Eric Schlosser is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He has received a number of journalistic honours, including a National Magazine Award in the US for an earlier version of Reefer Madness. His first book, Fast Food Nation, has been a bestseller in Britain, Japan and the United States (‘Schlosser could do for the fast food industry what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did for producers of pesticide’ The Times).
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness is back, this time with a play called Americans. Tackling the themes of patriotism, power and the allure of violence, it explores the American empire and the imprint it has left on the world. Here Eric tells us when he first wrote the play, his view on the USA and the playwrights that have most influenced him.
Why, when and where did you write Americans? I wrote Americans in 1985. I did most of the research while I was a grad student in England, then finished the play in the States. I'd been studying history, thinking a lot about why empires rise and fall. This story seemed like a good way to dramatize the origins of the American empire. Nobody wanted to produce the play, though. This was at the height of the Reagan era, and perhaps nobody wanted to deal with the fact that there was an 'American Empire'.
How do you feel about it finally being performed? At the moment it feels very gratifying. But I won't really know until I see the play being performed.
Why do you think the issues it discusses are relevant to the beginning of the 21st century? I thought the fundamental issues were relevant twenty years ago. But people just didn't want to confront them. Now that the United States has been attacked, now that we've conquered Iraq and are running it like an imperial outpost, the relevance of the subject matter seems more obvious.
How does Americans relate to the issues you explore in Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness?
In all these works I'm trying to explore how the USA came to be the way it is. I love my country - yet at the moment, in so many ways, the place is a mess.
What playwright has had a profound influence on you?
Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder - I think they're the greatest that America has produced. Seeing their plays made me want to write plays. Arthur Miller was particularly inspiring. I'm still amazed that at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts, he had the nerve to write The Crucible. That was a brave thing to do. I like writers who go against the tide.
Containing brand new material on the UK fast food industry - particularly relevant in the wake of foot and mouth disease - Fast Food Nation is the unpalatable story of the all-American meal as never told before. From the McDonald’s museum to the lab that recreates the smell of strawberries, to the abattoirs with some of the worst safety records in the world, Fast Food Nation is shocking, nauseating but compulsive reading. Here, Eric Schlosser uncovers the uncomfortable truth behind America’s biggest culinary, and cultural, export.
Whether the product is coffee, books, clothes, or food, chains are taking over independent businesses across the country and the world. What prompted you to focus on fast food?
The fast food industry is enormous - and enormously influential. The fast food chains demonstrated that you could create identical retail environments and sell the same products at thousands of different locations. The huge success of McDonald’s has spawned countless imitators. The founders of Gap later said they’d been inspired by McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The key to all these businesses is uniformity and conformity. So by looking at fast food I’m trying to explain how communities throughout the United States have lost a lot of their individuality over the past twenty years and have started to look exactly the same.
Why has the fast food industry grown so quickly around the world?
Fast food is popular because it’s convenient, it’s cheap, and it tastes good. But the real cost of eating fast food never appears on the menu. By that I mean the cost of the obesity epidemic fast food has helped to unleash, the social costs of having such a low-wage workforce, and the health costs of the new industrialised agriculture that supplies the big restaurant chains. In the UK, as with the rest of the world, much of fast food’s appeal stems from its Americanness. Like Hollywood movies, MTV and blue jeans, fast food has become one of America’s major cultural exports.
You have been quoted as saying that a cheeseburger and fries is one of your favourite meals. Since writing Fast Food Nation how can you still enjoy eating burgers? When was the last time you ate one?
Yes, a cheeseburger and fries is probably my favourite meal. But I don't eat ground beef anymore. I haven't eaten any in a few years, ever since my last visit to Conway's Red Top Restaurant in Colorado Springs. I'm not afraid of eating hamburgers, I don't think eating one is going to make me sick. I'm just angry at the sort of things that are winding up in ground beef. I'm angry that other people - mainly children - are going to be sickened by eating a hamburger.
Most children seem to put pressure on their parents to eat at fast food restaurants - do you ever let your kids eat fast food?
We used to take our kids out for Happy Meals every now and then. Once we learned more about this industry and its business practices, we stopped taking the kids to any of the big, mainstream fast food places. We don't let them eat ground beef - unless it's been cooked for hours, as in a pasta sauce. The kids complained at first, but now couldn't care less. It's amazing what sometimes happens when you just say ‘no’.
Has the publication of Fast Food Nation forced the fast food industry to change in anyway?
I can't take credit for any profound changes in this industry. McDonald's has acknowledged that they do in fact add beef to the fries in the States, which was important for vegetarians to know. Beyond that, I think the book's real impact hasn't been on the industry, but on the minds of some of its consumers. More people now know what they're eating - and some of the consequences.
You talk about the effects the fast food industry has had on farming. Can it be held responsible in any way for the recent catastrophes in British farming, for example BSE and Foot and Mouth disease?
I think BSE and the handling of the Foot and Mouth epidemic both stemmed from a fast food mentality, from a view of livestock as industrial commodities and from a close collaboration between corporate interests and government officials that ignored the public interest. The fast food industry has promoted centralized, industrialized agriculture for years, now we are paying the price.
How do fast food restaurants benefit from having ‘de-skilled’ workers and a high turnover of staff?
A reliance on cheap labour has been crucial to the fast food industry’s success. The chains have worked hard to ‘de-skill’ the jobs in their kitchens by imposing strict rules on how everything must be done, selling highly processed food that enters the restaurant already frozen or freeze-dried and easy to reheat, and relying on complex kitchen machinery to do as much of the work as possible. Instead of employing skilled short-order cooks, the chains try to employ unskilled workers who will do exactly as they’re told. The chains are willing to put up with turnover rates of 300 to 400 percent in order to keep their labour costs low. It doesn’t really matter to them who comes or goes, since this system treats all workers as though they’re interchangeable.
Was it difficult to get people involved in fast food, meatpacking, and farming to talk to you for the book?
The workers, farmers, and ranchers I met were eager to talk. They often feel cut out of the story, as though nobody in the media is really listening. A few executives were gracious with their time. The public relations people at McDonald’s, on the other hand, never replied to any of my questions.
When you were doing your research for the book, what surprised you the most?
I guess it was the far-reaching influence of this food that surprised me most. Because it’s something you never really think about. Fast food is everywhere; it seems so mundane and taken for granted. But it has changed what we eat, how we work, what our towns look like, and what we look like in the mirror. I was also amazed to learn that much of fast food’s taste is manufactured at a series of speciality chemical plants off the New Jersey Turnpike. Very strange, but true.
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