At first, I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to accept the assignment. It ran the risk of becoming something terribly kitschy and ironic. So I did what I always do when I want to learn more about a subject: I went to the New York Public Library. Almost everything I write begins at a library -- and that is still true today, even with the incredible amount of information available on the Internet. I started reading books about industrial food production and the fast food industry. Some of the most interesting were memoirs written by the founders of the industry, people like Ray Kroc of McDonald's, Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza.
I was pretty amazed by what I learned. I was amazed by the size and power of the fast food industry, by the speed at which it had grown. There was so much that I'd never thought about, like the impact of McDonald's on American agriculture, the role of fast food marketing in changing the American diet, the obesity epidemic among American children, the huge political and economic influence of the big agribusiness firms.
I was intrigued. So I went back to Will and Jann, and I said, "Yeah, I'll take the assignment. But let's be clear about the scope of this story. I think it's going to lead in all sorts of directions, into all kinds of tangents. This industry has had an impact on many aspects of American society. And I should try to follow the story wherever it leads." And they said, "Great, go for it." So I did.
Researching and writing the article wound up taking me about a year, a lot longer than I thought it would. In the fall of 1998, Rolling Stone ran it in two parts. And looking back, although we called the article "Fast Food Nation," it was really never about fast food. It was about this country -- about what our food system reveals about our society.
Q. Are you saying that your work was driven by a political agenda?
No, I'm much more interested in history and culture and economics than in politics. I don't write with a specific "political agenda" in mind. I try to write things that are complex, that are open to different interpretations, that respect the reader's intelligence. I try to avoid simplistic explanations or ten-point manifestos. The writers whom I've admired most, the ones who have inspired me most, threw themselves into the big issues of their day. They didn't play it safe, hold back, or write for the sake of writing. Writers like Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, Arthur Miller, Hunter S. Thompson -- they were willing to take risks and go against the grain. My writing deals with many subjects that politicians also deal with. But that doesn't mean I'm interested in writing political tracts. For me, the crucial questions have always been: Is this subject important? Is it relevant? Is it meaningful? Is there something new to be said about it? When the answers are yes, I get to work.