Monday, September 18, 2006

Tipping the Scales

This nation has a love/hate relationship with food. Everybody knows that we are getting fatter and fatter. You don’t need an extra eye to see that the size 40+ waist bands now take up almost a quarter of men’s clothing retail space. That’s precious space, too. Men get almost no love from clothing shops anymore. So, if retailers are putting out the elephantine trousers, people are buying them by the case.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the collective U.S. ass couldn’t even think about slipping on a pair of nationalized Calvin Klein jeans. In the year 2000, 28 states had obesity rates below 20 percent. In 2005, only 4 states had obesity rates below 20 percent. The worst offenders in the nation (I am looking at you Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia) had obesity rates higher than 34 percent. That means, in other words, that a third of those states’ population need a prying stick to get off the couch. Europe can’t figure out if we are gluttons or the bizarre off-spring of Jabba the Hutt and gold-bikini-wearing Princess Leia.

Look, I can understand the eating. Trust me. My weight often goes through some serious cycles. We all know that I can shovel back the Hello Kitty Pop-Tarts, mayonnaise, chocolate, and sweet, sweet liquor (No – not all at the same time – Smart ass). Right now I am sitting in my underwear with a cordial of vodka and a giant bag of M&M’s as my sofa companion. I therefore get the desire to eat and to eat things that aren’t that great for me (including processed and highly fatty foods).

Yet, it struck me on Sunday that Americans avoid eating food that actually tastes good. After enjoying a great round of dim sum with Jason, James and Whit, I thought again about the marked difference between Boston and Eastern Texas. Boston permits one to eat out constantly without ever setting foot in a chain restaurant. One can obtain variety and quality. With the exception of the omnipresent Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts (As an aside, Why is Boston so obsessed with DD?), I have yet to eat anything from a chain since I arrived here (thank the goddess).

Then I wondered if it was really a difference exclusive to Texas or actually the difference between those who live in certain cities (Boston, Chicago, New York) and those who live everywhere else. In Eastern Texas and the Midwestern town where I went to graduate school, eating at independent eateries was simply not possible. Chains had long quashed out 90 percent of locally owned restaurants before I ever appeared on the scene. If you wanted to avoid cooking, you had no choice but to eventually end up at a chain. It was kind of like jury duty.

Albuquerque seemed slower to succumb to this phenomena, but did relent. It long had a Chili’s (attached to a hotel), but that was largely considered laughable by people from the city. I witnessed first-hand, however, the slow infection of Macaroni Grills and Outback Steakhouses. Now it is hard to even distinguish parts of Albuquerque from any other mid-size city in the nation. All of the buildings and signs are identical. Even the suburbs of Boston, Chicago, and New York are endless seas of Friday’s and Olive Gardens. As a nation, we know that the food provided in those joints isn’t good. Why have they prevailed?

Americans love to eat, but I believe that they hate food. There is a collective fear of the unknown with edibles. Were we all just scared as high schoolers by being forced to read The Jungle? Did we just never quite get over it?

Americans seem to think that people are constantly trying to trick them into eating pure acid, rat droppings, or bugs. Once, in graduate school, I had served chocolate covered-dates as part of a cocktail party. Some people would not take these items at face value. They were certain that I was trying to get them to eat a grasshopper or something else equally mysterious under the chocolate coating (Who knew that dates were so unknown in the Midwest? That’s another entry entirely) . GayProf might be many things, but he does not have a reputation as a practical joker.

We can also look at the recent hysteria over e. coli in the spinach. You can almost hear shirt buttons popping as people toss out any remaining green items from their homes. “Fresh spinach? Oh, dear god, no! Those leaves will kill you with that coli junk. I knew it all along” they say, “Just give me a ball of caramel and a Double Whopper with cheese. That will at least hold me over until I can get a Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido from Friday’s.”

This partly explains why it is easier to find a Chili’s resturant in the U.S. than it is to find a well-maintained farmer’s market. We all, regardless of our backgrounds, have eaten at plenty of chain restaurants at this point. It would be almost impossible to avoid them and still travel in the United States. In the end, Americans have traded quality for the safe, consistent, and known.

I once had a friend explain to me, “Well, I don’t really like the chains. Still, I think it is safer for the kids.” Safer for the kids??

First of all, I thought her children were plenty old to be working in a factory. That’s another issue, though. Second, have we really come to the prepackaged means safer?

To me, I just see yet another way that capitalist brand identification has invaded our collective psyches without our questioning it. Just as Mac computers and Ikea furniture has convinced people that buying their products makes one “cool,” so also have chain resturants convinced people that eating their food is safer. This, though, is a slight of hand. “True, our food might be bland despite containing more sodium than Lot’s wife,” they tells us, “but do you really want to gamble on an independent restaurant? What if they don’t have an ‘Employees Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning to Work’ plaque in their bathroom! Do you want to risk your child's health just so you can eat locally?”

The really peculiarly thing, though, is that we all know that these things are lies. We know that national and international corporations would feed us our own small intestine if they thought they could make a buck. We know that a Chili’s employee could be just as unlikely (maybe even more unlikely given that Chilli's probably doesn't pay a fair wage) to wash his/her hands before plunking down a pile of fried potato skins in front of us. Yet, many often believe the myth.

The really smart chains, in my opinion, are the ones with the full bars. By the second cocktail, I could care less what the food tastes like. Heck, I might just skip the food altogether.

Eventually, though, you sober up. That’s when the regret hits you. As you stare into your coffee cup, bits of the night start to come back to you. “Oh, man! Did I really say the phrase ‘awesome blossom’ out loud? What was that last thing I ate? Fried maccaroni and cheese? How was that even possible? I am never going near tequila again, man. That’s it. I’ve hit bottom this time.”

Right now, when I see an advertisement come on t.v. for a chain restaurant promising me a fried glob in a family-friendly environment, I am sure glad that I am in Boston. I will take my fried globs in a dim-sum friendly environment, thank you.


Roger Owen Green said...

Since you asked: "Founded In 1950, Bill Rosenberg opened the first Dunkin' Donuts shop in Quincy, Massachusetts. Dunkin' Donuts licensed the first of many franchises in 1955." I went to the DD site and found a category for nutrition: A small smoothie is 360 calories (but only 25 from fat), while a medium has 550 (35 from fat). No trans fat, though. You'e set for Vitamin C for 2 days.

There was a Newsweek article about 6 months ago that talked about how prfoundly confusing/contradictory all of the diet fads are. The quick diet fix is the American dream, but it's unlikely to occur.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar conversation with my dad about this, except it was in regards to organic food. He won't eat organic because "I don't know who grows it." He doesn't care about pesticide ridden fruits and vegetables, he just wants a familiar brand name that evokes, somehow, feelings of safety and trust.

BTW, Neal Stephenson's book "Snow Crash" has a passage about Americans and food in it. In post-apocalyptic america, one of the only remaining restraunt's left is "Mom's restaurant" -- a clever corporation blended ubiquitous restaurants with a name that was almost guaranteed to evoke safety and wellbeing. I'm be surprised it it didn't end up happening...

Doug said...

You're right on the money, GayProf. I have a co-worker who refuses to eat anywhere that is non-chain, believing exactly as you describe: it's safer.

Btw, do you have someone to feed you the M&M's while you sit on the couch in your undies? If not, it's a travesty for you to deny yourself this vital service, and I humbly offer myself to fulfill such a noble duty.

dykewife said...

for a small prairie city, we have a huge number of restaurants. yes, we have the ubiquitous chains like rotten ronny's, burger slave, and boston pizza, but we also have several restaurants that have daily dim sum, lots of vietnamese restaurants, and several mom and pops. we even have a restaurant where you can get a burger with home made fries and cole slaw that doesn't come out of a gallon jar. I don't think we have olive garden, i know we don't have taco bell, or a chilis. then again, those are american, we have bonanza (steaks), taco time (same as taco bell, but different) and kelseys (the canadian version of chilis i think)

interestingly enough saskatoon has more restaurants per capita than any place in canada. at least that's the way it used to be.

Dorian said...

It's important not to overlook the link between poverty and obeisity. Packaged foods and fast food are cheaper than buying fresh meat and vegetables or organically grown foodstuffs. If you've only got $20 a week to spend on groceries, those 10 for $10 tv dinners start to look like a good bargain.

Kalv1n said...

Well, if you really want chain food in SF you kind of have to search. I am not a fan of chain restaurants myself, but I'm very glad other people think they are safe. Keep those horrible, small excuses for human beings away from me! And dim sum is quite lovely, isn't it?

Earl Cootie said...

Chain restaurants in Seattle lie mostly in the outer neighborhoods and burbs. Here in the city, independent restaurants rule.

Of course, we never eat out, so I find myself growing larger by the year. (They don't offer seconds at restaurants, and self-control is not my strong suit.)

Still, I always thought it's the familiarity of chain restaurants that keep people feeding there. They know exactly what it's going to taste like. No surprises, grasshoppers, what have you.

Anonymous said...

"Americans love to eat, but I believe that they hate food."

Interestingly (maybe not), I LOVE food but I HATE eating.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I will stake a claim here and say that is not about food, it is about branding. After 4 generations of being taught before being able to speak that X sign = good food, that is what people actually believe.

Flying KLM 6 months ago I was bumped into the executive section for reasons undisclosed (looking pathetic does actually work sometimes), and had a long talk with one of the workers there - in coach, KLM has moved to Brand only products (Uncle Ben rice, etc) and that the complaints about food had dropped. Though the food was identical, people believed it was better because it was from a "friendly" brand. The executive food, however remained unbranded, for the very reason that whether it was better or not, the people in executive class wanted to believe their food was unique, not of the "common fare".

So perhaps the question isn't why so many Americans love going to a branded resturant (because they have been taught to with far more enthusiasm and dedication than Stalin's reeducation), but why you GayProf assume that unlike everyone else in happy land, you don't think Brand = Good but rather that Brand = Bad.

I think either you aren't getting your 8 hours of brainwashing...I mean TV watching in or you been missed on the happy-adjustment pill rota - the authorities have been notified. One of of us

tornwordo said...

So true. The great palate dumb-down that is American cuisine. I never know which airport I'm in, because they all look the same inside.

Chains are safer? Pulease.

serial said...

i think most people in most countries have a similar relationship to food. people like what they're used to...

to me, it's not so much WHAT americans eat, but the quantity.

the thing that sets those "chains" apart is the fact that they serve these plates that you could take a nap on!

when i was in the US last, my friends accused me of having an eating disorder because i could only eat one of the FOUR tacos (each one the size of a small ground mammal) they had slathered with about a cup of sour cream. no wonder people are too big!?

i think americans all live as if tomorrow a nucyulur (sic) winter will destroy all cows, chickens, and velveeta factories. so: it's a kind of "stocking up" like bears that put on fat before hibernating.

that winter just never comes...

vuboq said...

I find the stripmallization of America to be very sad. The uniqueness of communities and their food is rapidly going the way of chains. *sniff* It's even happening here in DC ... big chains are driving up rents and driving out cute little shops and restaurants. *curses the economies of scale*

Anonymous said...

"As an aside, Why is Boston so obsessed with DD?"

Because Dunkin' Donuts coffee is the BESTEST COFFEE IN THE WHOLE FRIGGIN' WORLD!

The donuts and other assorted "pastries", however, suck. Never, ever, eat that crap.

Here in the Great North East it is possible, outside of cities, to find good food without going into Friday's, Red Lobsters and Bennigans et al. The further you travel from the major cities, however, the harder it becomes. The chains have prevailed because they're cheap, fast and easy... hm. Same reason prostitution prevails, no?

"so also have chain resturants convinced people that eating their food is safer."

This makes no sense to me. Safer how? For some reason this conjures up an image of Ninja's roaming the street forcing citizens to take refuge in Friendly's.

My opinion on the fattening of America is that they are using food to medicate themselves from the realization that their lives are meaningless and filled with bullshit.

GayProf said...

ROG: The Quincy connection explains a great deal. Thanks. A local cult exists around Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Olaf: Yeah, it’s interesting how people imagine “organic” to mean “without flavor” or “less quality.”

Doug: Please do apply for the job of Royal M&M Dispenser. Do you own your own Roman gladiator costume or am I going to need to provide that?

DykeWife: Yeah, Canada has even more peculiar layer of the chain issue given that a great number of U.S. chains are determined to infiltrate the market. Not only does it result in the same issues about food quality, but also an added issue of economic nationalism.

Dorian: I think that you bring up a critically important issue. I am in complete agreement that much of the discussion about more healthful foods presumes a middle class economic status. This is one of the reasons that I could never quite get on the Supersize Me movie bandwagon.

McDonald’s can provide an entire meal to people for under $3. It is almost impossible to get the same amount of food and prepare it at home for that price. Moreover, if you are working 12+ hours per day (plus some type of commute), you are too exhausted to think about cooking. When going shopping, the working-class in this nation can’t afford the “luxury” of buying organic or even name brands. You rightly point out that there are bigger structural/economic issues that we need to address if we are going to discuss improving the nation’s health and diet.

Still, I am not sure sit-down chain restaurants market themselves to the working class. In those instances, their goals seem to be to capture middle-class families and the ever elusive 18-26 year olds with disposable income.

Kalvin: If those “horrible, small excuses for human beings” keep going to the chains, there won’t be enough people left to keep other restaurants open (even in SF).

Earl: I have zero self control as well. You wouldn’t believe the incredibly poor nutrition choices that I make both at home and out eating.

Chris: I am not sure that I understand the “hate eating” part. Are you saying that you find the act of chewing too taxing?

Elizabeth: That’s a really interesting anecdote to me. KLM found a new way to tap into brand identification of other products to improve their own brand identification. Of course, I am amazed that any airline is serving anybody food at any point.

Torn: The airports are just the frontrunners to what’s happening to the actual cities.

Serial: Yeah, the food portion thing is really out of whack. Some readers know that I have a thing for Depression Glass (this would be plates and crap made during the economic Depression of the 1930s). Anyway, one only has to compare the dinner plates from a set of Depression Glass with a modern U.S. dinner plate to see the difference. The Depression dinner plate would be lucky if it qualified as the salad plate (I am not kidding).

VUBOQ: That’s so sad about D.C. If the nation’s capitol can’t keep it together, what hope do we have?

Laura Elizabeth: I am still not sure that I understand the DD coffee. Then again, I feel like one of the last people who still brews his own at home.

Yeah, the eating to not feel like your life is a waste is something that I relate to personally. Those M&Ms aren’t making their way into my mouth because of the quality of the chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Well, you're certainly drifiting into my work area with this post. Can I suggest:

- Food Politics by Marion Nestle
- Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- the 2001 Surgeon General's Report on Obesity
- the IOM Report on Food Marketing to Children
- the IOM Report on Childhood Obesity
- Frank Hu's study on the rold of soda in obesity
- The Institue for Agriculture and Trade Policy has a nice report on trade policy, ag policy and obesity

Really, I think Elizabeth is partially right about how we are trained to eat certain things through marketing. The key is US agriculture policy. Our commodity policy produces an ungodly surplus of corn. This corn has to go somewhere so it used to fatten cattle and fatten americans. If you want to fix it, you have to change food policy in the US which greatly offends the red states who would lose a lot of money in agriculture subsidies.

My two cents at least.

Anonymous said...

Once again, GayProf has taken the French fry right out of my mouth. Some random notes: A Swedish friend remarked after his first trip to New York City that he was convinced there was some sort of obesity convention in progress as he had never seen so many seriously overweight people in one place. While I’m sure GayProf has never been inside a Walmart for many good reasons, the asses witnessed there are aisle-blocking in size. I must report there are motorized obesity carts for people to haul around their enormous girths while shamelessly shopping for potato chips and cupcakes. The local newspaper publishes the health inspection report of every eating establishment in the county yearly. The chains notoriously have the worst scores. The restaurant receiving the best score last year was a hole in the wall tucked between the Tabernacle of His Living Hands and the Bev’s House of Beauty. Yes, GayProf, I find the blight of homogenization the chains produce more galling than the food served.

r said...

I'm just excited about the Billy Holiday photo and song.

Once again, gayprof, you've hit on a tender subject.

Santa Barbara is a place where even slightly (and I'm a damn sight more than "slightly") overweight people are made to feel as if they are morbidly obese.

There's got to be a medium. What it is, I don't know, but there's got to be one.

Anonymous said...

I buy their coffee by the pound, GayProf, and brew it up at home. If I tried driving and drinking coffee at the same time, I'd probably end up dead.

Artistic Soul said...

Good post! We just got a whole slew of chains that opened up near the university, and as a result the small local places are suffering. It's a shame because we have some nice ones!

The Persian said...

Quite the thought provoking post. In fairness to the chains, there has been a serious effort to provide healthier options and at the same rapid speed (I do not mean to insinuate these are very "popular" of course). There isn't one that comes to mind (ok maybe Arthur Treacher's ehk) which hasn't added something to their menus of late in the interest of nutrition.

As a side note, there are plenty of independant local restaurants here in Western Massachusetts serving up some horrific stuff.

It's all about self control, making healthy choices, and most importantly getting some sort of excercise. We (Americans)seem to be lacking in all three areas.

Anonymous said...

Different people place different meanings on "value", unfortunately. One of the ways the chains lure people in and make them suck up to their concept of value is by making it seem that you're getting your money's worth by perpetuating the concept of "bigger is better". Well, yeah, that's sometimes the case, but not, for instance in a salad bowl with lackluster wedges of iceberg lettuce and tasteless cherry tomatoes as opposed to a good mix of flavorful spring lettuces and in-season, ripe, juicy tomatoes. The chains are able to get away with it because they try to go for the next to lowest possible common denominator (foodwise) without making it seem too obvious, and then tuning up their marketing and public relations people to package things in a way that makes it seem like you're getting your wallet's weight in gold.

I'm not sure what you can do to convert people who define value in purely economic terms as opposed to a mix of economic and aesthetic terms over to your side. I suppose one way you can do it is to introduce them, slowly but surely, to the finer points of eating and cooking. It might take months, sometimes years, but hopefully, eventually, you'll win out in the end.

But then again, you might be a more patient person than I.

On the other hand, the surge in chain restaurants could be a reaction to a nation of individuals who don't know how to cook, or for whom, cooking is an exercise in tedium, or perhaps, cooking as a thing to do -- not an act that one finds enjoyment or pleasure in doing. If that's the case, then we're on a worrisome path and more's the pity.

Anonymous said...

When you say that it's a common opinion that chain restaurants are safer, do you mean people think the kitchens are cleaner and the employees are more conscientious, or do you mean people are drawn to the familiar? Because it's never occurred to me that I would be less likely to get food poisoning at Applebee's than at the taquería down the street (huh, one more instance of me not thinking like normal people). I always figured the employees at a chain are more likely to be surly underpaid teens who hate their boss and the corporate management structure, and have no investment or pride in their restaurant -- and therefore more likely to spit in my food.

Anonymous said...

Hey GayProf, just wanted to add a bit of international fllavour to this debate (geddit?:)... I have visited the US (from Australia - where US food chains are not unkown) a couple of times now and, while there are many aspects to the US that I enjoy, general eating is not one of them. I've had amazingly beautiful food there but if I'm visiting for a conference or something where convenience is what I'm after, I have a lot of trouble.
Even when I go to the supermarket, I'm astonished at how the fat content of food products is highly promoted and in almost every case, where it's 'low fat', the sugar content is enourmous... but because it doesn't have so much fat, it's marketed as the healthy option.
After my third trip there, I was wondering how one avoided being obese if you lived there! - ok, so maybe that was an exaggeration but I was/am truly astonished at how easy it was to eat crap food and how hard it was to not!