Culture At Large

In defense of fast food

Tamara Hill Murphy

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?
Food is not the enemy, fast food or otherwise. Food is the gift.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends