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Friday, April 02, 2010

Heaven on Earth

And on the 8th day, the Lord said: "Let there be the best friggin' sandwich imaginable."

Theological questions: what would it mean for God to say "the best friggin' sandwich imaginable?" Does it mean the best sandwich humans can imagine? Monkeys can imagine? God him/her/itself can imagine? Can God imagine a better sandwich than I can? And can God imagine a sandwich so awesome that even he couldn't make it? [Does this entail that God can't be omnipotent?] Can I imagine that? Did I just? Or do I just think that I did? Is anyone else qualified to tell me?

Anyhow, a few words about this madness. I am sure that most people reading this have more or less the same feelings about this sandwich as I do - it is ridiculous and a hazard to public health. What interests me, though, is the way that the sandwich can be understood as something not at all new, as sort of a natural and even necessary step for KFC to take. The advertising, obviously, is meant to make the sandwich seem revolutionary. The stated motto is "Unthink," as if the DoubleDown;s lack of bun is so worldview-rattling as to make you reconsider everything you ever thought you knew about sandwiches. It kind of reminds me of that (relatively) famous passage from Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" where the Madman runs around talking about how God is dead and everyone will soon lose their bearings and forget how to distinguish between up and down and good and evil and will find themselves tumbling around in an inconceivable meaningless universe. Yes, that's how we're supposed to pretend to feel when KFC steals our buns. In reality, of course, it's just one more permutation of the standard Base Meat-Supplement Meat-Cheese-Sauce formula. Every ingredient in the Doubledown was already on KFC's menu, likely even in combination with each other (there must have been a double-chicken-bacon-cheeseburger at some point), so that the only really "new" thing about the sandwich is that you have to eat it like a hashbrown.

I don't pretend that this is a novel or even moderately insightful analysis of the DoubleDown. Everyone knows and scorns all these facts. And yet, nonetheless, the company and all their marketing teams and behavioral economist squads have clearly decided that blatant lies and fake, pointless visuals (who cares what it looks like in slow-mo?) and aggressive tactics are the best way to sell the product. Watch the commercial, with the beast flopping around on the screen and people screaming "CHICKEN!" and uttering in total awe "It's got everything!" as if Chicken, Cheese, Bacon, and Sauce were the only edible foods known to man. As if vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients weren't part of the category "everything."

The thing is, the industry has no choice except to present its foods like this. The DoubleDown can best be conceived as an edible product (rather than as food - come on, what food has nationwide launch dates set out months in advance?), produced according to the logic and necessities of the fast-food system. This system is already completely intact, from the farmers who grow the corn and soy to the CAFOs that raise the meat to the slaughterhouses that form and the patties to the distributors who move stuff around the country to the storage units at the franchises. What's easier: to make a few tweaks with already-existing ingredients and procedures and to call the result new, or to find new suppliers for new foods, remodel factories to process different stuff, train new workers at those factories, come up with new shipping and storage methods, and in the end, risk making huge batches of a product that might scare people because it's made of things they're not used to? Consider also that KFC and other fast-food chains are operating at the very cheap end of the price spectrum - actually, it is incredible that it's possible to get so many calories for so little money - so that any if any of the processes mentioned in the second alternative above cost a bit more, KFC may have to raise the price of the sandwich 20 cents, which would be negligible were it not for the Wendy's across the street selling an almost identical product.

In a food system like ours that is somehow, oxymoronically, both incredibly centralized and incredibly competitive, the barriers that keep fast food chains from introducing truly new products are formidable, and the incentives are nearly non-existent. What can the companies do, then, other than shuffle around the pre-made pieces of some jigsaw-puzzle burgers and then try to do their best to convince us that whatever they've come up with is worth eating? Introduce a "new" product, sell it for a while, silently drop it off the menu when it loses its buzz appeal, and then introduce it again under a new name a few years later when people have mostly forgotten.

In conclusion, I'd like to mention one thing I love about Korea, which is: so much of the food here has been, more or less, the same for hundreds of years, and is therefore part of the national/cultural consciousness, and requires no advertising. Of course, the international and Koeran fast food chains advertise a lot, as do the major supermarkets and, of course, not owning a TV, I am pretty insulated from advertisements anyway. But I can't think of a single occasion when I've seen a billboard, TV commercial, or movie commercial for ginseng-chicken stew or recovery soup or beef ribs or tofu and kimchi or sesame seed powder soup or dumplings or any of the hundreds of traditional foods here. Back in 2006 I found it a little frustrating - you could go to a huge restaurant full of people, only to find that everyone was eating the same thing and there were only 5 or 6 items on the menu, usually variations on one theme. Now, though, I think it's pretty great - I decide whether I want rice or soup or noodles or stew or tofu or whatever, then go to a place that specializes. Everything is fast - not fast food fast, but not far behind either and cheap and I get to feel like I'm making my own decisions about what I eat. Beautiful. I swear I will try to do some Matnan-masticatables posting in the next few weeks.

Thanks for listening.