Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Chapter 1 Summary
by Eric Schlosser

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Chapter 1 Summary

The Founding Fathers

Carl N. Karcher was born in 1917 on a farm in Ohio, but his life would affect the entire world. He lived the American dream, but he also began something that would have dire consequences for years to come. Hard work was the mantra of his German sharecropper home, and Carl (as well as his six brothers and sister) worked hard. After eighth grade, Carl dropped out of school to work long days on the farm. When his uncle offered him an opportunity to move to Anaheim, California, Carl moved west. The tall, twenty-year-old farm boy had never left northern Ohio, and the week-long drive must have been full of doubt and wondering. When he arrived and saw the glorious sights and smells of this foreign land, he thought he was in heaven. Anaheim was a small town then located in southern California’s citrus belt. Nearby Orange and Los Angeles Counties are the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Uncle Ben Karcher owned a feed and seed store downtown, and Carl worked there seventy-six hours a week. One week at church he met Margaret Heinz, and they soon began dating. He often visited her large, lush family farm that included ten acres of orange trees. Carl was mesmerized by the place. Once he had been overjoyed when he received one orange at Christmas; now he was surrounded by them. Soon he began working at a bakery in Los Angeles earning $24 a week. Carl and Margaret were married in 1939 and had a child in their first year of marriage. Carl’s job was delivering bread and buns to restaurants, and he observed the number of hot dog stands all over the city. When he learned a hot dog cart across the street from the Goodyear plant was available, he immediately scrounged the money (a loan from the bank using his car as collateral and $15 from Margaret’s purse) and bought the cart—despite his wife’s misgivings. He continued working at the bakery and hired a couple of young men to work the cart when he was not available. The menu included hot dogs, chili dogs, and tamales (at ten cents each) plus soda for a nickel. World War II broke out five months later and the Goodyear plant was producing—both for the war effort and for Carl. Soon Margaret was manning a second cart.

Southern California was changing, primarily due to the migration of people from the Midwest during the Great Depression. The car became the primary mode of transportation in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, in which nearly eighty percent of the population was not native. There were nearly a million cars in the city by 1940—more than in forty-one other states combined. Cars seemed like the cheapest form of transportation because, unlike the cable and trolley industries, the auto (and oil and tire) industry convinced the federal government to provide and maintain public roads. Many innovations necessitated by the automobile began here. Southern California was the site of the first motel and drive-in bank, and food service provided to people too lazy to get out of their cars grew hugely popular. While such curbside restaurants existed in other places (such as Texas), only in southern California were such places open year-round. The early drive-ins were round, gaudy, and neon in order to capture the attention of drivers looking for someplace to eat. Waitresses known as car-hops worked primarily for tips and dressed in themed costumes; they provided fast, friendly service for the new teen hangouts.

Four years after he bought his first cart, Carl Karcher owned four hot dog carts in the city and still worked for the bakery. A restaurant across the street from the Heinz farm was for sale, and Carl bought it. He quit his job and began cooking for his new venture, Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, which opened on his twenty-eighth birthday. It was an ordinary-looking building except for a star above the neon sign. He and Margaret worked hard, and Carl would make his “special sauce” after hours once a week. Business flourished in the area after...

(The entire section is 1,161 words.)