27 April 2010

Let the Big Dog Eat.

Another college paper, this one for Core Humanities.  Stuff like this is apparently why that teacher thinks I'm in the wrong racket and should be writing for a living---of this one he said "Excellent, intelligent, and irreverent.  100%, A."  Enjoy!

Art/Technology/Great Inventions Paper: American Food Or: Getting Fat On Four Dollars a Day
    If one is to major in the humanities, one must be well prepared to say “do you want fries with that?” at his job after completing his education. However, have we ever stopped to think about just what a great invention the fast-food restaurant truly is? Or the ability of a single modern factory to put out more food in a day than pre-industrial societies put out in a year of trying to feed their own citizens? How about the fact that not only is fast food efficient but so varied that one could eat it every day for a year and never eat the same dish twice? Efficient, varied, industrious...only in America could this sort of technology be invented, and if one were to create a catchphrase for our national character, “the eagle wants a cheeseburger” seems good enough for me.
    Mind you, America is famous for this sort of grand-scale thinking. In the early 1800s DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York, took a look at the river system that runs from the St. Lawrence in Canada via the Great Lakes and the Mississippi to New Orleans and thought “nature? Pah. I say we cut a river of our own and siphon off the business to New York City”, thus setting into motion a distinctly New York attitude toward business last seen on the popular television show The Sopranos.
    When the time came to expand westward, it took all of about three shots, one by commerce, one by diplomacy, and one by shooting Mexicans (three solidly American pastimes even to this day) to get the Louisiana Purchase, the Oregon Territory, and the Southwest and go from sea to shining sea. One must go back to the Roman Empire, a sovereign nation that greatly influenced America, to find similar designs on territory, and even at its greatest extent the Roman territory would fit comfortably into America's borders.
    So what happens when a nation with a love of grandeur and a devil-may-care attitude toward consequence gets hungry? What happens when the exuberance of a victorious war meets a capitalist's desire to sell more food to more people in less time? Fast food and industrial processing happens, that's what. We are not a nation of arugula-munching latte-sipping pansies. We are cheeseburger-grilling, beer-swilling, and to understand that is to understand America.
    So where does one begin when describing an industrial enterprise in a humanities class? After all, this is a matter of aesthetics, not marketing. One can mention American art and think of a bunch of dull paintings hanging in museums and viewed by the arugula-munching Starbucks customers mentioned in the previous paragraph...and one can in the process completely miss the point. Art in America is pop art. It is Warhol's Campbell's Soup can, it is advertising for McDonald's and Burger King and the kind of stuff shoveled out by the very sorts of people who have taken our aesthetic sense and thought “screw high art, you can get a whole chicken cut up, fried, put into a paper bucket, and sold by a stylized version of the most recognizable icon ever to come out of Kentucky.”
    To see that sort of food production in action is to see a beautiful symphony take shape. It is choreographed by machine rather than man. It is impersonal and could probably run without a human soul in the building as Raymond Scott's “Powerhouse” played as background music like in the cartoons. The fill nozzles at Coca-Cola dispensing twenty ounces at a time of iconic refreshment, the automated cookers at the Frito-Lay factory, and the extruders at the Oscar Mayer meat company creating hot dogs all coming together to produce hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of meals for frat boys at 7-Eleven...I contend that it is an art worthy of Michael Flatley and friends doing the Riverdance and far less annoying to the ears.
    And the distribution, oh, the distribution! What good is a bunch of crates at a factory if there is no means to get them in the hands of the customer? There is an entire genre of country music (another uniquely American art form) devoted to just such a tribute to the supply chain. It takes ingenuity. It takes American ingenuity.
    But enough prattling on like an arthouse snob. My point is that what we take for granted every day in our supermarkets is distinctly American. This is the same country that provided the world with the cotton gin, the Erie Canal, the ironclad ship, the submarine, the light bulb, the assembly line, and every other innovation that is part and parcel of a history class in an American school. We are a nation of innovators, great thinkers, and people who aim to make life better in ways that are as practical as any culture in the world. We make stuff to make life easier and better and we then find ways to make sure everybody gets as big a piece as they can afford.
    Contrast with something like the Soviet Union's command economy. It has been estimated that 40% of the agricultural production of the Russians during the Cold War was lost to spoilage, inefficient means of processing, and just plain poor planning. You would never see that in America. McDonald's knows how many burgers it is going to sell. Pillsbury has ensured that grain spoilage is all but a total thing of the past by creating long-lasting durable flours that can be stored in silos for as long as anyone cares to, and companies like Kellogg's make those flours into tasty breakfast cereals that are topped by milk made possible by America's dairymen.
    When one stops to consider that 13,000 years of civilization went by before food security was achieved with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and it took all of maybe a century to go from food security to two thirds of us needing to lose a few pounds, by the gods, it makes one wonder “is this not the greatest achievement in the history of civilization?”
    It may seem absurd to write a paper on a great American invention and think fast food and processed food. But food is the first prerequisite for civilization. When those intrepid Sumerians decided that hunting and gathering was a bit too erratic for their tastes, when someone figured out that instead of eating the biggest wild seeds perhaps burying them in the ground for six whole months would create more food (and how must he have convinced his hungry fellow tribesmen of that little con?), thus did humanity make the advance that pulled us out of three million years of being glorified apes. When someone took that basic human need and applied Yankee ingenuity to it, that is the very essence of American capitalism, an invention distilled down to its greatest essence.
    To analyze the cultural context of food mechanization and put it in the milieu of the other inventions of this country is to understand that sometimes the greatest ideas are the ones we take for granted.
    But I would be remiss if I did not put my personal spin on this. As I write this, the trash can next to my desk holds testament to the inspiration for this paper. Three tacos, nachos, and a quart of Coca-Cola set me back $5.55 at Del Taco including Washoe County's onerous sales tax and fed me for the entire day. As a single guy living alone, working, and going to school full-time, I rely very heavily on those sorts of foods to sustain me (such as it is until I die of a massive heart attack from too much fast food.) When the subject of a great American invention came up as an assignment, the adage of “write what you know” drove my selection of subject.
    Take 300 million Americans, multiply that by the 2,400 calories consumed on average by every man, woman, and child in the country every single day, and consider that it would take over a pound of grain to equal 2,400 food calories. That's 400 million pounds of grain, not even considering just how much feed it takes to feed the animals that provide the food energy for America's much more meat-rich diet than any diet in the history of human agricultural settlement. And that's just one day's worth of consumption.
     Yet 2,400 calories worth of food can be easily procured for less than an hour's wage even at a lousy job. A pound and a half of spaghetti will do it at a cost of a buck fifty, less if you hit Costco and stock up. For love of Ceres, that's absolutely incredible! So efficient is America's food production that I can go to a trailer park in Sun Valley with a forklift, drag some 500-pound heifer of a woman away from her booze and soap operas, and point to her and say she is in poverty! Somewhere in the Third World there is a starving peasant who would kill to weigh 500 pounds and sit on her ass all day!
    You can have your Erie Canal. You can have your railroads, your Ford Model Ts, your incandescent light bulbs. I'm typing this in the dark. But by the gods, America didn't just solve a dilemma that plagued humanity for three thousand millennia. We beat that problem into a pulp and came out the other side with a whole different problem. America feeds the world and overfeeds itself. I think that's worth five pieces of paper, some ink, and a staple to spend 1,600 words describing.

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