Yesterday on Facebook, my friend Kim posted a question asking for our reactions, thoughts, and feelings to and about fast food and those who eat it (ourselves and others) for an essay she’s working on. The responses were numerous and for the most part thoughtful, but one in particular rubbed me the wrong way, and, as one does when overtired from illness and sleep deprivation, I took to Twitter to rant about it.
Apparently I have some feelings about fast food.
My rant ended there but I couldn’t stop thinking about the role fast food has played in my life at different times, and how I landed where I am now.
Over the years, I’ve written on these very pages about trying to be ethical consumers of what we eat (Dietsch has too), and I’ve also written about how I’ve fed our family during lean times. Much like my opinions on leggings as pants (once vehemently opposed, now enthusiastically in favor of people wearing whatever the heck they want), my views on the kind of food we eat and how we source it – including fast food – have evolved.
A lot of it has to do with having two young children who, despite my unrelenting efforts to get them to eat more than the same 10 foods, are steadfast in their refusal to try new things. They need to eat, sometimes urgently, and there are times when only a coated paper clamshell of chicken nuggets and a bright plastic toy will do.
Part of it has to do with moving to the suburbs, and owning a car for the first time in over a decade. We drive a lot these days, and sometimes fast food is just the right thing in the right place at the right time.
And part of it is simply getting older, recognizing and embracing that life is short, things are not black and white, and you do what you need to do to get through. There is a time for austerity and moderation, and a time for indulgence.
When I was a kid, my family ate fast food in the car on our annual trips to Florida for summer vacation. We always packed snacks and a cooler, but for me there is just something about a road trip that demands that you hit the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru on the way out of town for a paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich, to be enjoyed while poking your nearest sibling and rolling your eyes at your parents’ questionable musical choices. We would usually stop and spend the night in a hotel halfway between Michigan and Florida, and I looked forward to a visit to Waffle House just as much as I did any of the great little little mom-and-pop restaurants my mother had a way of finding for us to eat breakfast at the next morning.
I stopped eating meat early in my teenage years, so burgers were out, but the Filet-O-Fish was still there for me. I could get a salad and a baked potato at Wendy’s when I was out with friends, and there was nothing weird about it. And as a 19-year old, participating in the time-honored tradition of going to the bar in Windsor, the evening was just not complete without a trip through the Taco Bell drive-thru before heading home.
Then in my 20s, as I began to decide who I wanted to be, and what I wanted my life to look like, family vacations gave way to travels with friends, meetups at White Castle morphed into going out for drinks and dancing, or gatherings at clove-smokey coffee shops. With age came more options, and I wanted to project what I thought was a more refined version of myself to the world. Sure, there were still late-night Coney runs, but more often than not, eating out meant Mongolian barbecue or Cedarland or mussels and Chimay and the best jukebox ever. Fast food was the remedy for the next-morning’s hangover, a walk of shame done via car, through the nearest drive-thru, in pajamas and sunglasses over the remains of last night’s eyeliner, making eye contact with as few people as humanly possible.
At the end of my 20s, as I sunk into the deepest depression of my life and my first marriage crumbled, the McDonald’s at the end of my street tormented me. I could smell the fry oil from my apartment, and I couldn’t resist it. My indulgence was both comforting and shameful. I’d stop there every morning for breakfast on my way to the office (Egg McMuffin, extra hash browns, large coffee with milk and no sugar), and I’d sneak over there again to fill the long lonely hours of my evenings, eating in my car and immediately discarding the evidence. I felt bad about that for a lot of years, but I’ve grown kinder to myself about it over time. Fast food was the crutch I needed at a time when I didn’t have much else to lean on.
By the time I hit my 30s, after ditching the first husband and about 65 lbs., I had the income and access to eat pretty much whatever I wanted. Mike and I were together by then, but childless and with two incomes. We cooked at home for each other a lot both before and after we married, but we also didn’t think twice about dropping $200 on a nice dinner out on the weekend. We read Pollan, we saw Food Inc., and we spent so much on groceries each week that to think about it now makes me blush. We met and spoke with farmers and chefs and food artisans in the communities we lived in, every single week. We paid attention to where our food came from, and we were loud and frankly a little judgy about it. We were, I must say, pretty freaking obnoxious. We rarely ate fast food, and when we did it was always in secret, and with a heaping helping of shame.
The only shame I feel now is for ever feeling bad about my choices, and even moreso for ever making anyone else feel bad about theirs. Most people are just doing the best they can do in the moment, and who am I to say that the choices they make and their reasons for making them are any less valid and right and good than mine?
I have privilege. While I do know what it’s like to have $30 to spend on groceries for the week to feed our family, I have also always had bus fare or another means of transportation available to me when I needed to buy food. I have always had a clean and safe kitchen to cook in, and a clean and safe place to store our food. I’ve always had or had access to pots and pans and flatware and clean, abundant running water. I have even, at times, had the time, space, and resources to grow some of our food. I have always had the option to choose whether to buy and cook food at home, or to dine out at an establishment of my choosing. And I have always had someone to feed me if I couldn’t feed myself.
I had parents and grandmothers who knew how to cook, how to navigate a grocery store, how to prepare a meal plan for the week and how to craft a shopping list from it, and who had the time and ability to pass all of that knowledge down to me when I was a kid. We ate home-cooked meals the majority of the time, but we also had the means and the money to eat out. Sometimes we ate at little family-owned places in and around Detroit, and sometimes we ate at McDonald’s or Arby’s or Wendy’s or another fast food chain. My grandma famously loved Taco Bell, and if it was good enough for her…
So while I am actively working to pass the same food knowledge down to my kids that my parents and grandmothers did to me, I don’t ever want to pass down shame or stigma about food. The kids shop with us, go to the farmers’ market and farm stand with us, and we ask for their input when planning our family dinners. They are helping me plan this year’s garden. They stick their fingers into bread dough with their daddy and roll out meatballs with me. They’ve made pizza and brownies and fresh pasta, with our help, and they enjoy doing all of it. They also eat fast food meals a couple of times a week, and when we first moved here, that was super alarming to me, but now, I don’t mind. They are happy and healthy and well-adjusted and that’s really the most important thing I can give them. I can give them options, and the tools to make the best decisions for themselves depending on their circumstances. Sometimes that might be the $23 farm stand chicken, and sometimes that might be the Big Mac.
What they have given me in return is the ability, finally, to sit back, unclench, and unapologetically enjoy the damn french fries again. I am so grateful for that.
These days, I strive for balance. Most days that means an egg, a swipe of hummus, and as many vegetables as I can pile on my plate for breakfast. It means 3 to 4 hours on my feet in the kitchen every weekend prepping lunch salads for the week. Sometimes it means a smashburger made with grass-fed beef from our local farmer’s market, and homemade lacto-fermented pickles. Sometimes it means ordering too many fried appetizers for Friday night delivery after a long work week. Sometimes it means fried chicken at a turnpike rest stop after saying a last goodbye to a loved one.
I’m over the idea of food as “good” or “bad.” Food is food, it has a certain number of calories and nutrients depending on the type of food and how it is prepared, it fuels your body and it may or may not make you feel a certain way before, during, or after you eat it. You may choose to eat certain types of food more or less frequently depending on any or all of that. It would be lovely if all food was 100% nutritionally and ethically pure, as good for the body and psyche as it is for the environment and the people who farm, raise, produce, prepare, and/or sell it, but that’s not our reality. The best any of us can do is make the best choices we can depending on our own unique circumstances, and not judge or shame others for theirs.
Fast food is just food, and there’s a place in my life for it again.