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  June 12, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Food and Trembling

Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
by Eric Schlosser
356 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
published by Houghton Mifflin

THE NEXT TIME YOU HAVE A CRAVING for a Big Mac, read a few pages of this book: You may want to consider becoming a vegetarian. Eric Schlosser leaves no stone unturned in his portrait of the fast food universe. From the harrowing dangers of Midwestern slaughterhouses, to the "taste factories" of New Jersey's chemical industry, to the checkout counter of the local McDonalds, Schlosser offers a full portrait of this $110 billion industry, and the results of his unsparing reportage are rather stomach turning. Schlosser has been compared favorably by some to a turn of the century muckraker, but others have taken issue with his perceived anti-business animus.

Steve Shaw of Commentary was skeptical, and took issue with Schlosser's politics: "Unfortunately to credit this portrait of the fast-food industry as a new evil empire, agribusiness as the reincarnation of Soviet collectivized farming, and capitalism as the new Communism, one must not only discount Schlosser's wild hyperbole but overlook the fact that capitalism has been responsible for almost every instance of material good since the industrial revolution. It is a pity Schlosser's mind is so relentlessly preoccupied by politics, and a callow politics at that." But Caleb Mason of In These Times thought the book a much needed critique: "Schlosser aims to do what the best social criticism has always done: draw connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Alerting us that much of what we take for granted in our comfortable lives is anything but natural ....this is a book for all of us—for a nation that averages three burgers and four orders of fries per capita per week."

Tom Vanderbilt in The Los Angeles Times Book Review called Fast Food Nation a "passionately argued, incendiary polemic about a subject close to our hearts (and stomachs). And Eric Schlosser may be the Upton Sinclair for this age of mad cow disease." But as admiring as Vanderbilt was of Schlosser's passionate reporting and analysis, he wondered what could be done about the American appetite for junk food: "Although Schlosser is superb at articulating all the dreary reasons why we should not eat fast food, he provides comparatively little insight into why we do." He added that "popularity is the X-factor in polemics such as Schlosser's, and the pernicious issue of supply and demand is never as simple as it seems."

Meanwhile, Nichols Fox of The Washington Post Book World welcomed the book: "Schlosser is part essayist, part investigative journalist. His eye is sharp, his profiles perceptive, his prose thoughtful but spare; this is John McPhee behind the counter with an editor." And Rob Walker of The New York Times Book Review overcame some initial doubts about the book, and was generous with his praise: "Readers who have grown weary of attempts to locate the DNA of the contemporary American soul within the history of video games or tennis shoes or whatever might also feel a wave of fatigue when Schlosser announces his interest in fast food 'as a metaphor.' But the good news is that this isn't a frivolous book at all. Scholsser is a serious and diligent reporter and Fast Food Nation isn't an airy deconstruction but an avalanche of facts and observations as he examines the fast food process from meat to marketing."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
Steve Shaw, Commentary
Caleb Mason, In These Times
Rob Walker, The New York Times Book Review
Nichols Fox, The Washington Post Book World
Tom Vanderbilt, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

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