Sunday , May 19 2024
A book I'd suggest you not read while at McDonald's, unless you have a strong stomach and love irony.

Interview with Charles Wilson, Co-Author of Chew On This: First Part of a Two-Part Interview

In 2005 I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. In both a review and in a Best Books of the Year compilation piece, I wrote it was the best non-fiction book I have read in several years.  

I knew before I read it that it would change my life, particularly my eating and buying habits, and it did. What I did not realize was what an amazing piece of writing this is.  A friend who teaches English has used this book as an example of persuasive writing and that totally makes sense, as this book manages not only to convince you that fast food companies do not have the interests of their employees — and sometimes their customers — in mind when making decisions, but also explains every important issue involving fast food, without coming off as redundant or preachy.  

Reading that book, and this one, you don't feel you are being lectured so much as educated. Reading these books — along with watching Super Size Me — made me a much more educated consumer. 

When I heard about the book Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want To Know About Fast Food, I was delighted. The idea was to take some of the content from Fast Food Nation and rewrite it for a younger audience. The book was co-written by Charles Wilson and Eric Schlosser. 

I was excited to ask Wilson some of the questions about the book and the fast food industry. This is my first two-part interview, done because the material is so important and interesting. 

I will publish the second part next week. 

Scott Butki: How'd this book come about? 

Charles Wilson: I have a friend who is a children's book editor at a New York publishing house; she mentioned to me casually that it might be a good idea to try to adapt Fast Food Nation for a younger audience. These were the people that the fast food companies were targeting most heavily with their advertising, she said, and it would be nice to present a message different than the one they get every day in fast food ads. I talked to Eric about it. He thought it was a good idea and asked me if I'd be willing to write it with him. 

Who is the target audience – kids, parents or both?

We wrote it with middle-school readers in mind. At the same time, we hope it is a book that adults can also read as well as their children – and that people of both ages might get something out of it. We tried hard to create a narrative voice that was simple and direct without being glib or condescending. 

If someone has already read Fast Food Nation, will there be new information for them in this book or is it just presented in a different fashion, like a bookish value meal? 

About 80% of the material is new, but it is built upon the foundation of research that Eric did in Fast Food Nation. We decided from the outset that we wanted to ground Chew On This almost exclusively in the stories of young people, and the new reporting reflects that.  We tell the story of a 12-year-old Alaskan girl who fights to get the soda machine out of her school and a 16-year-old boy who is struggling with obesity. We follow young teenage workers who are behind the counter at a McDonald's and two sisters who are trying, along with their mother, to hold onto their family ranch. I don't feel the book is so much "dumbed down" as re-imagined in a different way.

What is the most disturbing thing you learned about fast food in preparing this book? 

For me, it was perhaps the extent that the demands of the fast food industry have changed animal husbandry practices. In order to create chickens with ample breast meat for chicken nuggets, for instance, chicken breeders engaged in a form of "single-trait engineering" that produced a chicken that had an unusually large chest.  In time, however, this single-trait engineering had negative consequences for the chickens themselves. You saw chickens that were so top-heavy that it put too much pressure on their legs; many had trouble walking.

The pressure for speed and efficiency in the broiler chicken industry today means that many chickens go from hatching to slaughter in as little as 36 or 37 days. They have been bred to become extremely plump very quickly; one estimate suggests that if you applied the current breeding and feeding practices of chickens to people, it would be the equivalent of making a child weigh 286 pounds by his 6th birthday.

How do you guys define fast food? 

Good question. We don't look in our book at the rising fast-casual industry (restaurants like TGI Friday's or Shoney's), though they have also been a large part in recent years of the colonization of Interstate off-ramps and edge cities outside of historic downtowns … We focus instead on the business model that was pioneered by in Southern California and extended across the country by Ray Kroc and McDonald's. We take a detour into the soda industry and the flavor industry – though they do not exclusively serve the fast-food industry, their growth was dependent on the growth of the fast food model. 

Part Two will be published next week.

For more about the book, including attempts by fast food companies to discredit this book and Fast Food Nation, the book and the new movie, check out this Internet site.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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