this country. Schlosser sees the rise of American fast-food culture as complementing the growth of the automobile, the rise of standardization and automation across industries, the defeat of Democratic Great Society ideals (and their replacement with notions of individual autonomy and corporate deregulation, often associated with Republicans), and the prevalence of suburbs as the primary unit of demographic organization in this country.
An important point. Some might approach Schlosser’s text thinking that he is critiquing Americans’ reliance on fast food, or their inability to differentiate good, “local” food from “bad,” mass-produced food. But throughout the book Schlosser acknowledges the immense appeal of hamburgers and fries. And he does not consider the explosion of fast food in American to be a sign of “weakness” on the part of lazy consumers. Instead, Schlosser sees fast food as a manifestation of the capitalist values that have shaped America since the end of the Second World War.