Minimalism and the Veggie Man

When we lived on our boat in the Kuna Yala in Panama, the only way we could get fresh produce and meat was when the veggie man came by on his launcha. Sometimes we bought crabs and fish from the local Indians, the Kuna, or we caught fish ourselves. But the only meat came with the veggie man, and it was always the same—a scrawny, naked chicken, head and feet still attached, which he would pull triumphantly from a big white cooler and sling straight into the weighing scale. There was never anything like ice in the cooler. Its purpose was mainly to be a large bucket, not to actually keep things cool. The chicken’s unavoidable eyes were like capers, round and grey-black and kind of slimy. We always pressure-cooked these chickens, after washing them in a bleach and water solution (and after sawing off the head and feet). We figured the bacteria couldn’t survive the pressure cooker, and since none of us ever got sick I guess we were right. Or lucky.
The veggie man’s chickens may seem kind of gross, but after reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, I’d take a stringy Panamanian bird over a McDonald’s hamburger, any day. At least I knew where the chicken came from, some Indian’s dirt yard over on the mainland, where it ran around and ate bugs and corn and was killed quick and clean with a knife. The Kuna were close to their food, and so were we, by default. People should be.
The power of Schlosser’s book-length essay and expose comes from that basic truth. That, and his slow-burning prairie fire of anger at injustice, exploitation, corporate greed, corruption and governmental uselessness, as well as thousands of miles, interviews, and just plain hard journalistic work that took years of investigation. The man’s a great reporter, bottom line.
How he presents his arguments add to their power. In the introduction, he lays out the major points, and then each chapter is its own story or stories within that story, fleshing out the argument with facts, interviews, and unadorned but piercing descriptive detail. He usually starts each section with setting, giving us a broad literal view of a place. Often it’s bucolic, everything looks pretty normal on the surface. But beneath, it’s far from it, and his goal is to take us beneath. (In this way, his strategy is very similar to Michael Moore’s in Bowling for Columbine.) Each section starts with this wider lense, and then he slowly brings it in closer and closer to examine what’s really happening. “I’ve written this book out of a belief that people should know what lies behind the shiny, happy surface of any fast food transaction,” Schlosser writes in the introduction. He is here to expose, and he does it by stripping away the surfaces of things.
The opening scene of Cheyenne Mountain is a perfect metaphor for this larger structural device he employs throughout the book: “From a distance, the mountain appears beautiful and serene, dotted with rocky outcroppings, scrub oak, and ponderosa pine. It looks like the backdrop of an old Hollywood western, just another gorgeous Rocky Mountain vista. And yet Cheyenne Mountain is hardly pristine … Cheyenne Mountain was chosen as the site for a top-secret, underground combat operations center.”
Deliberately, he lets the facts provide the fireworks of the book’s poetics, and their unsettling power repeatedly explodes the Happy Meal myths that permeate the culture he describes. He uses straightforward language to describe a series of events or an extrapolation of facts, letting their own shock/horror/irony/disgust value provoke those emotions and reactions in the reader. Only rarely does he interject his own voice, and when he does, it’s often devastating, short, direct words that take your knees out from under you. These words are so carefully and purposefully chosen they literally stopped me and made me take a deep breath before reading them again, and then moving on. A good example is the story of Kenny (granted, this is on page 190—I read ahead), who gives his life to the Monfort meat packing company for 16 years, slowly being as physically destroyed as the millions of cattle he helped slaughter. After laying out one after another of the brutal facts, a numbing kind of litany, he closes the section with this: “Once strong and powerfully built, he now walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though his life were over. He is forty-five years old.”
His language is deliberately understated, yet certain words cut through like knives; in the chapter “Why the Fries Taste Good,” he describes a machine that “blasted [the potatoes] with steam for twelve seconds, boiled the water under their skins, and exploded their skins off.” That word “exploded” is so violent it suffuses the whole description with violence (and is a grim harbinger of the chapter that takes place later in the slaughterhouse).
Essentially, it’s Schlosser’s minimalism as a writer, underlaid with his burning for truth, that lends so much power to Fast Food Nation’s narrative. Combined with the strength of his reporting, I find myself reading and re-reading constantly. And I can’t help but walk away with the same feeling as when watching Bowling for Columbine: These writers laid it all out there, threw their best possible punch into the face of our cultural monsters. And so little has changed as a result.

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