Eric Schlosser at BookPeople

Photo By John Anderson

Eric Schlosser at BookPeople

I considered taking a stopwatch, just for fun, to Eric Schlosser's reading at BookPeople on February 25, when the New York Times bestselling author talked about his book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (HarperCollins, $13.95), which is now in paperback. I wanted to see how long it would take for the words "Upton Sinclair" to pop out of Schlosser's mouth. As it turns out, there was no need to even start the ticker. Schlosser referenced Sinclair faster than you can say "beef processing plant," and for good reason. Like that crusading author, whose 1905 shocker The Jungle exposed the emetic practices of the Chicago meat-packing industry, Schlosser is a writer who has the ability to tell readers awful, vicious things and have them begging for more. Fast Food Nation reveals the sad facts about the American stomach: that in 1970, we spent approximately $6 billion on fast food, and more than $110 billion in 2001. That $110 billion is more than we spend on higher education. That our predilection for fast food has had ramifications on the cultural landscape that are damning: the fast food chains demand the efficiency provided by agribusiness corporations like ConAgra and IBP, who are forcing farmers and cattle ranchers off their land, meaning that "small towns that seemingly belong in a Norman Rockwell painting are being turned into rural ghettos." It's a system, Schlosser said, "that Charles Dickens would have understood perfectly."

At BookPeople, Schlosser intimated why people have been racing to bookshelves to read all the bad news. He said he wanted to "take this [predicament] out of the abstract and make it concrete with the names of individuals." Fast Food Nation is a classic muckraking text, but it's also an engaging read about specific people who toil in the inhumane conditions nurtured at beef processing plants.

Schlosser was preaching strictly to the choir at his reading. The crowd patiently listened to Schlosser roll out his sobering story, ate it all up, and then asked him how to further the cause. Insist on eating meat that has been processed with no animal by-products in the feed, he said, and hasn't been given growth hormones or antibiotics. Then someone asked him if he's a vegetarian. He defended himself by pointing out that there is something instinctual about eating meat, and that he believes that acting on instinct can have salutary effects, not just negative ones. A young woman in dreadlocks standing at the edge of the overflow crowd took all this in, let out an "Oh no!" about Schlosser's meat-eating news, and then kept listening.

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