Famine and Fast Food

‘If I had some meat, I’d make a sandwich if I had some bread.’

I stepped up to the counter and waited my turn to order.  I was ready to eat and in a hurry.  But, she was not smiling now.  She just stared coldly.  Apparently, my response to her response sent her over the edge.

Let me start over.  At first she did smile.  ‘How can I help you?’   That seemed a friendly enough greeting.   I realized.  My chance had arrived.   I took a deep breath inhaling the aroma and salivating in anticipation of this delicacy.  Hot, rotisserie cooked seasoned chicken dripping grease on the bottom of the oven was mine for the asking, or so I thought.   A big smile made it seem even more inviting.

Fast, friendly service with freshly cooked food is the true recipe for success in restaurants. The establishment was crowded with people who either had placed their orders ahead of me or were just waiting behind me for their chance.  I was unaware that the chickens on the spigot were already claimed.  I knew I could get at least one.

It was her answer that sent upset me.  I didn’t shout.  But I responded as firmly and forcefully as I could and repeated my order, slower and more distinctly this time; ‘I would like a quarter chicken and chips (Kenyan/British term for French fries).’    She smiled again and repeated; ‘We don’t have any more chicken right now’.

That is when my American manners came out.  I could see plenty of the tasty morsels in front of me.  She must be mistaken or deceiving me.  I responded; ‘What!  Then why do you call yourself the Chicken Chateau (the names have been changed to protect the guilty)?  Why not change your name to ‘Chicken by Chance?’

She did not get the joke and it was clear that the other ten people behind me were not going to join me in chicken civil rights movement.  They would be just as eager to order the other selections on the menu of meat pies, chips and sausages.  They were used to having few alternatives.  I was used to having things as I wanted them, and now!

At this point her countenance changed.  She was not the bright eyed smiling counter clerk, but had morphed into the defender of a culture that sees fast food as a luxury not a right.  I saw in her face a desire to leap over the counter and hit me with one of the meat pies (if she had enough to spare).  I stepped away avoiding assault by sausage.  I was disappointed but awakening to a new reality.  Fast food in lands of frequent famine is an oxymoron.

In my opinion, there are few if any major western fast food restaurants in nations that are familiar with famine.  Famine and fast food don’t fit in the same sentence, let alone the same culture.  True hunger is famine.  I was just ready to eat, again.

Hunger is not about a deficient menu or being impatient at a lunch counter. That is just being ready to select from a variety of choices.  The choices in famine are deciding will I eat today or feed one of my four to six children, and if so, which child?  This game of Russian roulette at meal times is played out in many homes across the world.  Death ends with a whimper not a bang in this version of the game.

Many Kenyans have either experienced famine, or know of family members and friends who have played this roulette.  Fast food is not a critical issue.  Eating is the luxury.  Time is plentiful.  Food is scarce.  As my brother says; ‘if I had some meat, I’d make a sandwich if I had some bread.’

As I have stood at the counter of fast food restaurants in Kenya, I often see what appears to be plenty of chicken, hamburger meat, hot dogs, and even pizza makings.  However, the lines do not move quickly.  It seems that each order is placed on the grill as the customer walks up to the counter. Why is that?  Is it that the employees don’t expect the people walking through the door actually want to eat?  Is it that the menu has changed from day to day?  Is it that there are limited stockpiles of food in the storerooms? I think it is a combination of all of these.

I do know that quality control is an issue.  Depending on the availability and freshness of the ingredients, some items on any given menu are there only to tempt and remind, not to satisfy.  Most likely the vendor for this particular establishment either did not have enough chickens, or the truck broke down en-route to deliver that morning.  The road to town may have been blocked with overturned vehicles stuck in muddy potholes and the vegetables rotted en-route.  Or maybe the vendor found a better price for the goods.  To make things work, keep the menu simple and the customer satisfied.

The management of these establishments must keep a tight rein on pre-cooked food as the employees have lots of hungry friends, and relatives at home.  Anything extra could be easily diverted for such real and practical purposes.

My idea of the urgent, immediate, important and rush, is so, self centered and short sighted, that I lose the chance to savor food or even appreciate the abundance that I have. Food is essential.  Fast food is a much birth right to me as  ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’

Kenyan customers are not really in a hurry anyway as are Americans.  They don’t generally eat in their cars.  Driving and eating at the same time are incompatible with arriving on time or at all.  Shifting gears, avoiding cattle on the road as the herdsmen avoid oncoming buses, which are avoiding potholes, which have caused pedestrians to cross in the middle of the heavy traffic, would surely make the diner spill his soda in his lap and cause a rear end collision.  Better to eat the little that is there at the crowded tables.

After all, eating is the luxury.  There is plenty of time and there is plenty of real hunger out there.