From Alabama to Colombia: Fast Food Nation, Redux

Travel Features Alabama

The glitzy fast food emporium rises three stories high over Calle 116. A familiar sign flashes red—in English, no less—from a plate glass window: Hot Krispy Kreme Now.

Upstairs, behind other plate glass windows, customers can watch young Bogotanos mix dough then stamp it into thin circles the size and color of apple rings. These little doughnut embryos ride conveyors up and down inside warming ovens, swelling to maturity in plain view. They float out into a river of sizzling oil that browns them on one side. A magical device flips them midstream to brown on the other.

The migratory doughnut herd passes beneath a white waterfall of melted sugar, then coasts onward, the journey almost done, down a sugar-glazed steel belt toward the open mouths of hungry Colombians.

Across the street at a Hooters, a line stretches out the door and into the street. Soccer games show on every TV screen inside, and long-haired girls in tight hot pants serve beers and wipe tables. The McDonald’s next door looks the same as they do on Main Street USA … and so do KFC and Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway and other United States fast-food franchises that now serve their fare (fast!) in well-to-do sections of Bogota.

If we really are what we eat, then a lot of Colombians will be Americans soon. (Yes, I know Colombians already are Americans, citizens of the Americas. In this column, I’ll refer to U.S. citizens as Americans.)

If grumbling about food hegemony goes on in Bogota, it mostly stays beneath the surface. Colombians for now can have their fast food and slow food too. On days when they don’t feel like a Happy Meal, they can still visit one of the city’s numerous tiendas for traditional cooking.

A tienda is a Latin pub, often basic, just a table and chairs, a place for cold beer and time-honored comfort food like grilled pork, or empanadas with cheese, chicken, beef, even mushrooms. I’m fond of bandeja paisa, a country platter heaped with pork and frijoles and rice, with sides of avocado and fried plantain, a fried egg sometimes served on top.

Colombians also enjoy traditional food on the streets. In the early mornings, entrepreneurs push carts like huge rickshaws through sleepy neighborhoods. As a dazzling tropical sun rises over the Andes, umbrellas pop out like urban flowers. The street vendors grill arepas, the national food, a sort of corn patty often filled with cheese. Other vendors sell mango, the ripe slices cold and orange, the green ones salted and peppered, with a splash of vinegar. You can buy whole avocados, sliced and salted, and café con leche in little plastic cups impossible to hold without scalding the fingers.

The local coffee deserves mention. I have never once, in more than three months here in Bogota, had a bad cup. Whether tinto, black, or in various other sugared and milked presentations, the native Colombian bean tastes good. Maybe it’s the same phenomenon the Irish swear to be true about Guinness, that it tastes better the closer one gets to the 500-year-old Dublin brewery.

Juan Valdez coffee holds the same grip on the national taste bud that Guinness has on the Irish … or that Coca-Cola holds on Americans. (They sell a lot of Coca-Cola here in Colombia, by the way, but you can’t find a Guinness to save your freckled neck.) Eyebrows rose high on a lot of foreheads when yet another powerful American franchise recently invaded the holy caffeine space. The first Starbucks in Bogota opened in the Parque de la 93, a ritzy dining and entertainment area.

There’s no backlash that I can see, no boycotts, no bean-burnings. Colombians can be testy about things, but they seem respectful of Americans and enamored of the lucky lives Americans lead. You could exit most any Delta flight to the states believing that every single Colombian has visited Orlando and has five relatives in North Carolina.

All this raises a question, of course.

If fast food is bad for Americans, won’t it be bad for Colombians too?

Photo: Flickr/Jeffrey

I recently made a trip home to southeast Alabama, where I was born and raised. My mother and I waited in the car outside a Sam’s Club on a Sunday morning after church. We entertained ourselves, perversely, by counting the overweight people who passed in the parking lot.

We conducted three short surveys, sampling by tens. In the first, 7 of 10 people carried too much weight. In the second batch, 6 of 10 walked with a waddle. In a third sample, 7 of 10 were overweight, including two morbidly obese human beings who looked a lot like old high-school buddies of mine—but I couldn’t be sure.

In Colombia, some worrisome fast-food effects have begun to show. Obesity rates are on the rise, and the problem affects too many school children, who can nowadays get their hands on starches and sugars unavailable to their ancestors.

Corpulence somehow seems to throw its wide shadow wherever we find rising standards of living. In the past few years, more than 4 million of Colombia’s 60 million citizens have exited poverty to enter the middle class. More prosperity, including the jobs brought by all those new fast-food franchises, will raise the numbers even higher.

More jobs and stability help everyone. Meanwhile, what is lost?

Entering a mall in Bogota feels much the same as entering a mall in the U.S.

You walk right into California. The toys come from Silicon Valley and the fashions and gear come accessorized with Hollywood hype. Men want Steve Jobs’ phones. Women want scanties like Giselle’s. Kids want anything they see on TV. Every single item appears to be made in China.

In years ahead, it will be fascinating to watch what happens as capitalism and commerce deepen their taloned grip on this proud Latin American culture.

As in so many other nations, including the U.S., a traditionally rural way of life in Colombia rapidly gives way, year by year, to an urban one. Some of the pueblos, the little towns, around Bogota appear inhabited only by silver-haired older people and children kicking soccer balls. Working-age people live in the big city, chasing the almighty peso.

Some work at McDonald’s, flipping burgers. Some wear orange shorts at Hooters. Some empty the sugar trap at Krispy Kreme as customers look on, happily munching fat sweet sphincters of fried dough. The working men and women all lie down at night and dream their Colombian versions of the American Dream.

When Juan Q. Public gets up in the morning, he has a good cup of coffee, and he goes to work. He and his commuting herd ride oily rivers of tarmac, sugarcoat any regrets about their lives. They roll down the long gray conveyor belts of modern life toward the open mouths of their workplaces.

Around them, the ancient green peaks of the Andes touch the sky.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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