What did you eat today? Perhaps it was an egg-and-cheese sandwich, followed by pizza, then ramen for dinner. Or maybe you had a breakfast burrito, grabbed to-go sushi for lunch, and noshed on a burger and fries to end the day.
I term these dishes “platform foods.” Though a sliver of culinary heritage, they make up most of our meals. Americans devour 200 sandwiches, 150 burgers, and forty-six slices of pizza a year on average—deriving a third of meals from these three foods. Add in packaged sushi and instant ramen, tacos, burritos, and nachos, fries and chips, and pasta and mac ’n’ cheese, and it is evident that a dozen or so platform foods account for most of our diet.
I borrow the concept of “platform” from the Pentagon. The innumerable weapons in its trillion-dollar budget fall into just three categories: ships, planes, and vehicles. The military calls them platforms because they can be hollowed out into shells and upgraded with the latest weapons, electronics, armor, and power systems. Similarly, most platform foods have an elemental quality based on the three grains that nourished the first civilizations: wheat, maize, and rice. As vital as ever, they provide 50 percent of all of humanity’s caloric intake.
Platform foods can easily swap components to create the illusion of variety. Fatburger, for example, has thousands of variations based on all possible combinations of garnishes, sauces, cheeses, proteins, and buns.
The illusion of variety extends across platform foods as well. Consider pepperoni pizza, carne asada burritos, cheesesteaks, pasta bolognese, and cheeseburgers. They are but variations of wheat, beef, and cheese. Other than the cheesesteak, they all have tomatoes. (While barbarians will add ketchup or marinara to a cheesesteak, purists know fried peppers and onions suffice for tomato-like sweetness.)
For restaurateurs, platform foods are low cost, high volume, and high profit. For consumers, they are cheap, filling, and tasty. Familiar and made from common farm goods, platform foods are easily adaptable. Pizza is said to have become popular in New York during the Great Depression because it cost the customer only a quarter, while “the owner racked up 90 percent profit.”
Platform foods developed alongside steam-powered transport and industry to feed a rapidly growing and mobile workforce. For example, in Yokohama, Japan’s gateway to the world, mobile ramen stands (yatai) near the port fed sailors, factory workers, and longshoreman, who would gulp bowls of factory-made noodles in minutes while standing. In late-nineteenth-century New England, lunch wagons serving pies and sandwiches were a fixture outside of factories day and night.
Nearly all platform foods bubbled up during the Second Industrial Revolution. The hamburger appeared in the 1890s in the United States (although who served it first is up for debate). The first known American pizzeria was already open in 1894 on Mulberry Street. Banh Mi originated in Vietnam during the First World War. By 1910, some 25,000 chippies serving fish and chips blanketed Britain, and a decade later curry houses established a foothold there. In Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, Jeffrey Pilcher writes, “Tacos gained widespread attention only in 1891, with the publication of Manuel Payno’s masterpiece, Los bandidos de Río Frío.”
In the United States, trains, refrigeration, and trucking built a national market for standardized inputs like bread and beef. This sparked a Cambrian explosion of beef sandwiches. Baltimore developed pit beef; Boston has roast beef; Philadelphia the cheesesteak. The Bear has brought a new generation’s attention to Chicago’s Italian beef. New York City can claim pastrami, the French dip is from Los Angeles, and credit for the Reuben goes to Omaha. (Buffalo’s beef on weck is an outlier, dating to 1837. The name refers to kummelweck, a roll crusted with salt and caraway seeds.)
As commercial districts boomed, platform foods were sold in mom-and-pop restaurants, soda fountains, and automats. A futuristic cafeteria, Horn & Hardart automats fed as many as 800,000 people a day who self-purchased dishes like pies and sandwiches displayed in hundreds of windowed slots. By standardizing platform foods, hiding the labor process, and normalizing eating alone, quickly, and around the clock, automats paved the way for fast food. (Automat, an Edward Hopper painting from 1927, captures the gloomy alienation of the new food technology.)
After the Second World War, fast-food chains serving platform foods took shape alongside cars and television advertising. Outlets quadrupled in the 1970s as women went to work in greater numbers and the right gutted social welfare and ground down unions. Advertisers encouraged workers stressed by dwindling money and time to see fast food as a treat to relieve family and work pressures. (McDonald’s classic jingle, “You deserve a break today,” was segregated into a soothing Barry Manilow version for white families and an upbeat R&B take by Jimmy Radcliffe for Black families.)
The pleasure platform foods provide makes them hard to resist. They synthesize the two sides of capitalism: the material with imagination. Marketing, branding, and psychology bridge the two sides. Not any burger, pizza, or soda will do; it has to be McDonald’s, Domino’s, or Coca-Cola. We believe that exchanging money for a Happy Meal provides magical qualities—pleasure, joy, camaraderie, satisfaction—otherwise absent from our lives. The desire for a specific commodity like Popeye’s spicy chicken sandwich can compel people to drive hundreds of miles, stand in line for hours, and even commit murder. But whatever the fast food, our dependence on and lust for it obscures its real costs.
Platform foods create a virtuous cycle for capital. Every step of the production process involves low-wage workers, from growing and harvesting grains, meats, and oils to high-tech factory processing to assembling meals in fast-food outlets. Completing the cycle, these workers often live on platform foods. Capitalists want as few inputs as possible to produce as many goods as possible. Fewer raw materials mean economies of scale, lower costs, and higher profits. Fewer inputs also align with capital’s tendency toward monopoly.
In its quest for efficiency and profit, capital has reduced the number of plants humans regularly eat from 6,000 species to just nine. Quantity has replaced diversity, shearing the human diet to a few goods produced at mind-boggling scale. About 5.5 trillion pounds of wheat, rice, and maize are produced globally every year (much of it for animal feed and biofuels). That’s on top of 1.4 trillion pounds of meat, eggs, and seafood, 910 billion pounds of seed oils and sweeteners, and 230 billion gallons of milk.
Food scientists transform these few elements into thousands of processed inputs and chemicals. Then they are assembled into patented brands—intellectual property. To engender cultish loyalty, the food industry spends nearly $14 billion on advertising a year and twice that sum on indirect marketing. Consumer loyalty and dirt-cheap ingredients equal outlandish profits. McDonald’s earns as much as 82 percent profit from its soda sales and 72 percent from its French fries. Fast food is relatively cheap, but it’s not a bargain. A Big Mac meal near me in Manhattan costs more than $14, whereas there are a hundred places a stone’s throw away that serve food that is tastier, more nutritious, and cheaper.
It’s easy to deride a Big Mac, and I think it tastes awful. But to be fair, everyone has a favorite junk food, including Michelin-starred chefs. Julia Child and Paul Bocuse, the renowned inventor of nouvelle cuisine, both praised McDonald’s old-style fries cooked in beef tallow. In my case, I love Doritos, Oreos, Cheetos, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Still, I think that the best-selling book The End of Overeating is wrong when it says processed foods are as addictive as cocaine. If that’s correct, what does Doritos withdrawal look like?
Many writers reduce the appeal of platform foods to science, erasing social history. Political machinations enabled their rise after the Second World War. As the (probably apocryphal) story goes, Washington told farmers to “get big or get out” to encourage taxpayer-subsidized megafarms, and it weaponized international food aid to make countries dependent on surplus U.S. farm goods, as Raj Patel describes in Stuffed and Starved. Platform foods have an iron grip on our diet because food manufacturers have engineered the social landscape to ensure their products are everywhere, while ruthlessly crushing alternatives. I have found Doritos for sale from the Canadian Arctic town of Inuvik to a shack in the Guatemalan jungles of Lake Atitlán.
Platform foods embody modern science and capitalism. The foods are energy dense both as a product of fossil fuels and as fuel for workers. They also reflect the era’s defining scientific breakthrough in which Einstein showed space and time were not flat or featureless as previously thought. Instead, Einstein proved space-time is the unified fabric of our universe in which time flows at different speeds and space is uneven terrain.
In our universe, platform foods compress and expand space-time. A McDonald’s burger can range over the planet, with meat from more than 100 different cattle reared in Brazil, Poland, Canada, and Australia compressed into a single patty. Supply chains of beef, wheat, corn syrup, and dairy that encircle the globe are compressed into massive warehouses, refrigerators, and granaries. Time expands as raw ingredients are produced year-round, freed from seasons, and processed foods are stored for months or years.
Quick to make, quick to order, and quick to eat, platform foods expand workers’ spatial mobility and compress the time they need to refuel. Junk food companies shape our space-time by being everywhere twenty-four hours a day so we can eat anywhere, any time. Think of how John Travolta struts down a Brooklyn sidewalk in Saturday Night Fever eating pizza in what might be the first recorded instance of New York’s signature “fold, eat, walk” method.
The reshaping of gastronomic space-time is most evident outside the home. We eat 70 percent of all meals away from our dinner table, including 20 percent in cars. Never before on earth have millions of humans been able to stuff their faces while hurtling down highways at seventy-five miles per hour.
With the explosion of delivery services, we’re approaching peak Star Trek by obliterating space-time itself. You speak your computer’s name to order any kind of food, or at least a fast-food replica of it, brought to wherever you are, whenever you want it. It’s not as instantaneous as The Next Generation’s replicators, but be assured capitalism is working on it.
Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who has written for the Guardian, the Daily Beast, the Intercept, The Washington Post, and other publications. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, cooked professionally in New York City, and is author of the forthcoming, Apocalypse Chow: A Junk-Food Loving Chef Explains How America Created the Most Revolutionary Food System in History (The New Press). Read all of Arun’s writings on Substack, and email him at [email protected] with question, comments, or to join a food tour.
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