I’m teaching the book Fast Food Nation to my freshmen students. This week, I was trying to get them to think about the book’s stance on the role of government in the fast-food economy. Eyes glazed over. Only a few of my most-motivated students even cared about analyzing the radical political implications of the book they’re enjoying.
So I shifted to the book’s conclusion, where Eric Schlosser argues that, although more effective government would be ideal in the long-term, what actually works right now is consumer activism. I asked whether this book had changed the way they ate.
My students perked up, but they also threw the question back at me. Schlosser’s book is quite critical of fast-food ads targeting children, cleverly setting tastes of comfort-food for life. My students know I have a child, so they asked me: do I take her to eat fast food?
I don’t like to talk about myself much in class, but, since I am encouraging them to consider the politics of daily life, I will answer their questions. So I told them that I prefer to cook for myself or patronize small, independent restaurants like our local taco-place or coffee-shop. Jamba-juice is the only franchise food that Sophie knows. She knows it frighteningly well: she recognizes the logo, likes me to name the colors in that logo for her, throws a fit if we drive past the store without stopping — even though I don’t even notice the store, most of the time, in the jumble of franchises off El Camino Real. But I’m not sure that Jamba Juice counts, exactly, as fast food.
“Wait, hasn’t she ever had a hamburger?” one student asked.
I had to think about it. She might have had a bite of one, at some point, but it wouldn’t have been a fast-food hamburger. We don’t ban meat. We just don’t eat much of it, ourselves, and we haven’t had much success feeding it to her. I have heard this from other parents of two-year-olds, too, so I thought it was typical: meat is a funny texture, not immediately appealing to texture-picky toddlers. Sophie prefers softer foods like hummus, beans, tamales, hardboiled egg, occasionally fish, and tofu.
“You feed your daughter tofu!” My class was in an uproar now. They just kept repeating that line, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted them to explain what it meant, what it is that tofu symbolizes to them. Everyone was awake now, and shocked, and I think I am going to be hearing this for weeks: “You feed your daughter tofu!”
Is this really so unusual?
Personally, I think it’s more unusual that Sophie likes to eat very spicy foods, along with some bitter foods, like the liquid-yogurt drink that is kefir. It’s more embarassing that she likes to eat refried beans straight from the can (she thinks of them as the perfect temperature and texture). It’s more odd that she’s not yet a huge fan of peanut butter, raisins, peas, or cheerios — foods that I think of as childhood staples — although she is fanatic about plain pizza and organic mac and cheese. She also loves edamame, bananas, frozen mango, pasta salad, banana bread, most Indian food, all Mexican-American food, organic pears, and yogurt with wheat-germ. She’s actually got pretty good taste, in my opinion.
My students are mostly first-generation immigrants, living in car-dependent, Disney-idolizing northern Orange County. They did not grow up eating tofu. For the most part, they didn’t even grow up eating much whole food — they think that whole food means Trader Joe’s, where actually everything is packaged. For them, limiting their fast-food intake means eating at McDonalds less than 3 times a week.
Students who come to office-hours when I happen to be snacking are often obsessed with whatever I’m eating, because they have never before even seen a pomegranate, or even an odwalla bar. I, on the other hand, grew up in the kind of elite suburb where kids regularly brought pomegranates to elementary-school, while teachers admiringly told us Greek myths involving pomegranates.
I realize that I’m odd. I just didn’t realize how odd.
It’s a big responsibility, establishing whatever may become Sophie’s comfort foods for life.
After class, I was feeling so curious about this that I actually stopped at In’n’Out (the fast-food chain with the freshest food and best labor relations) and I got Sophie a hamburger (even though drive-throughs make me nervous; I’ve only ever been through a drive-through three times, and I’m always scared that I won’t know what to do.) Sophie ate one-quarter of the hamburger patty, meat only, no cheese or toppings or bun. What she really liked was the ketchup, which she ate plain, sucking it off her fingers. So then I made her some whole-wheat-pasta in cheesy-tomato-sauce topped with garbanzo-beans, and she gobbled that up.