Sam Quinones is the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”
On Sept. 3, 1991, fire swept through the Imperial Food Products chicken-processing plant in the town of Hamlet, N.C. Workers scrambled to save themselves. But an exit was blocked to keep flies out of the plant. Sprinklers failed. The flames spread on the hydraulic fluid spraying from a loosened hose connected to the fryer and lapped up the chicken grease all over the plant floor. Twenty-five people died, most of them women, minimum-wage line workers.
The Hamlet fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in recent U.S. history. Years later, Temple University historian Bryant Simon went to the town, suspecting that behind the fire was a larger story.
The story he finds connects the fire to changes in America. Following the Depression and World War II, policymakers of both parties believed in the “broad benefits of decent wages and the need for taxes to pay for the safety net that hung beneath the economy,” Simon writes, and that “the more people made and the more they had in the bank and in their homes . . . the better, it was believed, for everyone.”
Years passed, though, and as a culture we turned away from that. We adopted instead a true belief in the infallible benefit of the free market, and grew unwilling to fund the government’s ability to help workers and build community, while shaking our heads at the poor choices of people who lost out.
The now-forgotten Imperial Food and the fire, in Simon’s view, were signs of that. They are powerful storytelling tools and Simon uses them well.
The New South, and particularly North Carolina, headquartered the new paradigm. Policymakers there “pioneered a political economy that looked like the harbinger of the global phenomenon,” and like their later counterparts in Bangladesh and Vietnam, they “let business leaders — who were feeling the heat of competitive pressures and shrinking profits in their current locations . . . know that they would keep taxes low and the government out of their affairs.”
Imperial Food’s owner, Emmett Roe, never applied for a building permit, then underpaid for water, which he didn’t clean as it became waste with “ ‘cannonball sized’ chunks” of grease and flowed into the town’s water supply.
Simon’s list of the ways Roe practiced unfair competition by flouting safety regulations is long and graphic. At each moment, Roe was met by a government rendered flaccid by its new role as protector not of working people or of the middle class, but of capital. Thus the true cost of unclean and dangerous employment was not reflected in the price of the bird. On the contrary, it was quietly borne by vulnerable workers, while Roe produced artificially cheap chicken tenders for Long John Silver’s restaurants.
Roe was a tiny part of a system that turned chicken into America’s most-consumed animal by relentlessly dropping the price for a mutant fowl. Rural chicken farmers became industrial chicken producers, perched precariously atop the slimmest profit margins, slaves to the economics of cheap. They were as innovative as any industry. “Yet while auto- and steelworkers generally shared some of the gains of their industries, the growers rarely got their piece of the pie,” Simon writes. “Some still had to work a second job.”
Government policy, meanwhile, directed more than $5 billion in annual subsidies toward corn, soybeans and the chicken industry, leaving processed broilers with the same phony cost advantage over fresher, healthier foods that fossil fuels enjoy over sustainable sources of energy.
Simon, along the way, profiles Robert Baker, who, at his Cornell University lab, invented the culinary paragon of these new American values: the chicken nugget. Baker modeled his creation on the fish stick and imagined it as a way of using scraps heretofore deemed waste to generate profits for small, family-owned chicken growers. Nugget autopsies found that they included mostly chicken skin and fat, fattier than a McDonald’s burger, ground with salt and vinegar, combined with powdered milk and raw grain, which produced a white clay-like substance, coated with a batter of eggs and corn flakes. Baker concocted nuggets as addictive, owing to their high fat and salt content, but bland enough to not overload the brain, which would depress the desire for more.
“We make our food very similar to cocaine now,” one food researcher tells Simon.
Across America, as stable blue-collar jobs declined, these types of “cheap supermarket goods became . . . a necessity,” and obesity rose among people whose paychecks shrank along with community amenities that government could no longer provide: “parks or jogging trails, or jobs an easy walk down a well-maintained sidewalk from their homes.”
Thus the opposite of industrial development took place in this, the now-largest segment of the U.S. working class. Strong rural people turned bloated and wounded by “job creators” such as Roe and the food they made, abetted by government. And for the first time in human history, “fatness” became “an emblem of poverty and failure.”
It is testament to Simon’s reportorial instincts and research that he has found this sprawling, occasionally nauseating story in the detritus of that now-forgotten fire. His trail from that day through poultry economics to a core of new American values is captivating and brilliantly conceived, and will provide readers with insights into our current national politics.
By Bryant Simon
303 pp. $26.95