wendy’s drive-through as entrenched infrastructure and the inevitable disparagement of the ideal

Posted by on September 28, 2009

Last winter I went to hear a lecture by Joel Salatin, an advocate for sustainable agriculture. He is not exactly famous, but not exactly unknown either. (He was featured in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which by now seems to be one of those books that everyone and their brother has read.) I know this is a trendy topic now so I apologize in advance for bringing it up. I can’t help it if I am profile-able.

The talk was in one of those old theaters of yesteryear that many small towns have in their downtown, which now tend only to be utilized for things decidedly not in vogue, like non-denominational church services. The fold down auditorium chairs at this theater were nicked from years of use and the carved ornamentation on the ceiling was lackluster. All of the wood–stage, ceiling, seats– seemed as dry as a matchstick, petrified from the decades. This theater, in quaint downtown Goshen, Indiana, was packed with bearded and unadorned men and women, all farming families, all clearly Mennonite. I believe it was the Mennonite community in Goshen who had arranged for Joel Salatin to come at no small price. An unapologetic believer in capitalism, he is not an inexpensive speaker, per his website. There were also a few bemused, scruffy-looking college students in the balcony, probably there for the extra credit they would receive in one of their liberal arts classes. I went with a small group of other Notre Dame friends and also sat up in the balcony, above the sea of Mennonite uniformity below. The experience was rather cozy and surreal.

Joel Salatin, with his sweater vest, bow tie, Buddy Holly glasses, and slick talking manner, conjured up an image of an old timey, all-American snake oil salesman. On a surface level he contrasted somewhat sharply with the audience who had arranged his visit. Nevertheless, soft chuckling and murmurs of approval floated up into my ears from the first floor as his talk and his slide show progressed, illuminating the philosophy and methodology behind his sustainable farming practice of fifty some years. So mesmerizing and dynamic was he, I could almost see the phantom outline of a covered wagon behind him, from which he was going to pull out his wares when the talk was done. Either that or give a call for us all to come forward for prayer, healing, and eternal salvation. And people were going to kneel and pray, or plunk their money down, or just try to shake the man’s hand afterward–that was certain.

I myself, never having been a skeptic by nature, plunked some money down for one of his books after the talk. My friends and I exited the theater onto a snowy sidewalk and crunched back to the car. None of us had eaten dinner beforehand and so, as if to mock us in our idealism, trap us in our hypocricy, reveal the entrenched nature of our food culture, or tickle our highly developed sense of irony, or all of the above, the Wendy’s drive-through presented itself as the only viable choice under the circumstances. After this inspiring talk about taking the high-road of life on the margins of the industrial food industry, it appeared to be the only convenient place open in Goshen at that time of night. We were starving, had a forty-five minute drive home, and our respective spouses–potentially grouchy from solo parenting–were waiting for us. The collective pull of your home responsibilities tells you to be moving on; the stomach tells you it needs immediate filling.

On the drive home I contributed to our zesty conversation about the ideals presented in the talk we had just heard, whilst taking pulls of diet coke from the unwieldy, sloshing, large and ridiculous drink cup that came with my Wendy’s value meal. I really love diet coke.

I’m not saying that it is wrong to get fast food. Don’t be shocked but occasionally I go to Wal-Mart too. Or maybe I am saying it’s wrong. Or maybe I would just like to say that in a deep down way I believe it’s wrong but I’m not standing up here saying it’s wrong. I’m just pointing out the irony of the entire situation– an irony that for me stubbornly pervades all my thoughts and hopes about living according to an ideal. It pervades them before they are even born into the real world of action.

Nevertheless, us chickens have made a few significant lifestyle changes in the last few years, punctuated by many delightful lapses, like frozen pizzas and salad greens in the middle of winter, which show no signs of tapering off. The struggle proceeds too slowly to ever feel very good about any of it, but, I suppose, it at least proceeds. I’m not sure if I really believe that living perfectly in any area, according to any particular ideal, will actually change anything about the world and its workings. And for that matter, there is such a variety of ideals espoused by people of all stripes, some quite at odds, that they probably cancel each other out anyway. For example, I heartily disagree with people who think that veganism is The Way to go, but there are plenty of people who do.

I’m thinking: as long as a passion for the outskirts of the industrial food industry grid hangs within me with a pure, intensely personal brightness, I’ll probably keep inching toward those outskirts for the rest of my life, fighting my own slovenly ways, and generally not giving up altogether. Sometimes, though, I do wonder if this passion, unasked for and unexplainable inside of me, was simply planted inside me as a tricky way to mimic and assist the real struggle of life, which is the struggle to pray and be completely convinced that prayer is the most important thing. It is difficult to be genuinely convinced of that, just like it’s difficult to be genuinely convinced that I can’t eat a bowl of coco puffs from time to time as a before-bed snack. Both struggles require resisting the overwhelming power of mainstream sensibilities, resisting the pull of what is considered sensible and normal for everyone, like the perfect normalcy of a grocery store. Resistance and progress in either area proceeds at about the same unimpressive pace, with lots of humanly understandable and justifiable lapses. The world is just that fallen.

(I took the photo above at the nearby farm where we and a handful of other student families here get meat and dairy. The farmer was showing us the fake grit given to chickens raised on industrial farms.)

  1. Manuela
    October 4, 2009

    Julia, I did not know that you started blogging again but I just checked your blog in hopes to find a new post. And there are three!
    I am so glad you are finding the time to write again. All three posts were entertaining, insightful, beautiful, inspiring, honest and intersting to read.
    It is almost like a part of you was hidden for months and is now coming out again.

  2. mollysabourin
    October 5, 2009

    I'm glad you're blogging again, Julia! You bring up an interesting topic (ideals vs. reality), one I've examined and agonized over, ad nauseam, throughout the last eleven years. I think your description of frozen pizza with organic greens describes my current state of mind to a tee. My quest for balance in every area of my life requires much prayer, patience, and most importantly, resilience. An all or nothing approach to food, faith or parenting inevitably brings out my "uglys" (anxiety, arrogance, despair) and hampers my ability to love others unconditionally (without judgement). Not knowing all the answers (ugh! Life is so complex) keeps me humble and dependent on Christ for wisdom. This is an excellent and thought-provoking post! And I love the photo. I hope all is well with you and your family.