Late in 2016, I discovered the podcast Doughboys - a program hosted by two L.A. comedy professionals (Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell) that surveys American chain restaurants - and I blasted through their catalogue-to-date, unaware of just how much it was affecting my life.
I began making every possible excuse to stop at my beloved Wendy’s for spicy chicken nuggets. And then I rediscovered Arby’s curly fries. And Arby’s mozzarella sticks. And KFC’s biscuits. And then I momentarily brushed aside my personal politics because Nick and Mitch talked so highly of Chick-fil-A (which conveniently just opened a location in my area). I sat in my car one Friday night, under the lights of the Target parking lot, eating Chick-fil-A chicken tenders and waffle fries, washing it down with a delightful chocolate milkshake. This was exactly one week after I, on an errand to fetch my partner cold medicine, found myself in a Hobby Lobby parking lot scarfing down fried chicken and a biscuit from an adjacent Popeye’s. At this point, it was starting to become a lifestyle.
In an effort to recommend Popeye’s to my friends, I told them about this moment, sitting in my car, parked near the back of Hobby Lobby’s parking lot to avoid looking ridiculous with my greasy fingers and face. And parroting my partner’s response after I eventually returned with her cold medicine, they told me something akin to, “That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”
But truthfully, I valued those moments in my car. Just me, my chicken and starch, and greasy fingers. And I’ll value them for the foreseeable future. Not because my life is so short on joy that I have to wring it out of eating fast food alone on a weekend night, but because I was really happy. I was connecting with this very simple food whose pleasure wasn’t contingent on intellectualization, but just pure, unadulterated indulgence.
And to intellectualize an experience that I enjoy specifically for its simplicity, these meals were acting as a paratext to the Doughboys podcast that had become a significant part of my pop culture consumption. I was able to take cues from Nick and Mitch, compare and reflect upon their thoughts and experiences. It was wonderful.
Within the podcast’s trajectory, the two hosts talk seriously about the health concerns that come with the premise of their show. After just a couple months of delving into making fast food a somewhat consistent part of my diet (I mean, more like a role player. Like a strong Lou Williams sixth man type, not like a star player.), I had to curb my impulse for the sake of maintaining my current status of health. But for anyone who would’ve chosen differently: I don’t blame you.
In order to expunge those impulses and to strike a healthier balance, I started countering my Doughboys programming with the exact opposite: Michael Pollan.
It’s interesting because Pollan, a renowned food scholar, speaks very disparagingly about the type of food that Doughboys celebrates. In Food Rules, he specifically says that if your food was delivered through your window, it’s not food. Many of his other rules, while articulating an organic, healthy lifestyle, act to dissuade people from eating things like fast food.
In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan says that eating fast food, or “industrial eating,” is troubling and sad because it eradicates the relationships we share with other animals and species when we eat food that has been better sourced. He goes on:
“To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal’s pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”
Obviously, I wasn’t expecting to find Pollan going easy on industrial agriculture, but I was finding significant gaps between my recent experiences eating fast food and what Pollan was preaching.
While I can’t disagree about the ethics of our industrial agricultural infrastructure, and I agree that we need to not ignore the dark side of readily available, inexpensive, hot food, Pollan’s stance struck me as narrow-minded and reductive - which, I know I wouldn’t be the first to hector Pollan for being dismissive or shortsighted about the ways many Americans eat.
There’s more to the consumer-fast food relationship than the negative effects of our environment and health. Additionally, for some, it would take much more than a simple understanding of industrial agriculture to change eating habits. It would take a lot more time and money. Plenty of people rely on fast food and processed, packaged foods to feed their family and themselves out of a lack of resources - often as a result of complex social and political constrictions. While Pollan's body of work is invaluable, he's often attired in serious cultural and social blinders.
[T]he pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. There are things in it that will ruin their appetites. But in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing.”
Again, Pollan seems to overstep some boundaries as a result of his unchecked privileged. He makes umbrella judgements about the ways that some people eat, as well as distinguishing acceptable pleasures from those that are not. This isn’t even an annoying, pretentious foodie stance; he levies a moral high ground that is both unfair and obnoxious. Who’s to say how we do or should find pleasure in our eating experiences?
One of the things that listening to Doughboys has made me think more deeply about is the cultural significance of fast food restaurants. Ultimately, yes, I would rather live the eating lifestyle that Pollan has spent his career advocating for, and there are a lot of benefits to be had from that (both personally and ecologically), but when talking about and striving for that way of life, different cultural and class dynamics should be acknowledged. Unfortunately, healthy, organic foods are not available to everyone.
And part of the joy in devouring fast food is delighting in something that is so widely available to consumers. It’s like watching the Oscars or the Superbowl and, as Benedict Anderson posited, imagining yourself in that moment as part of a larger community of people, all taking part in the same activity. Not only do fast food restaurants democratize dining out, but their ubiquity make for an availability of meals that can mean more to us than mere sustenance. It can be a package of nostalgia, memory, unity, commonality, deliciousness, and I’m sure much more. And I love Doughboys for celebrating these places, for mindfully acknowledging, alongside the dark side of fast food, that they can be meaningful beacons to consumers.