Kenneth Burns: Avoiding fast food will be worth the effort

Jul. 27, 2013 @ 11:44 PM

I used to eat fast food on the sly.

Last year I moved back to my home state of Tennessee after 13 years in Madison, Wis. Madison is one eating-obsessed town, an epicenter of the organic and sustainable food movement. People in Madison like to tout the virtues of locally sourced produce, artisanal butchering and two-year-old bandaged cheddar.

I got on board with all of those. Especially the bandaged cheddar.

But sometimes, yes, I would hit the drive-through for burgers and fries. I tended not to mention this to my foodie friends.

I thought of that the other night as I was going through an overstuffed wallet full of receipts. Some were from fast food restaurants. It hit me.

I shouldn’t eat fast food.


Not even as an occasional treat. Because it’s really not a treat. It is – what’s the word? – junk. Junk food.

True, it’s ingeniously engineered junk. As the food activist Michael Pollan observes in his 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Well-designed fast food has a fragrance and flavor all its own, a fragrance and flavor only nominally connected to hamburgers or French fries or for that matter to any particular food.”

Pollan goes on to write that the flavor of fast food is “one of the unerasable smells and tastes of childhood – which makes it a kind of comfort food.”

The man is reading my mind. I developed a fondness for fast food when I was little, and I never lost it.

Or was the taste developed for me?

I’m not interested in spreading blame around. I’m responsible for what I eat.

But when I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved McDonald’s. I knew all about McDonald’s. I knew about it from Ronald, Grimace, the Hamburglar and the other colorful characters who appeared in McDonald’s ads. The company very effectively marketed to kids. How could I not want to go to McDonald’s?

Grimace isn’t a draw for me anymore, but my taste for fast food never went away. I like the big doses of salt and fat. Even though I know they are horrible for me.

I like the convenience. Fast food is fast, and we don’t even have to name the menu items when we order them. We just give a number.

I like the portability. I do a lot of driving, and sometimes I don’t want to spend time sitting down in a restaurant or, gasp, preparing a meal in my kitchen. I eat in the car.

Eating while driving is sad. And I’m not just talking about getting ketchup on my pants.

The Tim McGraw hit “Where the Green Grass Grows” captures something important with its depressing description of a fast-food meal eaten in a car. “Another supper from a sack,” McGraw sings in the tune, which was written by Craig Wiseman and Jess Leary. “Another 99-cent heart attack.”

Another supper from a sack. The phrase makes me cringe. Eating ought to be a social activity, a source of joy. People who dine in cars tend to dine alone.

So in the name of sociability, and in the name of healthier eating, I’m going to try knocking it off. I’m going to avoid eating fast food for now, and see what happens.

Understand, I mean no slight to employees of fast food outlets. I have worked on the front lines of the chain restaurant industry, and I know what it’s like. I salute those hard-working people.

I’m not saying I will give up burgers and fries. I remain a fan. But it’s much nicer to eat them at, say, Litton’s, the locally owned Knoxville restaurant whose history traces back to 1946. You can eat a really fine burger at Litton’s, and chat with a nice waitress, and look at the interesting stuff on the walls. You can linger.

I never feel like lingering when I eat fast food.

It is, after all, fast food.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to