Now, I didn't really want to write a political piece about Pete Wilson and why he was such a hypocrite. I've tried hard to avoid writing about politics and politicians. But I wanted to show people that, far from being parasites, these illegal immigrants were propping up California's agricultural industry -- which to this day is the most important sector of the state's economy. I had no idea that agriculture was still so important there. When you think of the California economy, you think of high-tech industries like Silicon Valley, you think of Hollywood. You don't think of poor, desperate migrants picking fruits and vegetables with their bare hands. But at the heart of the state's economy is this hard, ugly reality. That was true back in the 1990s, and it's still true today.
So in my article for the Atlantic, I wanted to write about farm labor economics, the history of illegal immigration, and the role of illegals in the California economy. But I wanted to do all this by telling the story of something very simple and concrete that we all like to eat: strawberries.
You know, I love strawberries. But when most people see a display of strawberries in their local supermarket, they don't realize that every one of those strawberries has to be very carefully picked by hand. Strawberries are very fragile and easily bruised. So if you want to produce a lot of strawberries in California, you need a lot of hands to pick them. And during the past thirty years -- which is the period when, surprisingly enough, the California strawberry became enormous -- those hands have belonged to people who are likely to be in the state illegally, who are willing to work for sub-standard wages in terrible conditions.
Instead of writing a political rant about immigration policy or Pete Wilson, I just wrote something that said, "Look, here's where your strawberries come from -- and here's what the consequences are."
That article about migrants in the Atlantic Monthly was read by the editors at Rolling Stone -- Jann Wenner, Bob Love, and Will Dana. They called me into their office and said, "We loved your article, and we'd like you to do for fast food what you did for the strawberry. We want you to write an investigative piece about the fast food industry. And we want you to call it 'Fast Food Nation.'"
In retrospect, that was a damn good idea. But at the time, I wasn't so sure about it. The editors at Rolling Stone didn't know much about the fast food industry, and neither did I. It wasn't at all clear what the scope or the focus of the article would be. And I didn't want to write something that was snobby and elitist, you know, a put-down of Americans and of their plastic fast-food culture. I still ate at McDonald's then, especially when I was on the road. I really like hamburgers and French fries, and I don't consider myself some kind of gourmand. So I knew what I didn't want the article to be, but I wasn't really sure what it should or could be. There was a basic question that needed to be answered: What's the story here?
Jann and Will were really curious about the industry and thought it was worth exploring. So I told them, "Let me think about it."
Q. By the way, do fast food companies advertise in Rolling Stone?
Yeah, the magazine's main readersyoung males -- are a major demographic for the fast food chains. Jann Wenner was willing to go after some of his own advertisers, which I give him a lot of credit for.