In defense of fast food

Fast food gets a bad rap.

Saying so will probably not win any popularity contests, but some of my best memories take place in the cold pleather of a McDonald’s booth. I’m old enough to remember the first Happy Meals. As one of six children, I began learning the pride of ownership micro-packed into the little box right alongside the hamburger, fries, small drink and cute little box of crayons. A few months ago, I took my nephews, ages 3 and 6, to McDonald’s to give their pregnant mother a much-needed rest. There really was no contest about where to go for lunch. During the car ride, the young men discussed the current Happy Meal toy offerings and debated their chances of winning their most coveted version. 

Certainly, when we’re discussing nutritional value alone we might scold the kitchen of the Golden Arches, but we often scold with one side of our mouth and shove a wad of fries in the other. With over one billion burgers sold, at least a few of us must be guilty of hypocrisy.

In February, my husband met a few of the burger consumers in a dump community in Guatemala City. About 11,000 people, including families and whole neighborhoods, make their living scavenging the waste of the city’s millions of citizens. In an industry where the top competition is not new upstarts or advances in technology, but massive black vultures swooping over the day’s pickings, I imagined the food options might be rotten vegetables or sandwich remains from a thriving kitchen uphill. We were surprised and slightly repulsed to discover that a cheerful McDonald’s truck drove through the ramshackle neighborhoods each day to serve up hot food in exchange for a large percentage of the consumer’s meager earnings. Considering that hardly anyone else bothers to visit the dump except for the McDonald’s food truck and the mission my husband was serving that week, Potter’s House, we began to question our response. Really, when we thought about the options available to the hungry families, we began to wonder if maybe one or two of those billion hamburgers is a godsend.

The chefly priest, Robert Farrar Capon, preaches this admonition to our pretentious stomachs in The Supper of the Lamb:

Food these days is often identified as the enemy. Butter, salt, sugar, eggs are all out to get you. And yet at our best we know better. Butter is … well, butter: it glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together, you get not sudden death, but Hollandaise - which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip, or a Bach fugue. Food, like all the other triumphs of human nature, is evidence of civilization - of that priestly gift by which we lift the whole world into the exchanges of the Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it become.

Food is not the enemy, fast food or otherwise. Food is the gift. Food has been used, abused and withheld from the beginning of time in rebellion against the Founder of the Feast. McDonald’s is not the enemy. Not really. The enemy is misuse. We misuse the gift of food when we let the fickle whims of our stomachs be our god. We risk hypocrisy when we focus all our indignant rhetoric on the moveable target of the politically correct, digestive public enemies.

From the beginning, among the bounty of the Garden of Eden, the misuse of food launched the entire universe into broken chaos. You might even say that was the first fast-food counter in civilization. Grabbing at food without concern for consequences is, indeed, one of the symptoms that causes us to ignore the warning labels on that triple-stack burger bundled in recycled paper and handed to us through the pick-up window by an underpaid fellow citizen. The food we eat alone with one hand on the steering wheel or the remote control, separated from the experience of feasting with friends and neighbors, might be very like the hidden bites Adam and Eve swallowed behind God’s back.

We could argue, on the other hand, that Eve knew the consequences of her food choice, but misused the gift of food by determining to know more than the Creator of her meals - that there was an undiscovered secret to knowing more and her food choice was the pathway to all knowledge. She made her stomach her god. 

Both types of misuse - the gobbling over-consumption and the self-prescribed food fetishizing - result in separating us from the God-imagined communal feast. Both keep us from the sacramental act of enjoying meals together, Eucharistic or otherwise. When our feasts become so individualized they can’t even share the same cooking pot or market aisle, perhaps it’s time to let up a bit on the homogenized fast-food counters. 

My nephews understood the giftness of a meal together. The children living in Guatemala’s city dump gather around lunch tables every day at Potter’s House because they understand the giftness of a meal together. We join them in the purity of delight found in eating meals together when we keep the gift of food in its rightful place. We are joined at the table by the Gift-Giver and, to echo Capon, look forward with him to the meal together in that “Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it become.”

What Do You Think?

  • What is the proper place of fast food?
  • Do you consider food a “priestly gift?”
  • How is what you eat a reflection of what you believe?

 

Comments (6)

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If I'm understanding correctly, you are saying that fast food, or any food for that matter, should not be criticized as long as the people eating it recognize its sacramental value?

If that is the case, doesn't this ignore the sacramental value of the food's production? Or does food only take on sacramental value when it is consumed? I criticize fast food because it is built upon a production of food that denies its sacramental value. I can only think of one exception and it's not McDonald's; it's Chipotle.

I can appreciate that a McDonald's truck is handing out hamburgers to extremely impoverished and hungry people in Guatemala. Bravo McDonalds. But again, hasn't the cheap food industry that McDonalds epitomizes contributed to their poverty in the first place? Maybe, maybe not, but it's a question that should be asked.

I agree that misuse of food, and not food itself, is the enemy. However, I guess I'm just missing the connection between that and a defense of fast food. To me, fast food epitomizes misuse.
I agree with Joe that fast food is a key abuser in the misuse of food category. They produce food in such large quantities only to leave burgers and fries out for hours to be thrown away because they are no longer worthy of our stomachs. We should be so lucky.

Food, geneally speaking is not the enemy. We are the enemy becasue we misuse the food, and choose to eat wrong food or consume far too much of it.

Your article seems to advocate that fast food and other types of food are ok, which is also not true. In certain quantities some food such as butter and salt are ok but if you over do it and then say oh its gift, then you're not being very wise about your consumption.

I applaud McDonald's for its generosity and giving spirit, however it begs the question, is feeding a needy family big macs all the time the best thing for them, I believe there are other options that McDonald's could exercise but given I also believe that God is providing in that way. So I wouldn't say McDonald's is wrong or should stop but that is not making the wisest decision in helping those people.

You're article also seems to talk about how eating together in community is what we should strive for over grabbing a burger at the drive thru which I agree on but I'm missing that connection with the rest of article.

In your original article you left a comment saying that you believe we should spend more time on moderation of all things instead of demonizing companies. In my mind is a justice issue and when any company creates an injustice, such as McDonald's serving food it openly knows is not the healthiest option, although it makes data available, and makes little attempt for its consumers to truly understand what they are eating, then we have a right and obligation to rectify that injustice. McDonald's is not the only culprit.
Should we moderate what we consume, absolutely, its not all the fault of the companies that create the food but until the consumer is educated enough to effect change through its buying power we have a responsibility to bring justice to the situation.

But ultimately, if all I had to eat was McDonald's I would happily thank God for providing for me and would enjoy that food with my friends and family.

Honestly, I think we as costumers carry the responsibility. If you don't like the food McDonald's serves, don't eat it. They won't make it, if no one buys it. I enjoy going there every once in a while with my daughter, specially where they have playlands. I don't really want my child eating her meals there because I think there is a lack of nutritional value in them. But we go for special treats, like ice cream, the yogurt parfait, or apples with caramel dip. On special occasions I buy her the toy to enjoy instead of buying the whole happy meal. Although, there is times (not at McDonald's) but I allow my child to eat a less then healthy meal, just for fun! I feel like teaching my daughter balance in her diet is enough. I would much rather spend time teaching her and placing a higher importance on sharing Christ's love, then how to have a perfect diet. When I look at the word of God I don't see this as a huge issue, therefore I try to not make it one for me and my family. Thanks for sharing with us Tamara!
Before I forget to say it, thanks for using the word pleather. After millions of words, it made me smile to see this one for perhaps the first time in "print". For a design professional, the qualitative irony here in the context of the subject is just plain fun. On that note, I applaud your poetic style, having enjoyed all the imagery, humor and heart on display through the remainder of your piece. For me, your quality writing makes your voice for Good louder and more effective.
I agree that fast food is not the enemy. I'm interested in your argument against the misuse of food, especially those moments eating alone in the garden under a shadow of guilt. You seem to identify the problem as, in other words, "partaking in an unworthy manner without regard to all others at the table". I hear you saying that the best way to solve the problem, if there is one with food, is to love others as yourself, even when you're alone at night in front of the fridge. Whether it's taking the nephews to McDonalds or growing organic vegetables on a roof, love is indeed a wonderful thing. -- May we ALL get fat together on Love! ALL at one big table.
But let me digress, the tyrannical judge in me suspects darkly that McDonalds Corp might even make a profit from that little truck. Ouch, I must be a terrible grouch! Anyway, I suppose that on the other hand the Guatemalan truck idea came from somebody with a benevolent heart inside this loveless profit-worshipping system, who searches out creative ways to do good. And that person is probably someone a lot like you and me, more than a little frustrated with a world of injustice and oppression, doing the best they can for everyone around them.
I believe the Gift-Giver is designing His own system that is not oppressive, in preparation for a major takeover of loveless systems. -- And some of His teenage children are probably working at McDonalds in the meantime getting some training for the 5-star customer service that new system will someday provide. Thanks for raising my focus to higher goals than fighting against McDonalds and fast food with this insightful article.
When my kids were little fast food was a convenient, affordable place to get together after soccer practice or before Wednesday night church activities. Instead of cooking parents actually had conversations while the kids burned off most of what they ate on the playground. For us it wasn't the food, it was the together. We would just as happily have gathered at Whole Foods if we'd had the money and they'd had the playground.
Thank you all for joining this conversation around my raggedy words, perhaps the most raggedy found in the title of the article. I used the word "defense" in the title quite loosely as I in no way see myself a defender of fast food as an industry or a food source. I merely wanted to provoke some thought about the extremes we tend toward when it comes to our opinions about food and to encourage us to thoughtfully avoid either extreme (self-serving gluttons or self-righteous legalists). Both extremes keep us from receiving the true giftness of food which I believe is discovered in shared moderation. When we get stuck living in the extremes -- becoming too easily scandalized by other people's food choices -- on either end of the spectrum we separate ourselves from enjoying meals together (whether, for example, it be in a Guatemalan dump over a cheeseburger or with a tasty bowl of lentils at a vegan cafe)>

Grace and peace of Christ to us all,
Tamara

 

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