Fast-food nation


“Where can you grab a sandwich around here?”

That’s what you do with sandwiches — grab ‘em. In the morning you grab a cup of coffee, at noon you grab some lunch, and later you grab something on the way home from work.

We’re a fast-food nation, all right. We eat breakfast in the car, lunch at our desks, supper at . . . hey, who’s got time for supper?

Several years ago the University of Minnesota’s Campus Club was on the verge of closing. Created in 1911 as a place for male faculty members to gather for food and fellowship, the Campus Club eventually opened its doors to female faculty. Despite that expansion, by the 1990s membership was languishing and administrators were contemplating extending membership to staff and students, which they eventually did.

A Minnesota Daily article at the time quoted a faculty member who was on the verge of retirement. “The Campus Club is failing because no one eats lunch anymore,” she said. “When I came here, colleagues ate together. No more. Now when I knock on someone’s office door at noon, he or she says, ‘Sorry, I’m awfully busy.’”

There are contrarians, to be sure. In 1986, journalist Carlo Petrini founded the International Slow Food Movement, which now claims over 80,000 members in 100 countries. That organization promotes agricultural biodiversity and opposes the “standardization of taste.” It “protects cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguards foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition, and defends domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.”

This and other critiques of the “fast food industry” usually focus on the second and third words of that locution. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation shined a light on factory farms, slaughterhouses, meatpacking facilities, food safety and the like. What’s happening to our food? Schlosser asked — how it’s grown, processed, marketed.

But one could also ask, What’s happening to our lives? Why is modern life increasingly a conspiracy against contemplation, against savoring, against taking one’s time? Why must food, along with everything else, be fast?

At workplaces where employees punch a clock, the standard lunch break is a half-hour. Junior and senior high school students get 25 minutes. If you have to stop at your locker, stand in line to get your food, and make it to your next class on time, you might have 15 minutes to eat.

Unlike our ancestors, we need not hunt and gather. The biological imperative to eat can be fulfilled with comparatively little time. It can be, but should it?

Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last.