In Defense of Industrial Food

It's almost impossible to extricate the way we eat from the means of mass production

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My defense of chain restaurants last week led to a pointed response from Mark Bittman of the New York Times. “Josh Ozersky is at least a little out of his mind,” it began. I won’t argue, but I do take issue with the source of Bittman’s disagreement. “It’s literally impossible,” he writes, “to take industrially-produced food … and cook it in an industrial kitchen and make it ‘good.’” Good food, for Bittman and like-minded critics of the American food system, translates into food that is cooked at home — preferably with fresh and local ingredients. It’s an easy position to feel sympathy for; who is against home cooking? It would be like being against rainbows. But I find Bittman’s position, though well intentioned, unsustainable. We live in a very big, highly industrialized nation, which can only feed its inhabitants because of our commercial infrastructure. That’s just a fact of life. The excesses of industrial food may be hurting us, but to suggest that the answer is just to cook every meal at home is equivalent to suggesting that we all join a cult and move to the desert. It may work out for you as an individual, but it’s not an ideal solution for everybody.

Not to mention the fact that, hard though it might be to believe, a lot of Americans like industrial food. That’s why there is so much of it. Even if they didn’t, like me, grow up as latchkey children who thrilled at the thought of Denny’s hash browns or multicolored bowls of Fruit Brute in mid-afternoon, Americans still enjoy eating with other people, with having somebody wait on them, with the special excitement of dining out. Moreover, a lot of industrially produced food is good, no matter what Bittman thinks. Though it might not make as good an applause line, the nation’s factories aren’t just turning out Funyons. Some things, like ice cream, are actually better when done on a bigger, more advanced scale; other foods, like, say, fish, won’t exist at all if they are not farmed and most likely will require more high-tech monitoring and government oversight in the future.

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Then there is the problem of history. The time Bittman, Alice Waters, and so many other progressives refer back to, when Americans cooked all their own food and so controlled what ingredients their bodies ingested, never existed. Food was a commodity even in the subsistence culture of colonial America, where farmers turned wheat into whiskey and pork into bacon for the sole purpose of provisioning other Americans with cash at the ready. The chronicles of the early republic are filled with endless stories of inns and boarding houses and taverns in which food was mass-produced as well as the time and place would allow and laid out on groaning boards for, again, anyone with money to spend. The 1840s and 1850s saw the development of a vast beef industry, starting in Texas and expanding across the west; the cowboy, that quintessential pre-modern American icon, was a salaried employee. The great cities of the Midwest all grew up around commodity foods; the great cities of the east would have been unthinkable without grain brought via train and canal. And frequently that grain came as milled, processed flour. The only Americans who ever lived outside a commercial food system were the ones we put on reservations.

Even if this weren’t the case, I think very few of us are in a position to eat all our meals cooked at home, using the “good” ingredients beloved by food writers. Rare is the household with only one person working, and usually long hours at that. Even if families are not living in a fresh-food “desert,” to use a phrase beloved of progressives, it’s unlikely that they have access to a farmers’ market, or even a Whole Foods, statistically speaking. The fact is, that as Americans, going off the grid culinarily would be one of those bizarre missions that people write books about, like the guy who wanted to reduce his carbon footprint so much that he refused to buy toilet paper. We are Americans, and it’s very hard for us to extricate the way we eat from the way we do business, our kitchens from our counting houses. Go to the pantries of the cooks that the anti-big-food crowd idealize: you’ll find them filled with bleached flour and iodized salt and wax paper and cans or jars of this and that. And that’s the old-timers, the ones who still have the time and the space to cook “from scratch.” Enjoy the view; because there are going to be fewer and fewer of them as time goes on. There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes. I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.

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The reflexive dismissal of industrial food reminds me a lot of the cry against big corporations and their corporate greed. All three terms are accurate enough, and are inspired by very real and very malevolent forces in our world, but the very broadness that makes them satisfying to say makes them useless, or worse, in terms of constructive criticism. Like any form of lazy, reflexive jeering at The Man, it doesn’t change a whole lot. Anti industrial food rants are the culinary equivalent of “Free Tibet” bumper stickers. They make you feel good, and signal your politics to like-minded allies. And that’s it.

Which is a shame, because with some prodding, our system could be much better. The U.S. industrial-food machine, Mark Bittman’s disapproval notwithstanding, is a one of the most powerful, responsive, and imaginative entities in history. Its goals may be amoral, in the sense it is driven wholly by profit, with a predictably destructive effect, but it and it alone has the power to feed the future of America in a better, or at least less resource-intensive way.  Because whatever the future holds, it isn’t going to be 300 million Americans feeding themselves with handmade tagliatelle from pristine Vermont CSAs, no matter how much one might wish otherwise. The reality is that America needs better meals at lower prices. It’s true that we don’t need more soda or candy or Double-Down fried chicken sandwiches; but if that was all the food industry produced, the issue would be as easy as roasting a free-range chicken with some local Brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, it isn’t.