Tagged Fast Food Industry

Modern Love: Junk Food Was Our Love Language

It’s autumn again, the eighth since my father died, and I’m craving chicken nuggets.

When the pandemic began, I craved foods that happened to feel more virtuous. I was a frequent takeout customer at local San Francisco restaurants in economic peril: beef noodle soup from a mom-and-pop on Irving, refried beans from a taqueria on 24th Street, a pork chop from the beloved neighborhood spot on Divisadero. Every action I took was fraught with the concept of doing good. I purchased stacks of books from independent bookstores, researched gardening gloves, donated, downloaded a workout app, started reading “War and Peace.”

And then: depression, Zoom fatigue, a major life milestone passing without the ability to celebrate it, the deaths of public figures, the deaths of frontline workers, the death of a friend’s father, the deaths of migrants detained at the border, the death of a friend’s father, the death of another friend’s father.

Six months later, I was moving 800 miles in an attempt to outrun a suffocating sense of doom, driving across state lines, every stop an exercise in anxiously navigating shared airspace and inconsistent mask policies, and all I wanted was the ease of a drive-through chicken nugget.

My father would have understood.

I don’t remember him saying, “I love you,” which isn’t a common phrase in Mandarin, his preferred language. We always had a bit of a communication issue. But his love language was the simple pleasure of processed food.

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I have a photo of the two of us, taken when I was 2, at the gleaming flagship McDonald’s in Beijing. The franchise had just arrived in China, and its “M” at the time was a signal of luxury, a marker of the cosmopolitan upper-middle class that my young parents hoped to break into. In the photo, I’m feeding my father a fry. We both beam. Everywhere the light falls in that faded print, it is as golden as the arches.

My father was the fun parent, the indulgent one. He introduced me to fries, Cool Whip straight from the tub, fizzy drinks. After we emigrated to America, where McDonald’s franchises were ubiquitous rather than luxurious, he drove for an hour on the weekend to deliver us, triumphant, to some generic, all-you-can-eat buffet with actual crab on silver chafing trays.

I sucked down soft serve after soft serve until I threw up. My father never reprimanded me for overindulgence as my mother did. He laughed. It didn’t seem to matter, then, that his English wasn’t fluent, or that my Mandarin was already slipping away.

Our language of junk food evolved into one of secrets. A conspiratorial Happy Meal on our fishing trip alone. Two liters of Coke guzzled together before my mother came home. I felt honored until I began to understand that my father kept secrets from me, too.

In third grade, I came home newly evangelized to the dangers of cigarettes and threw away my father’s packs. He raged, then promised to quit, but I kept smelling smoke in his clothes and car.

My father was not virtuous. He was a man of vices and quick pleasures. Processed foods, nicotine, trashy Chinese science fiction, gambling, adultery. The hit of dopamine, the rush of blood sugar. I didn’t ask why he turned to these — that wasn’t how our family operated, and anyhow, language remained a barrier.

Instead, I began to distance myself. By the time I graduated from my Ivy League university, newly educated in class and its trappings, I knew the person I aimed to be. That person was not reflected in my broken-English, gambling-addict, divorced, blue-collar father. He had become a shameful artifact to me, one I wanted to leave behind. I grew increasingly distant as I focused on my new life with the impersonal callousness of youth.

My father died two years after I graduated. He was 49. I was 22. His death came like a shaft falling from the heavens, marking the central tragedy of my life. I grieved his passing, and then I grieved the fact that I never fully knew him. There were questions I had never thought to ask and nuances I hadn’t been able to articulate in my language or in his.

I can see now that my father’s death was a tragedy but not a surprise. If he hadn’t died in 2012 of probable heart failure, he would have died in another year from diabetes or high cholesterol or Covid-19. I used to blame him for the weakened body that killed him — a product, I thought, of his weakened virtue. There was a kind of solace in the stark language of “good” and “bad.”

But the older I get, the more I see myself compromising, too. I live less perfectly at 30 than I imagined I would when I was 10. The world is hard and unforgiving, to some much more than others.

And so, each autumn, I think: Now I’m the age at which my father had to care for a newborn daughter; now I’m at the age at which he followed his spouse to a country where he didn’t speak the language; now I’m at the age at which he was fired from his job and took a minimum-wage gig; now I’m at the age at which he, low and dreary, found his first online gambling website, as irresistible to him as the dumb games on my phone are to me.

Friends of mine have, as adults, gotten to know their parents as people with whom they swap intimacies and truths. I can’t have that. The only intimacies I have are the years of my life that overlap with the years of my father’s life, and at each intersection, I think: The age I am is far too young for the responsibilities he bore. How can I resent my father for being the product of such a staggeringly unfair world, one that systemically suffocates some people more than others?

And I can imagine, too, the giddy power my father must have felt upon moving to America in the ’90s to discover that McDonald’s was now the stuff of everyday. Cheaper than fish, more accessible than fresh fruit, simpler than a long-distance phone call to Beijing in which he felt compelled to hide his difficulties, his loneliness and alienation.

I can imagine the balm of preternaturally smooth processed meat to a tongue made clumsy by translation; how sugar might soothe an ego bruised by rejection, racism and the need to ask if a store accepts food stamps. I can imagine how, when language for the above is difficult, it might be easier to hand your child a golden nugget — how the gesture is a promise of abundance and pleasure, however short-lived.

Autumn is a time when the skin of the world feels thin, perhaps permeable; it is the season in which my father was born and died. This autumn, we’re eight months into a pandemic that too many public officials, including the current president, have called the “Chinese virus,” a dangerous characterization that shimmers with xenophobia and implied blame. I know a taste of the uncertainty that my father, with his thick accent and expired visa, knew. No number of years lived in this country, no degrees or good deeds, can protect me from the anxiety of having a Chinese face in a year that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

Under such conditions, the demand for perfect virtue feels impossible, even cruel. And so I binge bad television when I can’t handle good books. I smoke one cigarette a week. And on occasion, I get the damn chicken nuggets. There are vices we must allow ourselves, even if they theoretically shorten our lives by a day or a week or a year — because first we have to get through this day, this week, this year.

Is it wrong to compare my father to a processed piece of deep-fried food, that unholy creation that is like a chicken translated again and again until it achieves a new form of existence? Because I think of him whenever I bite into one. If that sounds weird — OK. It’s a more faithful representation than the usual metaphors of fathers as safe harbors, rocks or teachers. None of those ring true when it comes to my father. A chicken nugget, then. Some religions, after all, think of Christ in a piece of bread.

The next time the urge strikes, and the air feels particularly thin, I’ll have another nugget or two or four. There will be the rush of additives, the hit of engineered pleasure, and — though I know I can’t comprehend a dead man in all his contradictions, and I admit that to imagine my father’s motivations is not to know them — in that moment, in a communion across a golden crust, I will understand my father completely.

C Pam Zhang is a writer whose debut novel, published this year, is “How Much of These Hills Is Gold.”

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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Sweetgreen Makes Healthful Fast Food — But Can You Afford It?

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Employees work the line at Sweetgreen, a chain restaurant that uses fresh ingredients from local farms to make fast food healthier, in Berkeley, Calif.

Employees work the line at Sweetgreen, a chain restaurant that uses fresh ingredients from local farms to make fast food healthier, in Berkeley, Calif.Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Healthful, fast and affordable food is the holy grail of the public health and nutrition community. A popular restaurant chain shows just how much of a challenge that is.

It began when three Georgetown University students were frustrated that they could not find a healthy fast-food restaurant near their campus. With money raised from family and friends, they started their own, renting a small storefront on M Street in Georgetown. The result was Sweetgreen, a restaurant that offered organic salads, wraps and frozen yogurt. Pretty soon, the daily line of lunchtime customers stretched out the door and around the corner.

Ten years later, the line is still there, but Sweetgreen has grown into a nationwide salad chain, with more than 40 locations. Sweetgreen is part of a small but growing breed of farm-to-table fast-food chains – like Chopt Creative Salad Company on the East Coast and Tender Greens in California – that are giving fast-food restaurants a plant-based makeover. Their mission: to fix fast food, which has long been fattening and heavily processed.

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At Sweetgreen, fresh vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients are shipped directly to each restaurant from nearby farms and then chopped or cooked on site.

At Sweetgreen, fresh vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients are shipped directly to each restaurant from nearby farms and then chopped or cooked on site.Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Sweetgreen’s owners say their goal is to offer customers foods made with nutritious, sustainable and locally grown ingredients. The company has decentralized its food sourcing and production. Fresh vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients are shipped directly to each restaurant from nearby farms and then chopped or cooked on site. They don’t sell soda or use refined sugar.
Sweetgreen expects to open another 20 stores in major cities around the country this year, and eventually to expand to places where experts say healthy, delicious fast food is needed most — low-income neighborhoods.

But while the chain has proven there is a big appetite for more healthful fast food, the goal of taking this concept to poor areas may be a distant reality. The company and other chains like it operate almost exclusively in affluent communities, far from the low-income food deserts where obesity is rampant and farmers’ markets and healthy food stores are scarce. And with salads that typically cost between $9 and $14, some question whether a healthful fast-food chain like Sweetgreen can ever be affordable for average Americans.

Maegan George, a Columbia University student who lives near a Sweetgreen, calculated that for the price of one Sweetgreen salad, she could buy the same ingredients in bulk at a local market and make several similar salads at home.

“I’m a first-generation student and I’m on full financial aid,” she said. “Sweetgreen is delicious and I enjoy it. But there’s no way I could afford to eat there on a regular basis.”

Jackie Hajdenberg, another Columbia student, wrote about the restaurant for the campus newspaper, The Spectator, earlier this year, lamenting that on a per calorie basis, a salad at Sweetgreen was three times the price of a Big Mac at McDonald’s.

“Sweetgreen has not only made it easier for people to make healthy decisions – it has also illustrated the unequal socioeconomic landscape of the world in which we live,” she wrote.

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Salad options at Sweetgreen change often, depending on what is available at local farms.

Salad options at Sweetgreen change often, depending on what is available at local farms.Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Sweetgreen says it prices its food so that it can compensate its suppliers and employees fairly, and that it expects nutritious fast food to become more affordable as the healthy food movement grows. Nicolas Jammet, a co-founder of Sweetgreen, said the company wants to serve lower-income customers, and has long-term plans to expand to low-income communities.

To get there, he said, the company will have to overcome hurdles involving its supply chain, the minimum wage and greater nutrition awareness and education among the public. For the past six years the company has been running a nutrition education program in schools that teaches children about healthier eating and locally grown food.

“It’s a long-term goal for us to be part of this larger systematic change that needs to happen,” he said. “But there are so many parts of this problem that need to be addressed.”

Mr. Jammet notes that the company was among the first to show that fast-food chains don’t need profits from soda and sugary drinks to succeed. He believes chains like Sweetgreen have caused a ripple effect throughout the fast-food industry.

In January, for example, Chick-fil-A unveiled a new kale, broccolini and nut “superfood” salad, responding to customer demands for “new tastes and healthier ways to eat in our restaurants.” McDonald’s is experimenting with kale salads, and Wendy’s is testing a spinach, chicken and quinoa salad.

“Companies like McDonald’s have more power to change the way that people eat than we do,” Mr. Jammet said. “We don’t see these companies as the enemy. We just have to force change on them.”

Public health experts say that such changes cannot come soon enough. A University of Toronto study recently showed that people have a higher risk of developing diabetes if they live in “food swamps” – an area with three or more fast-food restaurants and no healthy dining options.

Another study published in JAMA in June found that the percentage of Americans eating an unhealthy diet — high in sugar, refined grains, soft drinks and processed foods and low in fruits and vegetables — was on the decline, but the improvements in diet were much smaller for lower-income Americans.

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Customers wait in line at Sweetgreen in Berkeley, Calif.

Customers wait in line at Sweetgreen in Berkeley, Calif.Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Overall about twice as many people from poor households have poor diets compared to those at higher income levels.
Why is traditional fast food so cheap? One reason is the underlying infrastructure of the industry. Many of the ingredients, like the soy that’s turned into oil for deep fryers, or the the corn that’s fed to animals and used to make high-fructose corn syrup, begin with crops that are heavily subsidized by the government. To make their food economical, many traditional fast-food chains mass-produce their food in large factories, often stripping it of fiber and other nutrients that decrease its shelf life, while adding salt, sugar and other flavorings and preservatives.

Then they freeze and ship the processed components, like burger patties, bread, pickles and sauce, to their restaurants. There they are reheated and assembled, often with minimal effort, ensuring that a Big Mac in Seattle looks and tastes the same as a Big Mac in Charlotte, N.C.

By comparison, every Sweetgreen location has a chalkboard that lists the farms where its organic arugula, peaches, yogurt or blueberries are produced. As a result, the menus vary by location and by season. In Boston, Sweetgreen stores use New England Hubbard squash. In Los Angeles, the menu features a different variety of squash grown locally in California.

Those differences mean fresher, more nutritious ingredients, but ultimately costlier food for customers — one of the obstacles that Sweetgreen and other chains like it will have to overcome if they hope to make their food more accessible to all income brackets.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and the author of “Food Politics,’’ says restaurants like Sweetgreen offer an encouraging, but imperfect, model for making fast food more healthful.

“What’s not to like?” she asks. “The cost, maybe, but for people who can afford it the quality is worth it. Next step: Moving the concept into low-income areas.”

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