Fast Food Nation

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, November 13, 2005

I love my new food printer, the Fabulator 5000, which makes the previous food printers look not just clunky but positively medieval. There's no more click-and-point nonsense on the screen, no more waiting five or six interminable minutes for the food to print. You just tell the Fab 5 what you want. The food comes out in about three or four seconds, complete with garnish and a complementary wine. My only complaint is that, even with all the technological wizardry, the burgers still have a slight taste of toner.

Is it as good as store-bought? It's better. Printed food is fresher than something that has spent many hours sitting in a produce bin or wrapped in plastic. But I miss the ritual of going to the supermarket, particularly that weird feeling of power you'd get when you first grabbed the shopping cart. The manly pride of knowing that, when it came to handling a cart, you could really make it purr. And in the checkout line, you'd skim a tabloid, devouring tales of uncontrolled celebrity mating, and then put it back, because you were too sophisticated to buy such trash.

My kids hate it when I rhapsodize about the old days of shopping.

"When you shopped, you had to make hard choices. It built character," I told my eldest son, Argon.

"It's amazing you survived," he said in the monotone that is his generation's trademark.

"Seriously, money was tight. And if you didn't know how to squeeze a cantaloupe, it could be disastrous," I said.

"Sounds like it was a jungle," he said. "You were hunters and gatherers. To survive you had to eat dirt."

They're all like that: Jaded. Spoiled. In their world, even pressing a button is considered hard labor. Thanks to the new implants, they don't even have to speak -- they just think about what they want, and it emerges from some gadget. Since we did away with money, things like "value" and "cost" are totally exotic concepts. I once tried to explain hunger and thirst -- I said they were forms of pain, though not quite as sharp. The kids looked at me as though I were speaking Middle English.

Recently I took the kids through an earthtube to Homewood Farm to see a good old-fashioned agricultural enterprise, though all they wanted to do was pick the caramel apples. The farm manager still has a few old-fashioned apple varieties -- Jonagold, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, etc. -- but his caramel apple trees are obviously the most popular. My youngest kid, Muon, climbed halfway up a tree and became stuck, sort of glued there by caramel. I cut her loose with a butter knife.

We took a hayride, and each of the kids was allowed to pick a jack-o'-lantern. We all love the fact that pumpkins are now grown with pre-carved jack-o'-lantern faces. I've heard they'll soon have a variety of jack-o'-lantern that grows with a candle already inside, but that might be just a crazy rumor.

We toured the farm's huge vegetable patch, and I picked some coleslaw. It's messy, soggy work, and for a second I kind of missed the days when you could find a head of cabbage and take it from there. I picked some succotash, and a few plants had such a high ratio of lima beans to corn that I wondered if they could truly be labeled "succotash." At some point it's just a lima bean plant with random corn kernels growing here and there.

I got a look at the new soy cows, grazing in the large field just north of the orchard. The USDA apparently felt that soy milk could be produced much more efficiently if it came from cows made of soy. These cows are so green they nearly blend into the landscape. They say the soy milk is a lot better tasting (not as beany, somehow) than the stuff derived from plants, and the soy burgers are more tender. But you've probably read about how the soy cows dry up badly in drought conditions -- they literally wilt -- and even catch fire. Bored teenagers have been blamed for setting some of the cow fires.

At the barnyard the kids spent a few minutes petting the sausages. Those are the most mangled, ugly, degenerate looking creatures I've ever seen. It may be a more efficient way to process pork, but I'll stick with the adage about the wisdom of not seeing how the sausage is made.

Before we left the farm, the kids stopped at the chicken coop to feed the chicken nuggets. I was actually starting to get a little sick to my stomach. The chicken nuggets are just creepy. A chicken breast with legs attached, and not even a head. At some point it starts to feel a little bit unnatural.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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