These three words, when used in combination, say a lot about the American society in which I was raised. For some of my generation, this is nothing less than a philosophy of life. The most obvious manifestation of Big, Fast and Cheap is seen in the ways we have processed and packaged our food.
As a young kid, the emerging fast-food restaurant was a marvel. Predictable food I liked (a lotin fact, too much), could be packaged and presented to me in a convenient manner, and was cheap enough that my Mom found it less of a hassle than making me lunch. Could it get any better than this? There was a toy with the meal I could play with and then break quickly when I was bored with it. Even better, in those early days, there was not a fruit or vegetable anywhere in sight.
What I found interesting was that over time, bigger gradually became the most important factor. Not so much for kids, but for adults. After a few years, what was once a "small drink" became the size for kids, while the size of the cups seemed to grow enormously with time. The "supersize" portions also began to impact French fries and sandwiches as well, with bigger containers and taller stacks of meat and cheese. When bacon was introduced it became the icing on the mounding cholesterol cake.
Early in my adulthood I often saw a plumber in my town eating at one of the local fast-food establishments. He and his son seemed to be there every time I happened to stop in for a quick lunch. One day, I saw the son, but not the father. I noted his absence to the friend I was with and the woman behind the counter told us he had recently died of a heart attack. He was not that old, but she noted that he regularly ate two meals a day there with his partner son, who seemed to be keeping the tradition alive.
I remember the instant drink Tang. I just checked to see if it still exists, and it remains on store shelves. As I drank Tang at the dinner table, my parents would pull down a different jar with something called instant coffee. I had no interest in their beverage choices at the time, but as a coffee drinker today and knowing how fresh brewed and specialty coffees have captured the taste and caffeine needs of our nation, I find it hard to believe that such a beverage ever thrived. Yet, I checked on the top brands of instant coffee and they are still on the shelves.
I have sometimes wondered if I could live without a microwave oven today. There are times when I am tempted. In my house we choose not to eat much in the way of processed foods, so the microwave often is a tool for defrosting and reheating. Yet, a trip down the frozen food aisle reveals stacks of frozen ready-to-eat meals of various shapes and sizes.
These aspects of our food culture have been lamented by many who express alarm regarding the accumulated health concerns we are generating. The impacts on our healthcare needs and economy are not only enormous, but also incredibly complex. Like many aspects of our world intervention on one dimension creates consequences for others. An entire food industry today is rooted deeply in our collective affection for bigger, faster and cheaper.
As I write, I am sitting in the kitchen of our home. Across the counter, my wife, Tammy, has a meal in the slow cooker she set in motion in the early morning, and she is braiding two loaves of fresh bread that will be placed in the oven shortly. I wonder if maybe there are some changes beginning to emerge. I note that our daughters are drawn to drinking water, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and often look for creative ways of preparing food they enjoy eating. That may be the result of our personal family character and commitment. Yet, there seems to be more happening as I observe college students on our campus.
At the beginning of the school year, we have a program during the week where we welcome new students to the campus and the local community called Dinner on Us. This is a special event where groups of students are welcomed into the homes of faculty and staff to enjoy a meal together and feel a sense of connection. Some choose to cook a meal for the students on their own, but our dining services also offers to prepare a pasta and salad meal along with beverages and desserts. We hosted a group at our home and I was interested in the selection and amount of food they consumed. College students have a reputation for eating a lot of food. I still think that is true for some. Yet, when all was said and done, most of the students asked for water instead of a soft drink. The sweetest desserts were left on the tray. Plenty of pasta remained in the pan, but the salad was completely gone.
For me, food is a lens on our broader culture and society. Perhaps we are seeing emerging trends where there will be a growing interest in the social and nutritional aspects of food and less on the individual convenience of bigger, faster and cheaper. That may mean the experience of spending time preparing and eating food will grow. Gardening and home-cooking seem to be on the rise in some parts of our culture, and choosing a restaurant for the quality of food and the social setting may begin to impinge on our pattern of opting for the quick food fix. Such a trend could indicate some positive things about our culture that would not only lead to better health, but also to stronger communities.
I must confess, however, that one student at our dinner event had a plate almost completely empty. When Tammy inquired about what he liked to eat, he responded by saying he mostly ate candy and cereal. He also noted he would probably spend some time at one of the local fast-food restaurants. This is clearly a work in progress.
Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella.