It was early evening, I was really hungry and the only relief in sight was the Ramapo Thruway so-called service station. I put gas in the car and went in to see what gas they had for me. I grew up before the Thruway went in and listened to nothing but my extended family’s extended conversations about how the road would destroy upstate. Later in my life, as the contracts were let for which agribusiness would manage the food on the Thruway, I wrote an article about local food. At the time I didn’t know what the local food movement was, just that local restaurants, instead of franchises up and down the automotive spine of the state, might be a way to limit the damage. I proposed to the Thruway Commission that local owners put up locally owned restaurants at each exit. That would make driving more interesting and keep fast food from threatening the feast of life. I imagine pork and sauerkraut at Exit 19, arugula salad at Exit 20, etc. I got confirmation that this was a good idea last Wednesday night as I sought nourishment in Ramapo.
Anyway, searching for my meat in due season, I realized there are only two franchises at Ramapo. One is McDonald’s and the other is Uno’s, a pizza place. I settled on the pizza place, only to observe that the warming tray was dead empty. I practically wept as I asked the young woman behind the counter if there was any hope for one such as I to get a pizza. “Sure,” she said, “I’ll make it fresh for you.” “You will! How long will that take?”
My thoughts went utopian and my stomach gurgled. I was both thrilled at the idea of slow food on the Thruway and distraught at waiting for a freshly made pizza. She took care of my gurgle and left my utopia alone. “One and a half minutes,” she said. So it was that I entered my own country of ambivalence about food. I want it slow and I want it fast. I want it local and I want it cheap. Mostly, when it comes to food, I want it now. When we have it now, it tends to taste like that “fresh” pizza in Ramapo. Its virtue was that it was warm. Its sin was that it was made of something that long ago was grain, the white flour and something long ago, the tomato, that was fruit. The cheese was no longer cheese and if the pepperoni ever was food, I’ll be surprised. As I wolfed down my warm glob of chemicals, I thought about the sources of my food. In Florida the tomato pickers get a pittance a bushel. Nobody could possibly pay the migrant workers any more than that because otherwise I’d never get that round, warm, 800-calorie, nutritionally worthless globule for just $6.99. You have to add the truck and its gas, the middleman’s middleman’s middleman, the lawyers they hire to fight the migrants so they don’t get more for picking the tomatoes.
Then there are advertising costs to make me want the pizza. The unionbusting lawyers who make sure the woman who made it fresh for me doesn’t make too much money. Then there is the package, which is at least 11 percent of the product. They don’t charge me for eating this stuff in the car while driving down the Thruway. That pleasure is free. The culture of fast food is amazingly conformist, boring, tasteless and unhealthy–and people think that the slow food movement is a “weird” idea. You figure.
I remember my church in Miami with more fondness than is probably legitimate. That doesn’t mean I like everything about it. Because some New England Yankees founded the congregation in 1925, every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, there used to be a pilgrim festival. The whole congregation had pilgrim outfits and pilgrim hats. The women would sit on one side of the congregation and the men on the other, just like in the days of yore, 1,200 miles north. The minister would read long-winded proclamations. Tableaux of live pilgrims would be the backdrop on the altar. Someone carried a big musket he had brought down from Boston. He led the procession with his wife, who carried an old Bible in with the gun.