Fast Food Nation and the Horatio Alger Story

This year, I’m a discussion leader and grader for a 100-level American Studies course on citizenship and identity called “What is America?” This semester, we read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and this post is inspired by  my lesson plan for discussion section (I lead three).

Fast Food Nation (2002) exposes the underbelly of the  fast food business and the industries that support it. The narrative, which appeared serially in Rolling Stone magazine, is divided into two parts: the first discusses the history of fast food and locates its emergence in Southern California during the 1940s; the latter-half of the book focuses on  labor and safety issues, particularly as they relate to factory farming.

Fast Food Nation Book Cover

Fast Food Nation, then, isn’t only about fast food but also “the values it embodies[] and the world it has made” (Schlosser 3). In telling this story, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation advances a deeply entrenched American belief about what it takes to succeed in a capitalist market. With hard work, drive, and perhaps some ingenuity, anyone can succeed, even if he or she starts out with no connections and very little resources, including a formal education. In American society, we typically  call this sentiment the “boostraps” ethos.

The bootstraps ethos also is called the  “Horatio Alger” story. This “ideology of success…was widely promoted in Gilded Age America,” and one of its most famous proponents was the author Horatio Alger, whose novels showed how poor boys could move from ‘rags to respectability’ through ‘pluck and luck'” (History Matters).

Schlosser advances the Horatio Alger story in Fast Food Nation, but he also works against it. In doing so, he highlights the extent to which luck, historical forces, and  unethical behavior enable success. Hard work and agency (our ability to direct our own lives), in other words, are weaker factors in the equation of success.

The simultaneous endorsement and critique of the Horatio Alger story is most evident in Schlosser’s description of fast food’s beginnings in Southern California during the 1940s. In narrating this history, he focuses on the work of a small group of individuals that he calls the “founding fathers,” a cohort that includes Carl Karcher, the progenitor of Carl, Jr.’s, Maurice and Richard McDonald, the creators of McDonald’s, and Ray Kroc, who joined McDonald’s in the mid-1950s.

According to Schlosser, this way into the story of fast food highlights “one of the ironies of America’s fast food industry” because a “business so dedicated to conformity was founded by iconoclasts and self-made men, by entrepreneurs willing to defy conventional opinion” (6).

Consider the tale of Idaho potato baron JR Simplot, who was born in Iowa in 1909. Not long after his birth, his family settled in Idaho. His father was a homesteader, and “Simplot grew up working hard on the farm” (Schlosser 112). Eventually, Simplot “rebelled against his domineering father, dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, and left home” (Schlosser 112). He first job was sorting potatoes for 30 cents an hour (Schlosser 112).

CC-licensed image by flickr user tpmartins.

Not content to merely work his way up in the factory ranks, Simplot got entrepreneurial, and through his exploits, including selling horse meat and hogs, he earned enough money to go into the potato farming business. He was just 16. (Schlosser 112). By the 1930s, “Simplot was the largest shipper of potatoes in the West, operating thirty-three warehouses in Oregon and Idaho” (Schlosser 113). In the 1940s, he diversified and began selling dehydrated onions to the federal government–a “profitable arrangement,” given that the U.S. was at war and needed to feed an army (Schlosser 113). In the 1950s, Simplot began selling frozen french fires, and after floundering in the business for a few years, he connected with McDonald’s Ray Kroc in 1965 (Schlosser 114, 115). The rest, they say, is history: By 2002, Simplot was one of the “richest men in the United States” (Schlosser 115), and at his death in 2008, he was the oldest person on Forbes’ 400 list. His educational status according to Forbes? High school drop out.

As Schlosser’s characterization of JR Simplot makes plain, Fast Food Nation underscores the ways in which hard work and grit, combined with a splash of creativity, can pave the way for success of epic proportions. At the same time, Fast Food Nation demonstrates the extent to which circumstance and other factors (like unsavory behavior) also contributed to the success of  the fast food industry’s founding fathers, like Carl, Jr.’s Karcher.

This isn’t to say that Karcher wasn’t a hard worker, and certainly his ingenuity and sharp business acumen awe-inspiring. However, he also profited immensely from the rise of the automobile, the escalating construction of highways, and the growing ascendancy of youth culture.  In other words, historical forces of the 1940s and 1950s, which Karcher was caught within, helped to propel his business forward.

The notion that American assumptions about success are misguided also is evident in Schlosser’s discussion of those in the fast food industry who haven’t (yet) reached the heights of a Simplot or Karcher. Theoretically, these individuals–a franchise owner, a restaurant manager, a teenage, unskilled worker–could be the next fast food CEO.  However, Fast Food Nation demonstrates how unlucky and unfair circumstances often prevent this from happening.

The scope Fast Food Nation is broader than what I’ve discussed here, but I like how the book approaches  American assumptions about agency and success. So,  it’s a great read for those interested in American Studies, and I’m glad I had a chance to read (and teach it) this semester.

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Posted in Creative Non-Fiction

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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