Lament of the Gas Station: Why Do We Expect So Little From Our Food? (Part 1)

Think of a place that you associate with bad food, with a plethora of disgusting, old, tasteless crap. It’s a place we all visit out of necessity when traveling and where we often find ourselves buying such food, despite our better judgement. That three day old doughnut sure looks beautiful, and that old package of beef jerky smells salty underneath its layer of dust. Like tired, hungry sailors on shore leave we are drawn to these ugly, but cheap wenches. You’ve got it…the Gas Station! Ah! But has it not always been so? Bad gas station food is a time-honored tradition. I’m here to say no, it does not have to be this way!

North America has a long, long, love story with junk food, but it goes beyond junk. Many of the foods available to us are of surprisingly poor quality, full of preservatives, and with not an ounce of integrity. However, this post is not about food empowerment or about the evils of large industries. I simply wish to highlight the fact that we, as a culture, expect and accept the worst. Do I care if you, the individual currently reading this, enjoys an occasional burger from a big chain or has an infatuation with Twinkies? Nope. Personally, I really like Butterfingers, but that does not define me or my diet.

A few years ago I vacationed in France, driving around the Loire Valley. France is of course famous for its culinary traditions, but little did I know that it extended to gas stations and rest stops.

Eating in France

Eating in France

They had bakery counters that served a range of baguette sandwiches and baked goods that would put most American sandwich shops to shame. Instead of 12 hour old coffee sitting in a dirty pot, they had futuristic vending machines that for one euro served decent expresso, cappuccinos, and lattes. Now I’m sure France also has some mediocre gas stations and the US and Canada have a handful of good ones, so please don’t yell at me. The junk food was still there in France, but it did not have the monopoly. Yet, most of Europe is dominated by the same big chains and multinationals as in North America, and these gas stations were part of a chain, but chains don’t have to serve bad food and provide bathrooms scented with eau de urine.

I think these differences are an expression of our tastes and expectations; pure capitalism at work, supply and demand, those opportunist bastards. This isn’t really about scale or about supporting local foods. If we set aside food politics it comes down to cultural differences and it leads to my question: Why do we expect and accept so little? In studies and discussions of food and health, I feel this is a forgotten angle, maybe because it is so subjective. It also goes beyond issues of poverty and education, although they are obviously relevant. In later posts I will highlight how eating good, simple, real foods is often cheap and these are available in regions considerably less privileged than our own. So has eating junk become the privilege of the privileged?