Sunday, October 24, 2004

"Super Size Me" and the Mysteries of Institutional Food

by Tom Bozzo

The baby's arrival hasn't allowed a ton of time with two hands free for non-baby blogging, but we have started to catch up with offerings at the video store. One of last week's features was Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me."

This was the scariest film I've seen in some time (1), particularly in its digression into the horrors of the school lunchroom. Along a somewhat similar vein, our 3-1/2 days in the hospital had me contemplating the mysteries of institutional food service.

Airline food of the sort provided in the economy cabin of a good international airline, or the upper classes of not-so-good domestic airlines, could be said to suffer from misplaced ambition -- it aspires to be acceptable one- or two-star fare, but is stymied by the preparation and service constraints of airliners and physiological effects of the pressurized cabin environment. But at least someone's trying -- airlines retain high-status chefs as food consultants, etc.(2) That was not the conclusion I'd have drawn from Suzanne's meal trays.

My main impression of the hospital fare was that it was prepared by someone who had never read (or watched) Julia Child, for someone who had never heard of Julia Child. I came up with a few candidate explanations:

I'd be inclined to put higher weights on the first, second, and last candidate explanations. Insofar as Spurlock notes that schools that serve real food get good results at no higher cost than that of the crap that most schools offer, a point also vividly made a while back by Barry Levenson of the Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum with respect to the Madison schools (4) in an Isthmus article that I'd have linked if it could be found on the lame Isthmus website, I don't think that ingredient cost is necessarily the issue so much as purchasing apathy.


(1) This is about the only kind of "scary" I get to see with Suzanne, who has little or no taste for overtly scary or intense films. She can take, say, "Rear Window" but not "Psycho."

(2) I owe this to an excellent article on airline food from the Times (London) Sunday Review from about 12 years ago, now locked away in the Times' paid archives with nary an abstract. The last international flight I took was on Northwest (food: unspeakable), and I haven't flown a foreign-flag carrier since the mid-90s, so I can only guess what might have happened in the interim to the higher-service airlines' offerings.

(3) Since I don't get out to the far east and west side commercial strips that often, it's easy for me to forget about this market segment (the label was given in a Wisconsin State Journal item on the closing of a Damon's restaurant somewhere on the far west side), but it's evidently big business and is probably not materially more reliant on fresh-prepared food than the fast food segment.

(4) While I greatly prefer our Dudgeon-Monroe location overall, one plus for the Middleton Hills development (for out-of-town readers, a "new urbanism" neighborhood that is a simulacrum of our old urban neighborhood with bigger houses on smaller lots given over to large multicar garages) was that its elementary school has/had some sort of program to serve real food to the students. My standards aren't necessarily that high -- I doubt there was ever anything green in my grade-school lunches (5), and I was fueled by Coca-Cola (the old sucrose-laden variety) in high school as much as anyone.

(5) Typically, brown-bagged sandwiches and Twinkie-type snacks -- our Catholic elementary school had no cafeteria.(6)

(6) Apologies to all for going all David Foster Wallace with the footnotes.
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