Turning into a fast-food nation by fair means or fowl

Impact of fast food will be one of the biggest public-health issues of the next decade

It’s Food Month at The Irish Times, so I thought I’d research some culinary history. The year was 1997. At a dinner party somewhere in Leinster, a Japanese chef happened to be seated next to a petrol station mogul. The conversation moved on to convenience food and how chicken had yet to be mass-marketed to the Irish public. The chef mentioned panko crumbs and the 19th-century dish tonkatsu, and they hatched a late-night plan. A mysterious Vietnamese guest casually mentioned banh mi, the omnipresent French baguette in Vietnamese cuisine. The chicken fillet roll was born.

I’ve made up all of that, obviously, but fast food loves a “legacy”. The obsession with “heritage” narratives in fast food is borrowed from luxury brands and has filtered down the chain of products, in a manner much like Meryl Streep’s The Devil Wears Prada speech informing Anne Hathaway that her generic blue sweater was a product of Oscar de la Renta’s cerulean-coloured gowns, the popularly of the colour ever expanding until she fished a jumper out of a clearance bin.

Cheaper brands adopted tales of luxury as a way of suggesting authenticity. Such stories have become more numerous in artisan foods of late, and fast food has been replicating them. The chicken fillet roll story might as well be true, as cheap food grasps for its place in history, usually retold as some greasy version of the American dream. The problem with Irish fast food is that we can't tell those stories (unless we make them up) because we don't really have any fast food.

The closest we come to Irish fast food is fish and chips, but fish-and-chip shops were already popping up in Britain in the 1860s, at least 20 years before ours. As with most quality fast food, that trend was a product of immigration, with Giuseppe Cervi establishing the first chipper as we know them today. Italian immigrants also made the pizza slice an all-American fast food. Immigrants from the Middle East and Turkey have spread kebabs around the world. A German immigrant, Charles Feltman, started selling sausages in rolls in Coney Island in the 1870s. But many countries have their own indigenous fast food: German currywurst or British pork pies, Italian panini and pizza, Egyptian and Palestinian falafel, Chinese dim sum, Spanish churros, Mexican tacos. Those seem remarkably healthy when next to Irish fast food, which is an ever-expanding spectrum of kebabs, burgers, chips, burritos and massive, doughy pizzas.

The wurly burger
There are some local curiosities. Jambons: a pastry filled with an unidentifiable sauce and bits of ham. Spice burgers: deep-fried pucks of beef, breadcrumbs, onion and spices that were decomissioned and then reinstated after a public outcry that drowned out our dismay about the bank guarantee. The snack box: chicken and chips, in a box. Three-in-one: rice, chips and curry sauce in a tray. The wurly burger: a batter burger in a bun, subject to constant spelling disputes. Garlic cheese chips. Tacozony, a 986-calorie folded pizza filled with minced beef, cheddar, mozzarella and mayonnaise courtesy of Apache Pizza. Do any of these sound good for you?

We shouldn’t feel too bad though. The United States lives on fast food and products such as Doritos Locos Taco, a collaboration between Doritos and Taco Bell. That taco, which comes in a Doritos bag, is filled with mystery mush and tastes so far removed from food it’s hard to even describe. Try telling consumers that. When it launched last year, 15,000 new staff had to be hired to meet the demand. The taco hit $1 billion in sales last month.

Back home, the deli counter cartel has been expanding for years now without opposition. Which brings us back to the chicken fillet roll. A staple across local shops, petrol stations and supermarkets, especially given the ubiquity of Centra, Spar and Londis, most deli-counter food isn’t nice: mass-produced sandwiches, what Maeve Higgins calls “golden foods” – the glistening brown pastry of potato, chicken and to-be-confirmed products that all blend in to one. It’s a shame we’ve never managed to produce a piece of fast food that was vaguely palatable.

Chicken fillet rolls may seem trivial but fast food is a main contributor to an epidemic of obesity in the western world. In London they’re trying to counteract the impact on schoolchildren of cheap fried chicken by selling healthier alternatives nearby. In California they’ve tried almost everything, from spearheading calorie counts on menus to effectively banning new fast food outlets in south Los Angeles, where poverty and obesity are higher and undeniably linked.

Firefighting the impact of fast food will continue to be one of the public-health issues of the next decade. We’ve yet to reach the gross levels of US fast food but we’d want to watch that chicken fillet roll.