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Fast Food Nation

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Muckraking journalist Eric Schlosser likes to dig up America's underground worlds. He's explored our black-market economies (marijuana production, migrant labor, and porn) in Reefer Madness, and is currently working on a book about the U.S. prison system. But he's most famous for his 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation, a worthy successor to Upton Sinclair's classic 1906 novel The Jungle. 

Sinclair exposed the nasty underbelly of the Chicago meatpacking industry and its abuse of both immigrant labor and public health; his efforts helped win passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Schlosser shows that, despite more than a century of federal food regulation, we're still living (and eating) in a way that Sinclair would decry.

Like a massive mural, Fast Food Nation is a book writ both large and small. Schlosser deftly sketches out the big picture of how the fast-food system came to be (due, in large part, to the automobile), then fills in a staggering amount of details showing how our fast food is produced, processed, sold, and consumed.

Schlosser crisscrosses the country, showing how the entire nation has become fast-foodized: from the origins of fast-food chains in southern California to slaughterhouses in Colorado to flavor laboratories in New Jersey. Along the way, we meet teenage restaurant workers, immigrant (and often injured) slaughterhouse employees, and even a "senior flavorist," or chemist, who concocts "natural flavors." Throughout, the masses of statistics and the moments of descriptive anecdote coalesce into a masterful read; where lesser books might be strident, Fast Food Nation is compelling.

"Nobody in the United States is forced to buy fast food," Schlosser writes. "The first step toward meaningful change is by far the easiest: stop buying it."

Your burger, fries, and soda? In Fast Food Nation, they're an unholy trinity, an allegory for a stricken landscape, a strangled economy, and the suffering not just of the workers who produce all those Happy Meals but of the consumers who eat them. Fast-food nation, indeed.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

*Also on Culinate: More on the chemistry of soda.

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