Sunday, November 28, 2010

Embarrassed at McDonald’s

The Greasy-Eyed, Sheepish Apology usually goes something like this: “Oh, I just picked something up at McDicks.”101109_happy_meal.grid-6x2
Allen Shelton noticed that when his fellow professors admitted to eating a Quarter Pounder and fries they talked about it as if, “this was an activity which in one way or another had been forced on them…They were vaguely apologetic or embarrassed by their presence there.” -- (Theatre for Eating, Looking and Thinking: the Restaurant as Symbolic Space)
McDonalds never seems to get the same ecstatic revelry from its patrons as say the Keg, or even Boston Pizza. “Yeah, you know I tried those new McMinis and they’re not that bad – actually.” Where as on the other hand you get…”If go to that new Indian place on 4th Ave. you just have to try the Baingan Bharta it is to die for!” Of course, it is not uncommon to hear criticism of all restaurants but even there a different type of language is used. “The portions at Ric’s Grill are small for the price and the food is just average – nothing outstanding.” Compared to…”Can you believe that they are actually bringing the McRib back? – That is just disgusting!” The differences are subtle but the way we talk about the food we eat at a restaurant says something important about what is “going on” in a restaurant.
Shelton’s article gives us a pretty convincing argument that a class analysis is available when we look at restaurants. He suggests a high end restaurant like Ric’s Grill or the Keg corresponds loosely to a high class identification. Boston Pizza on the other hand is more middle class. McDonalds and other fast food convenience type stores are more akin to the working class. It’s not that eating at one of these establishments means that you are that type of person but he says, much like Levi-Strauss says, that restaurants form a type of language that we can use to communicate things about our identity. They are located (loci) systems of meaning that we can use to speak to others and to ourselves. We know this intuitively since we hardly ever check what we are wearing when we enter a McDonalds but we pay special attention to what we are wearing at an upscale place.
Of course we know that food itself actually changes in these places as well. In McDonalds we can expect the same thing in every store across North America. The central item is the burger. At a place like Coco Pazzo’s we know that we won’t find the same food as anywhere else. In fact we may not find the same food week to week. Part of the reason for that is because we have different expectations about what is done with our food.
In McDonalds we know that its not really a chef making our burger but an assembly line of workers adding components that in the end construct the burger we order. No special attention is given to the food products themselves other than their order of assembly and the ‘state’ (usually hot or cold) that they need to be in to be ready to be added. Often the food is pre-manufactured to meet specification of assembly in these shops. A customer walks up orders a Quarter Pounder with cheese hold the onions – and one is delivered within minutes. Just over the tops of the burger shoots we can see the caps of these assembly line workers truckin along.
At the Keg something different happens. There is a chef and he has his minions. We usually can’t even see them working but we know they are there. And we know that they are having to do some magic with our food. We know this in a few ways. First of all we are asked about our preferences on how the meat is cooked which condiments or style of potato we want. The chef will need to work with the obstinate food ingredients to make sure they meet our specifications. The chef learns how to cook the steak just right so that it can be ‘done’ exactly as we have asked for it. We also know this because our food takes time to get to our table. Somebody must be working their butt off to get this stuff to us. And then we know this because the amount we get is usually proportionately smaller than what we could order for the same price at McDonalds or Swiss Chalet. So the price (the fact that it is more expensive) is another way for us to tell that our food is being worked into submission to meet our desire for pleasure.
Crawford calls this type of work mindful work as opposed to careless work. Crawford says attentiveness to how objects resist our will is not only a more elevated intellectual skill but it is also a virtue. He says when people have to work in jobs like McDonalds (in the mechanics world this would be Mr. Lube or Canadian Tire) a certain dumbing down occurs and also an unintended moral re-education. The Keg or Osho’s (the mechanics equivalent of the corner restoration specialist) helps workers engage with the particular of the material world and makes them more virtuous. (p. 101)
“There seems to be a vicious circle in which degraded work plays a pedagogical role, forming workers into material that is ill suited for anything but the overdetermined world of careless labour.”
How do you know its careless labour? – come on does the picture ever match what you get in side the box? Is there any wonder that they have to add a toy to the kids meal to make it really happy?
Enter the world of weight loss. If you wanted to lose weight you’d only eat at high end restaurants that feed you exceedingly small portions of the most succulent and worked over food on the planet. But that stuff cost the most. So you opt for Tony Roma’s instead of the Keg. You exchange Wok Box for Osho’s – Coco Pazzo for Pizza Hut. But then why stop there. Who has the money for Pizza Hut every night? You can get those Delicio Pizza a lot cheaper. But you exchange those for the Costco big pan $10.99 pizza – you fill your freezer with them and you admit under your breath that its not as good as Delicio but nothing feeds your family as well. You’ve traded down on the best stuff for you and you’ve end up with more food for less money – a whole lot more food. I can barely make pizza meal for my family from scratch for what it costs me to purchase a personal size at Coco Pazzo. But Pizza Hut and Costco have me beat cost wise by a mile.
So the food produced by careless labour is consumed by the poorest people – or most financially conservative. The question. If McDonalds type work makes us less virtuous labourers what does consumption of the product of this labour make the consumers? Dupes to be sure. We would do well according to Crawford et al. to only opt for the food products that have been sweated over. In the mean time consumers can’t afford that food. The food they can afford is the food that will make them fat. And to make up for the crappy taste of that food the multinational food corporations throw billions of dollars behind packaging and advertising to create a beautiful illusion (projection) or an imagined taste. If the consumer wants to unseat the powerful corporate interests that regulate this market structure he/she has to buy more expensive food. But now buying more expensive food is not even desired since the eat public has gotten used to eating and preferring the crappy food. (Why is it that my kids prefer the canned chicken noodle soup to my homemade stuff with real noodles? Why is a green garden salad so much more expensive to make than the main course and why don’t people like that salad as much as the main course?). I’m not talking about a conspiracy. I am talking about how tastes change – I am talking about about how obesity becomes ‘epidemic’ – I am talking about how economics at both the producer/chef/maker/assembler side and the consumer/eater/microvwaver/digester side of this problem is caught inside a system that inevitably shapes the free will choice of individuals within the system. It also allows individuals with enough dough to make the kind of pizza that will help them get thinner which will help reinforce their status as a high class individual in society which will…
OK its a conspiracy!
this is a chart of comparative analysis that I made up based on a few articles and authors I have been reading on this topic – the categories don’t necessarily line up exactly and are not analogous completely within columns but I have found this a useful way to keep track of the ideas of the authors presented…

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