Category Archives: food

Why the U.S. excels: sex, bombs and burgers

In thinking about Sex, Bombs and Burgers in an American context - which I’ve been doing a lot of lately given its U.S. launch this week - I’ve been reading up on something called “exceptionalism.” It’s a theory that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and holds that the United States is somehow a special nation in the world. While the term didn’t originally confer a sense of superiority, it has since been adapted by some thinkers to lean that way.

In considering my book, which focuses heavily on the U.S., I think there may be something to the theory, that the United States is indeed a special - and perhaps superior - nation. It’s an abhorrent thought to many non-Americans and especially us Canadians, but in fact, it’s sex, bombs and burgers that are the symbolic roots of this exceptionalism. Some explanation is in order.

Sex (pornography) = freedom. On Wednesday, I wrote about how the U.S. is a porn leader. Like it or not, pornography has its place in a prosperous and exceptional nation. American producers have argued for decades that what people choose to do - or consume - in their own homes is their business and that government has no place in it. For the most part, the courts have sided with them, enshrining free speech as one of the country’s most protected laws along the way. While there have been other tests of this tenet, the right to sex and pornography has essentially been at the vanguard of American freedoms.

Bombs (military) = opportunity. On Tuesday, I outlined just how much money the U.S. military spends every year, much of which has direct ties to corporations and educational institutions. While researching and designing new weapons of war isn’t exactly the most noble of pursuits, the consumer and humanitarian spinoffs are wide, varied and numerous. As such, the military provides a deep funding pool for anyone who is willing to dip into it. Recent examples include some of the most successful companies in the world, such as Google and Apple.

Burgers (food) = surplus. In my Thursday post, I detailed how the United States is the biggest food exporter in the world, a position it has enjoyed since at least the Second World War. Indeed, Americans have so much food that they throw out more than many nations produce. If ever there was a Land of Plenty, the U.S. is it.

When those three things - surplus, opportunity and freedom - are put together, amazing things happen. While some nations may have more of one or the other, no one else comes close to matching the sum combination that is found in the United States. Success is therefore built into the country’s very DNA.

This is especially true when it comes to technological innovation, an area the United States has led for much of the past century. While countries such as China and India are coming up in the world both economically and intellectually, they don’t currently match the right blend of surplus, opportunity and freedom. Moreover, they’re unlikely to any time soon because of long legacies and historical traditions that will be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

It doesn’t apply to just those big countries either - it affects smaller nations such as Canada as well. Here, many are now worrying about a possible collapse by our biggest technology company, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. The fretting is almost pointless because, as I wrote several months ago, the collapse is inevitable. Canada simply doesn’t have the right mix of surplus, opportunity and freedom either (opportunity is our biggest problem). We are a country that excels at producing small businesses, but those companies will inevitably get swallowed up by bigger concerns and our best and brightest will depart for greener pastures down south.

When it comes to innovation, other countries are - and will be for some time - just satellites that revolve around the United States. It’s a tough pill for many to swallow, but there’s no shame in it. Despite American exceptionalism, the world is truly global now and we all have our parts in it.

There’s also the possibility that the U.S. could do something incredibly stupid - like ban pornography, or enact the Stop Online Piracy Act - to sabotage its own specialness. Many people in many other countries are crossing their fingers…


Posted by on January 6, 2012 in food, RIM, sex, u.s., war


America’s food is its best military weapon

Today we wrap up the unholy trinity of Sex, Bombs and Burgers - American division, in honour of the book’s U.S. launch - with a look at the food part of the equation. Realistically, I probably should have started with this aspect as it’s the one that makes everything else possible. Food technology is, after all, the foundation of any country’s prosperity.

The United States is, not coincidentally, the most prosperous country in the world as well as the biggest food producer there is. Today, it’s the biggest per-capita exporter of food by nearly double - the next country on the list, France, produces only about half as much. The American food system has in fact created so much abundance that it literally wastes more food than many countries produce. Americans actually throw away about half the food that is harvested for them.

By the numbers, American consumers spend a trillion dollars a year on food, which is roughly split between supermarkets and restaurants. About half of that restaurant amount - a quarter of a trillion dollars - is spent on fast food. It should be no surprise that Americans have some of the highest caloric intake on the planet, as this map illustrates.

It should similarly not be a surprise that many of the world’s biggest companies are American food producers. Pepsi, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods and McDonald’s are Fortune 500 companies that form the backbone of an industry that is worth nearly $5 trillion dollars, or around 10% of global economic output. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on January 5, 2012 in food, u.s., war


Fast food joints looking to escape the ghetto

QSR magazine, the Time or Newsweek of the fast-food industry, recently released its top 100 news stories of the year. Most were ho-hum, but one that struck me was #4: “Wendy’s Tests New Prototype.” As the entry goes:

After hearing feedback from customers that its brand was tired and dated, Wendy’s unveiled a new store prototype in Columbus, Ohio, that allows diners to see the fresh preparation of food and offers more comfortable dining areas for customers to lounge in. The new store is one of four the company is launching. The new prototype in Columbus includes a WiFi lounge area, a new premium coffee program, updated interiors, and an exterior design inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

No kidding. Given that I sometimes write about fast food, I do on occasion pop into such establishments - for research, of course - and I haven’t been able to help but notice that many of them are, simply put, ghetto dumps. With looks that haven’t changed in 20 to 30 years and the onset of grimy decay, a lot of fast-food joints look like what many people say they are: decidedly low class.

The smarter chains know this and are taking action. McDonalds, the industry king, recently announced it was spending $1 billion on renovations in Canada - and it shows. Say what you will about the food, but most recently renovated McDonalds restaurants feel very different than their competitors. You don’t feel dirty just by sitting in one.

The other night, I was at a Christmas party for media hosted by new wireless operator Mobilicity. The man behind the cellphone company is John Bitove, who also runs a number of other businesses including a whack of KFC and Taco Bell franchises. I remembered reading something a while back about how his company Priszm was looking to unload the franchises because the parent company, Yum Brands, wanted expensive renovations. Read the rest of this entry »


The mystery of the missing poutine

I’m back from Montreal and getting through the pile of work that’s accumulated while I was gone. Regular blogging will resume next week.

In the meantime, if you follow me on Twitter you may have caught my pilgrimage to La Banquise, a Montreal institution that was recommended to me by several people as the best place to eat poutine. Being something of a connoisseur of the stuff, and given that I’m working on a story related to it, I felt it was my duty to check it out.

As with Smoke’s Poutinerie here in Ontario, La Banquise has some truly monstrous creations. I was told to try the T-Rex poutine, which has ground beef, bacon and hot dog slices on top of the fries, cheese and gravy. It was a killer meal that ultimately defeated me, making me feel like I was on an episode of Man V. Food. I got about 90% of the way through it before I was out-meated.

Was it good? Sure, although I couldn’t really tell how good the base poutine underneath was because of all the meat. Nevertheless, I’m already dreaming of my next visit to Montreal and the inevitable return to the restaurant.

On a related note, Postmedia News recently had a story about how Quebec’s big chicken chain, St. Hubert, is about to embark on a big expansion outside of the province and into other countries. I spoke to some representatives from the company a little while back and learned about this too, but I was more surprised to find out that St. Hubert restaurants no longer have poutine on the menu. You can order it on line and you can ask for it at restaurants, but it’s not on the menu.

The public relations representative was a little cagey as to why this was. She mentioned something about a cheese supply problem in Quebec, but I can’t say I bought that reasoning. Given the amount of poutine consumed in the province, it would be akin to a natural disaster.

I didn’t eat at St. Hubert during my few days in Montreal, but I feel like I should have so I could have gotten to the bottom of the missing poutine (rank and file employees will often tell you what PR people won’t). Alas, it’ll have to wait for another visit - unless somebody out there wants to check for me and report back?

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Posted by on November 4, 2011 in food, poutine


Population bomb theory is a myth in a vacuum

No sooner had I finished writing about how technology fears are stoked by supposedly learned people and the media than another example rears its ugly head. This time, with the world’s population exceeding seven billion people, it’s new worries of a population bomb.

For those unfamiliar with it, the concept is at least as old as Robert Thomas Malthus, an English reverend and scholar of the late 18th and early 19th century. Malthus believed that if the world’s population kept growing at its then-pace, humanity would run out of food and other resources and experience a catastrophe that would greatly thin out the herd to a more manageable and sustainable size.

Of course, it didn’t happen and it probably never will despite vocal kvetching by modern-day Malthusians, simply because population growth does not occur in a vacuum. Everything else - particularly technology and the economy - grows alongside it. So far, this has served us very well, despite the increasing population.

The reality is that technology, economy and population are interlinked. The more a country has of the first two, the less it has of the third. A quick glance at birth rates confirms it - the rich, technologically advanced countries in North America and Europe typically have the lowest while those in Africa have the highest. Going by those figures, it’s obvious that the more prosperous a country is, the fewer children its people have, for reasons that are equally clear.

Historically, people had many children so that there would be more hands to work the land, but in a non-agrarian society that doesn’t make much sense. Moreover, with both parents typically working, it’s not practical to have many kids, from both a time and expense perspective.

The good news - not that the media ever really reports on this - is the global economy is doing a fine job of alleviating poverty, despite what the lingering economic crisis and Occupy Wall Streeters would have everyone believe. Over the past five years, about half a billion people (most of them in China) were elevated out of abject poverty, something an op/ed in the Jakarta Globe recently called the “fastest period of poverty reduction the world has ever seen.” As the article put it, “advances in human progress on such a scale are unprecedented, yet they remain almost universally unacknowledged.”

Fortunately, some people are taking these developments into account. The demographers at the United Nations know this, which is why they’re projecting the world’s population to peak at about 9 billion about 40 years from now, then decrease. Their reasoning is simple: as people become wealthier, they have fewer children. On that end of things - the input, if you will - population growth is slowly but surely sorting itself out naturally.

All of this growth - whether its population, economic or technological - that we’ve experienced over the past few centuries is hardly a bad thing. People everywhere - in countries rich and poor - are living longer and considerably better than they did a century ago, largely thanks to technological improvements in food production and medicine. Those inputs will continue to improve, so the dire predictions of how food production will need to increase by 70% to accommodate an even larger population may not actually be all that hard to meet. People who worry that the world is running out of food and water are perhaps not taking this inevitable technological advancement into account, the same way Malthus didn’t consider the improvements brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Sometimes when you live in the forest, it’s hard to see the trees. For practical purposes, it might be hard to visualize some of the future gains the world is going to realize from all the technological advances currently being made, but we can expect with a high degree of certainty that they will happen.

The worriers are also perhaps being too cynical about human nature. While some are right to point out that rich, advanced countries simply waste too many resources, we do have a certain pragmatism too, which explains all the effort being put into developing alternative energy sources and more sustainable food production. If a shortage problem really does happen, it’s reasonable to expect that people in rich nations will lend a helping hand, the same way they did for the African famine in the 1980s and every other disaster since.

Should we waste less stuff? Sure, but until there are real and proven wide-scale shortages of oil, food, water or any other resource, people know on a subconscious level that the Malthusian population bomb theory is just a myth no matter how much the media tries to scare us.


Posted by on November 1, 2011 in evolution, food, health


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