Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Fast-food outlets are cultural institutions dedicated not only to dealing swiftly with mankind's compulsion to eat and drink regularly, but also to doing battle with his twin and fatal limitations of space and time. The campaign is waged with weapons of the industrial and technological age; its driving force is our own particular and paradoxical blend of obsessive rationality and relaxed asceticism.
Fast foods are processed and sold by giant industrial complexes which control every detail of their operations, from the smallest ingredient to the carefully calculated appearance of every eating place. The goal is to give an impression of the omnipresence and invariability of McDonalds or Kentucky Fried.: travel as far as you like, and it will always be as though you were still at home, in the arms of the parent company. Space loses its ancient association with change and surprise. You can without difficulty seek out the identical ambience, the very same taste you knew and liked before you set out.
Those parent companies are called "chains." When you travel (and mobility is another of our cultural institutions), they provide links which render your route as predictable and secure, as protective and as limiting as swaddling bands. It is no accident that both the kind of food they sell and their marketing methods make a direct appeal to the infantile in all of us. "Chains" stretch out along the highways, where they supply food as efficiently and as swiftly as gas from a fuel pump. They also, by means of their repetitiveness, bind and homogenize city neighbourhoods. They supply in large measure modern man's apparent need to obliterate the difference between "this place" and "that", and "then."
Uniformity, as every chain retailer is aware, makes good economic sense. Mass sales and ease of packaging and handling merchandise demand predictability-standard quality being , in the end, only one aspect of the sameness required. Everybody gets the same list of choices, everywhere, unless élitist notions, such as distaste for sweetness or demands for the personal touch, intrude. The aim is to please most people, and not to truckle to the difficult or pretentious few. The tastes of children are catered to especially. Grown-ups simple eat-and enjoy-what their children like. Abundant wrappings and boxes proclaim technologically perfected hygiene and simultaneously suggest a child's party with presents. Taste blandness also flattens to differences among adults: there is no strong "weird" flavors creating exclusive group preferences and societal distinctions.
speed of service not only attacks the time limitation, it forestalls an increasingly widespread incapacity to be kept waiting, even if waiting might be a prerequisite for superior food. Speed also helps make certain that hierarchal formality cannot arise. Formality stratifies by organizing space and relationship, and to do this it takes time. It is true that we are "served" from behind a counter, and that the preparation and "further processing" which any single food item has undergone is achieved only through the expertise of an army of scientists and marketing agents and the toil of a host of machine operators-but we never see any of this. We witness only the swiftly and smartly performed final step as the food is handed to us, cartoned and wrapped, crumbled and sandwiched. There is no involvement with the personel of the restaurant/ Everything is impersonal; the very language used in ordering and serving may be pre-learned, almost ritualized. The method prevents time wasting and possibly complex exchanges, and irrelevant chat. It is all so honed-down, rational, ad predictable that it is difficult to imagine how we could further mechanize the process.
Margeret Visser, MUCH DEPENDS ON DINNER