Friday, May 12, 2006

Writing in community, In-N-Out Burger and better fast food

This week I was in Los Angeles, meeting with the Catalyst Leadership Forum and the writing team behind the book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. There's a romantic myth that imagines that books are written by solitary authors who retreat like a hermit into a cabin in the woods, waiting for the muse to speak until they produce a masterpiece. In contrast, this particular book was truly written out of community. The Catalyst Forum met annually from 2002 to 2004, sharing best practices and insights from healthy Asian American churches, writing up one another's stories into chapter drafts, then critiquing and contributing to each other's chapters.

This week we celebrated the book's publication with a dedication service, praying for the book and commissioning it like a missionary to go places we cannot go personally. And then we all autographed each other's copies, like high school yearbooks. It was particularly meaningful that even forum members who had not written actual chapters also signed, since they were part of the community that contributed to the book's writing. It was the first time I had signed books that I had edited, and I was honored to be part of the book's birthing process.

Anyway, much of our time together involved eating, as Asians always do whenever we gather. We had Brazilian barbecue and fresh seafood, and ate lunch in a restaurant's wine cellar (it felt like we were the apostles in a lower room rather than the upper room). But our last meal together before we all departed was at In-N-Out Burger. The forum members from the West Coast told those from other parts of the country that if they have not yet had In-N-Out Burger, they could not leave California without having In-N-Out Burger. So we made our pilgrimage.

If you've read Fast Food Nation or seen Super Size Me, you know that there are plenty of problems with the fast food industry. Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat This Book talks about how several Southeast Asian nations have had skyrocketing rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, which were previously unknown in those regions due to healthy, mostly vegetarian diets. The increased health problems correspond almost exactly with the introduction of McDonald's to those nations. It only took twenty years for McDonald's to wreck the healthy eating habits of societies that had had traditional agrarian diets for hundreds of years.

At any rate, besides pursuing alternatives like organic, natural foods and the Slow Food movement, folks have wondered if there are ways to redeem fast food and make it better. And In-N-Out Burger is often held up as one possible role model. In-N-Out makes all their burgers fresh - their ground beef is never frozen, and they use no additives or preservatives. Their fries are made onsite from whole potatoes, cut just before being cooked. Every burger is made to order; they use no microwaves or heat lamps. They also limit their menu to just four items - burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks. They just do those few things, and they do them well. And their pricing is competitive - a cheeseburger, fries and shake was $5.01, not much different from a McDonald's value meal, and more satisfying to my palate and my conscience.

Interestingly enough, In-N-Out was founded by Christians, and you can still find Bible verses like Proverbs 3:5 and Revelation 3:20 in small print on the burger wrappers and drink cups. I don't know that all that many people have become Christians because of reading a Scripture reference on a burger wrapper, but I still like the idea of supporting a company that has been intentional about having ethical and sustainable business practices. Those of us from around the country may wish that In-N-Out would expand beyond the West Coast, but on the other hand, I think their distinctiveness and charm might be in part because they have kept themselves local. If they grew too big and expanded too far, they might be tempted to compromise their model. I was glad to give In-N-Out my business and to commend it to others. Now I want to find out what like-minded companies are present in my local community so I can support them as well.


Anonymous said...

In-N-Out is THE BEST! Lest you think I'm a beastly consumerist, let me tell you that even my two In-N-Out T-shirts were gifts given to me by a former colleague during my most recent trip to L.A. My only point of contention with this blog is the suggestion that they not expand out of SoCal!

Anonymous said...

There is a corporate tussle taking place in In-N-Out between the one surviving founder and her granddaughter. People are afraid that that granddaughter wants to change In-N-Out and expand it to the Midwest. It's such a big issue in SoCal that even the LA Times ran an editorial against possible changes.

In-N-Out is wonderful, by the way. I eat there at least once a week.