Friday, May 7, 2010

Foul Things I Have Eaten

My stepmother's shock at what my father usually ate during a regular week probably owed more to her background in health care than to anything uniquely revolting in my dad's refrigerator. He worked twelve-hour days, took business lunches and was too exhausted at night to do much more than eat takeaway. The first sweeping change she visited upon the house was to clean out all the junk foods from the cupboards and insist on salads and tasty but balanced entrees.

I looked on in something like horror. I didn't especially get along with my dad, but the thing time with him had going for it was shooting pool in the living room while eating giant pizzas with the works, watching grown-up movies on the couch while eating chinese from the carton or going out to the Mexican restaurant that made a "Super Burrito" that hung off the end of already oversized plates like a dead lamprey.

I found out years later that my stepmother, who is an extremely good woman, bought probably a half a dozen of those "How to Relate to a Stepchild" and "You Are Not a Wicked Stepmother!" books on her own initiative as soon as she and my father got engaged — something that makes me feel guilty whenever I think about it, because at no point did it occur to me to go ask someone at a bookstore for something like, How Not to Be a Dickhead to Your Stepmother. At any moment, she was expecting the big resentful tantrum or the calm private fuck-you comment that she was replaceable, some Janey-come-lately who would never mean anything. You can imagine, then, the creeping sense of danger, of a big freighted moment, when she drove me around town, alone, for the first time, and out of the blue, I said to her:
ME: I know things are going to change when you and my dad get married.
HER: What makes you say that?
ME: Well, you know how you're a nurse and everything?
HER: Uh, yeah?
ME: And you're really into health food and eating healthy?
HER: Yeah...
ME: And you got my dad and me to stop eating so much fast food and stuff?
HER: Yeah.
ME: Well, when you're married... do you think we could still sometimes go to Kentucky Fried Chicken?
HER: (bafflement)
Here's the thing: I didn't even like KFC that much. I mean, I liked it, but I also liked Wendy's, Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell. If it was fast food and not actually rotting, I ate it, because I was a kid. This is what kids do. They also tend to throw up a lot, so maybe there's a corollary. I mentioned KFC probably because it's what came to mind. But I had no slavish allegiance to it, nor to fast food, really. I still don't. I don't think I ate KFC once while in college.

For me, fast food's primary appeal has always been less about anything epicurean and far more about time efficiency. Yeah, as a kid, I gorged on crap I wouldn't eat now. But by seven, I was cooking meals for myself, and within a year or two I had my own ethnic menu I could cook. When asked where I wanted to go for dinner on my tenth birthday, I picked a French restaurant. If I'd had to name the best meal I could have on any given day, I'd have picked a grilled New York Strip with mushrooms and mashed potatoes. This is what happens to only children, latchkey kids from early on, with only one parent around: they go weird. You just have to take this in stride and hope that the weirdness doesn't eventually assume the form of a fascination with weaponry or gasoline.

Anyhow, I mention this biography, Mobutu Sese Seko: Early Lamewad, to prove my bona fides as a person who has dined on foul things. Granted, as the years have passed and my visits to Burger King and McDonald's and virtually every other fast food joint have plummeted, I've gone to KFC about as often as ever. Part of that stems from rediscovering how good Original Recipe is, after years of eating only Extra Crispy, but mainly I think it's because KFC serves a product that, in comparison to burger joints (Five Guys excepted), is significantly less disgusting. If nothing else, chicken fried by Kentucky Fried Chicken bears an uncanny resemblance to actual fried chicken, while the mashed forlorn grease strata of a Burger King burger simply looks like nothing else you'd eat, except other fast-food burgers.

But while I might know KFC, I come not to praise its latest product. I come not to bury it either. It is, unequivocally, a thing, but it's not really a bad thing. I am sure you know what I'm talking about: the Double Down, two pieces of bacon, two kinds of cheese and the "Colonel's" secret sauce, sandwiched between two grilled or fried chicken breasts. It is gross. In spite of all that, it doesn't deserve the treatment it's received.

First off, it might not be nearly so lethal as described. Nate Silver, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and the unofficial crush of Obama fans during the 2008 election, provides a good breakdown of its nutritional contents here. Silver creates an unofficial "Gluttony Index" accounting for several factors when comparing different fast food offerings. For the purposes of his column, his standard measure is the DD, for the Double Down. He notes:
Double Down is indeed quite unhealthy, but some other sandwiches are just as bad. The Burger King Chicken Tendercrisp (1.00 DDs), which has less cholesterol but more fat and sodium, is comparably unhealthy to the Double Down on balance. The chicken ranch sandwiches from Sonic (0.94 DDs) and Jack-in-the-Box (0.98 DDs) are close. And surprisingly, some sandwiches from "fast casual" restaurants that have a reputation for healthy food do even worse. Panera's Chipotle Chicken checks in at 1.49 DD's -- it has almost 50 percent more bad stuff than the Double Down -- and Boston Market's Chicken Carver at 1.14. So do some products that stretch the definition of "sandwich". A chicken burrito from Chipotle with rice, black beans, cheese and corn salsa will cost you 1.16 Double Downs: load it up with sour cream, guacamole, and picante salsa as well and you're up to 1.69. A pack of five McDonald's Chicken Selects with a side of ranch sauce is worth 1.23 Double Downs.
However, he goes on to note that, for all that mess in the Double Down, you're getting substantially fewer calories than some of the worse offerings. As such, when you account for the energy it provides you vis-à-vis all the crud, it actually comes out worse than some of those burgers. Its utility thus depends on whether it fills you up. While it might contain less crud than a Baconator, it might also send you snacking earlier, which means that its per-calorie toxicity doesn't have as much value. It's probably best you just read his article.

That said, there's one big issue that a lot of mocking commentary seemed to omit: how it actually tastes, what's on it, what that makes you feel. This is the prime opportunity to attack it, and it seems really misguided that a lot of people chose not to bother. Because the biggest downside to the Double Down is that it provides nothing you can't get from other parts of the KFC menu in less lethal form. Its basic flavor is breaded chicken breast. You like KFC; you like KFC's original recipe or popcorn chicken or chicken strips — what have you — and this is the same thing. For a comparable amount of money, you can get a one-piece meal, a biscuit and a side order of something, without all the extra garbage.

That extra garbage makes for a worthy target, too. Nobody has ever made a good strip of bacon for fast food, and KFC certainly hasn't broken this pattern. Worse, I have no idea what cheeses were on it, except that they were heated somewhere between room temperature and actually melting, leaving them in that strange state where they still congealed like cheese but started to denature into something oiled. As for the sauce, God help me if I could tell you what it was. It wasn't especially great, but it wasn't especially bad. It just existed between the chicken. Personally, I question the wisdom of naming any food-covering liquid after a man who's been dead since 1980. I don't want "Colonel's Sauce." I just start thinking about embalming fluid.

The one thing that stood out as singularly bad was the sodium in it. I don't know if I was dehydrated before I ate mine; I seem to remember that I might have had some sunflower seeds earlier. Regardless, I started to get the feeling like I could feel my blood being sluggish. My extremities felt fat. If I were a girl, and it were prom night, I would not have fit into my shoes. I suppose I was retaining water or something. The KFC Double Down gave me the most feminine experience of my life, except for the time I had 17 gentlemen callers.

Yet despite this, I'd eat it again. I'd make sure I drank some extra water with it and didn't have it after doing yard work on a hot day — in the same way I would a stacked corned-beef sandwich — because it's not bad. It's not great, but okay. That's fast food. Will I order it again? Probably not. Everything that's enjoyable about it is available elsewhere on the KFC menu in less adulterated form. But, hey, if you get an extra in your to-go bag, I'll take it. I like free stuff. Even though it made me feel weird, wasn't an outstanding flavor experience and probably isn't something I'd seek out, I'll eat it.

So what then accounts for the almost uniform media derision for it?

There's a peculiarity to American fast food writing, in that almost everyone non-professional protests too much. Nutritionists and other culinary scientists tend to write with clinical appreciation, secure in having a fundamental approach to the topic. Food critics seem to have a sense of assurance from their credentials that prevents them from engaging in much beyond their brief: flavor, texture, satisfaction. These are people who work with food, who have jobs in food. The very idea of being surprised or outraged or scandalized by it is the sort of thing that occurs to someone who's not prepared to be serious about the field. It would be like someone in the Library of Congress being shocked that a book with bad words in it were stored there.

Something peculiar happens with those bereft of credentials, though; they start to approach the zeal of prohibitionists. Ask a neurologist about MDMA, and you'll probably get a clinical whatever reply. Ask a head shop owner, and you'll probably get the same kind of reply, except in terms of the high and how you'll feel the next day. Ask a PTA mother about it, and she'll probably start shrieking about melting holes in your brain. You could see this same phenomenon on display a few years ago with Wendy's revolting Baconator sandwich, a soaring Jenga-like stack of beef, cheese and bacon. Every lay food critic writing for a lay audience seemed to feel compelled to try really hard to convince you it was gross.

The results were mostly laughable, though not intentionally so. Somehow these people managed to fuck up being funny about a lethal agglutination of pork fat, beef fat and dairy fat served on a sugary bun and appended with a suffix most familiar to us from a movie about a futuristic robot that murders people. If brevity is the soul of wit, someone could have written a column that was just three panels of pictures:
1. High-resolution close-up shot of the Baconator, glistening.
2. High-resolution close-up shot of someone putting the Baconator in an oversized olive press and squeezing.
3. High-resolution close-up shot of all the fluid that came out of the Baconator, collected in a painter's bucket.
If the aim were to get people to never eat it again or even once, they'd have needed the same depth of communication you get out of Garfield. This wasn't a task calling for a great deal of effort. It's anyone's guess why writers and cultural mavens feel it their duty to make these kinds of comments. Personally, I suspect people are very worried about being mistaken for someone who is ugly.

Since the late 1970s, the U.S. has borne witness to an increasingly judgmental and fanatic concern with body image. That our national fever for exercise has been matched by the fattening of us all hasn't occasioned much handwringing about our approach, but self-reflection is one of those time-wasting luxuries only allowed to people who aren't already late for spinning class. Whatever the flaws in our calisthenic religion, an unmistakable side effect has been the impression that those who eat fast food are slovenly, lazy and/or obese, and that all these conditions have a shared precursor: ignorance. You have to be stupid to eat fast food, and like all good stupid people, you look unpleasant as a biological signal to the world that says, "Yo, I'm stupid. Don't breed here."

Thus I think it behooves a lot of feature writers and talk show hosts to greet every new fast food product with derision and dismay. It's a nice cultural shorthand that says, "My body is taken care of, and I'm a smart cookie." The fact that the obverse works so easily probably lends credence to the value of this kind of approach. Think about it: you don't know me, and here I am defending fast food. I write on the internet. The easiest image to conjure of me is of some bloating light-allergic basement gastropod subsisting on Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel, SlimJims and anything that can be delivered to my door by a teenager. I can say that I'm 6'1", slim and wear the same size pants I did at 20, talk about my regular diet and casually mention that I'm awesome, but there's still the stigma of defending fast food.

There is another possible explanation that might be at work here. Public figures, talk show hosts, mainstream journalists, etc., fear being castigated for promoting unhealthy food that appeals to children. After all, kids eat junk. Now, I'm not sure why kids would be reading the feature section of the local newspaper, watching Good Morning America or reading Slate or Salon, but I suppose some people might be afraid of losing readers/viewers because they were accused of promoting Fat: or, The Bloating of America.

However, that explanation doesn't account for the magnitude of voluntary amateur writing vilifying some small wad of fried chicken and gooey stuff. I saw so many links posted on Twitter that I lost count, but recreational blogger after recreational blogger tried to pick the low-hanging fruit that is condemning fast food for being yucky. Powerful stuff. I remember one thousand-word offering was little more than an artful repetition and exploration of the same conceit, written differently with each graf, but all returning to one theme:
Hello, we are the scientists at KFC. We have figured out that you're all fat stupid fucks who will put anything in your gorge. We figured this out long ago, so each thing we make is more stupid fat for you fat fucks who are dumb. You are so stupid. You eat such stupid shit. I can't believe how stupid you are, Fat Stupid. Eat some more stupid fat.
This, of course, is stupid. There's a really basic reason why the KFC Double Down was made the way it was: someone designed it to appeal to billions of people. In fact, there's a pretty basic reason why billions of people eat fast food, and that's because they find it enjoyable. The fact that billions of people eat and enjoy it doesn't automatically make it good, but it does mean that it succeeds in being satisfying to its customers in some way. They may know it's not great, but it serves its purpose.

This is an impulse we recognize in countless other aspects of life. We don't balk at the sight of a literature professor reading a potboiler mystery. If we meet an architect who is doing something recreational in an ugly building, we don't think, "This guy must be a really shitty architect." I'm pretty sure video game designers still break out the Atari 2600 and play Joust, just as I'm sure a baseball fan watching a Royals/Pirates game — despite being a fan of neither team — probably still knows what really good baseball looks like. I might think that New York Strip steak is the best food I could have, but my failure to have it three times per day isn't owed to some fundamental idiocy on my part but to a multitude of factors that include cost, convenience and liking other foods of varying quality.

Vilifying the Double Down doesn't provide a social service unless you operate from the assumption that the people reading your polemic not only fail to vary from a specific diet demographic but also that they wouldn't without your intervention. It's the emptiest sort of cheap-shot paternalism. It warns the moronic villagers not to touch the poison food wad without explaining what to do instead. Worse, the elders just show up one day, assuming patterns of behavior — as if all the villagers had formed a circle around the KFC and began slaveringly to converge upon it — damning routine behavior that might be anomalous, taking the small sample size of their own imagination before disappearing off to some hill redoubt until the next gnomic flash of wisdom strikes them. It's enough to make you read Genesis and mutter "right on" when Eve first bites the apple.