Basic sociology in the story of a fancy burger from cattle breeding to plate

The story of a $20 hamburger in Washington, D.C. reminded me of several basic sociology concepts from Introduction to Sociology:

ham burger with vegetables

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box…

On the burger’s journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer’s dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano’s. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

A few of the sociological concepts in the story:

  1. The miracle of modern systems. The number of people involved, the travel, and the meanings and social policy it play all hint at the complexity and ability of rationalized processes to bring a burger to the home of city residents. Reminds me of Durkheim’s organic solidarity and division of labor as well as Ritzer’s McDonaldization.
  2. The human involvement and costs all along the way. Producers and workers struggling, consumers eating the product with little idea of how it all happened, and an economic and social system that tried to make it as profitable as possible. Furthermore, many of the people are faceless and their personal and collective circumstances – whether race, class, or gender – are obscured or ignored. Reminds me of Marx and alienated workers as well as consumption patterns within modern capitalism.
  3. I am struck by two additional factors that perhaps could be hinted at during Intro to Sociology: does this story illustrate urban-rural divides? The city residents, young 30-somethings order fancy burgers after a week of white-collar work, ranchers raise cattle in the middle of the country, and faceless workers in between facilitate the exchange. And does this illustrate how broad social change is within the United States over the last century? Some aspects of this story could fit 100 years ago – the shipment of beef and other agricultural commodities helped make Chicago and other places – while other aspects would be unheard of. People need to eat and make money but how this happens evolves over time.

Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas

The size of McMansions provides a lot of interior space. How is it used and how does this relate to gender?

If the exterior of the McMansion is imposing and garish, the interior provides room for family activity. The ubiquitous open concept kitchen and living area with updated appliances, surfaces, and island provide space for social gatherings, storing stuff, family interaction, and solitary time for residents. This is private space par excellence in the United States.

The interior emphasis on kitchens and living space can be connected to norms and expectations regarding women, home, and family life. If the large and flashy exterior of the McMansion leans toward notions of masculinity in the United States, the roomy interior leans toward the work of women serving as supporters, wives, and mothers. The men may seek escape in a “man cave” (which suggests the rest of the interior space is not for men) and children may seek solace in their large bedrooms but the center of the home in terms of time and activity still generally involves the kitchen and attached living spaces. Even with a shift away from cooking food at home, there is still much sentiment and many expectations attached to women working in the kitchen.

Going back to the McMansion of The Sopranos, the big suburban home may represent something different for Tony’s wife Carmela. While Tony wants to come home and relax and bask in his success (including running his nuclear family), the McMansion offers Carmela space to entertain and show others that she is taking care of her family. Through gatherings and food as well as the size and location of the home, Carmela can show she is ensuring the success of her husband and children. See the two cookbooks published with Carmela’s imprint on them. Her kitchen is open to an eating area as well as a family room where the family can watch TV (though there are other spaces to escape to or that are used for more formal gatherings). Toward the end of the show, she pursues work outside of the home – though that work is still connected to houses – and encounters difficulty convincing her own family that this work outside the home is worthwhile.

Similarly, many an HGTV episode features a reveal of an open concept kitchen and living area that is often said to be for a female resident. This can be the case even if the people on the show admit that they do not cook often; the kitchen is seen as the primary gathering space. Thus, if McMansions strive to provide sizable and gleaming kitchens and living spaces and such spheres are often associated with women, the primary family and social areas in the McMansion are gendered.

A restaurant smaller than a McMansion dining room

McMansions are known for having a lot of space; certain restaurants try to keep the dining room very small. Thus, the comparison between an Omaha cafe and a McMansion dining room might not seem out of place:

You feel at home in Sojourn the minute you walk in the door and down a hall that’s separated from the eating area. When you reach the cafe, it’s much like you’re entering your own dining room. The serving area, with 12 tables for four, is smaller than some dining rooms in suburban McMansions.

OmahaRestaurantDiningRoom

However, this appears to be a decent-sized space with room for twelve tables, 48 customers (plus the small countertop in the back), and still some room for people to get by. And if this estimate of 12 square feet per diner is anywhere close, this space has roughly 570 square feet.

This would make for a very large McMansion dining room. Even with the interest Americans might have in always having some extra space, how many times does a McMansion owner need to seat 48 people? A 20 foot by 20 foot square McMansion dining room comprising of 400 square feet would be smaller than this space. A 40 foot by 15 foot rectangular dining room would be slightly larger than this. The size of this cafe is probably more akin to a great room or family room in a McMansion rather than a dining room.

So why the comparison here to a McMansion? Two guesses. First, the emphasis is on the relatively small space of the cafe. While the video does not suggest the space is too tight, the dining room would certainly be lively with a half full or more dining room. This is not a suburban chain restaurant with tables upon tables; this is a limited space. Second, the description attempts to highlight the coziness and warmth of the space. McMansions have plenty of space as well as limited charm due to their cookie-cutter nature and cavernous rooms.

Bringing grocery stores to rural areas and considering free markets

Declining populations in some rural areas means it is more difficult to sustain grocery stores:

Some states are trying to tackle their rural grocery gaps. Supporters of such efforts point to tax incentives and subsidies at various levels of government that have enabled superstores to service larger areas and squeeze out local independent grocers. Now, dollar stores are opening in rural regions and offering items at lower prices, posing direct competition to local groceries.

Critics see that development as a threat to public health, since dollar stores typically lack quality meat and fresh produce.

But every town and every store is different, making statewide solutions elusive. Some legislators say they are reluctant to intervene too heavily because the market should close the gaps…

In rural areas, the poor tend to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.

Providing a range of social services and cultural services is an increasing issue, ranging from medical care to religious congregations to food.

While there are logistical issues in how to run, supply, and sustain organizations across such broad distances with limited participants, the political approach cited in this article is interesting. Should more conservative states provide government assistance for grocery stores? The article suggests there is some reluctance for state governments to step in. But, this might be exactly a good case where free markets simply cannot work well: there are not enough people in certain areas to generate profits or efficiencies. Plus, the federal government over the decades has helped rural areas, such as through rural electrification projects. Will state lawmakers refuse help just because of commitment to certain ideologies?

This situation also suggests Americans could think more about providing services in ways that do not have to generate profits. Instead, the services exist to serve the community. Think cooperatives. Think community-based organizations meant to help sustain each other rather than make a profit.

Grow fruits and vegetables in the front yard instead of a lawn

One journalist discusses alternatives to the grass lawn that dominates the front yard of suburban homes:

Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk…

Ms. Bordessa sees room for edible experimentation, even in the front yard. A clever homeowner could tuck food-bearing alternatives like basil, peppers, eggplant and blueberries into the flower beds without disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic. Grow a fruit tree and the neighbors might even come knocking for a free peach…

But this spring, I decided to plant more and mow less. A local landscaper who specializes in native plants stopped by my house to offer advice. When I suggested the possibility of a vegetable garden in the front, she steered me to the backyard instead, pointing to a narrow swath near the driveway that gets full light. And I could shrink the rest of the back lawn with native plants like sweet fern, sweetbells, witch hazel and silky dogwood that thrive without full sun. In the front, we could expand the existing flower bed and add new ones. She glanced at me and said, “Of course, you’d need to take care of all this.”…

That first crop was so tasty that each season the couple expanded their patch, planting beets, squash, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, chard and peppers. The plants filled the backyard and wrapped around the side of the house, generating enough produce to feed five food-insecure families in the area every week. Their ambitions grew with the crops. “If we’re going to do 10 plants, why not 20?” Ms. MacLagan said. “Why not the whole seed packet?”

Since the front lawn is part of the important display from the homeowners to the street, any effort to do something different than normal – grass and some bushes, flowers, and trees within reason – might catch attention. These suggestions about growing food in the front go even further as they alter the front lawn from a symbol of normalcy or class status and change the focus to production. Then, the conversation is not just about aesthetics or fitting in with surrounding lawns; it is about cultivating the land for a more practical rather than symbolic use.

I wonder how many comments or concerns are tied to different aspects of having a front yard garden:

1. Does it matter how much of the lawn is a garden? Is a small garden more acceptable compared to 50% or the full land?

2. Do the kind of fruit and vegetables plants/trees planted matter? Some might be more visible as food producers.

3. Is it better to have all garden plants or would including flowers and other non-producing plants help soften the shock of a garden?

Food delivery services and restaurants aiming for the unsaturated suburban markets

Skift Table suggests the suburbs are ripe for increased restaurant and food delivery activity:

Outside the urban cores, things get interesting. Earnest Research shows that in the rest of the U.S. market, it’s a head-to-head battle between DoorDash (31 percent market share) and Uber Eats (with 30 percent). In third place is Grubhub, coming in at 27 percent…

“Many suburban areas tend to have a larger number of chain restaurants than independent mom and pop restaurants, making it advantageous for Grubhub to offer takeout from these familiar chains to local residents who may not be accustomed to the idea of ordering delivery,” says Katie Norris, Senior Manager of Communications at GrubHub…

But not all restaurants need to be located on Main & Main to succeed, thanks to the ever-expanding reach of digital marketing and social media. And raising capital might also be within closer reach than once thought. “To mitigate high rents, many brands are opening in second-tier locations and that’s very attractive to investors,” says Chad Spaulding, Managing Director at the U.S.-based investment firm Capital Spring. “We spend more of our time seeking low-rent, low-investment type opportunities that provide a value to the consumer that you can count on in tougher times in the wider economy.”

Suburban locations not only fit this bill, they also solve the urban issue of oversaturation. There is simply less competition the farther afield you go. And now, you can actually go further than before. Because Uber Eats drivers and DoorDash dashers can soon be there to meet you — in 30 minutes or less.

There may be less competition and cheaper rents but there are certainly other costs such as increased driving distances to deliver food and finding ways to attract suburbanites to a physical location.

In the long run, it would be interesting to consider what it would take to raise the level of suburban food to that of major cities where awards, interest, and big name chefs seem to be much more common. Does fine dining and innovation in food require a density of restaurants, food workers, and well-heeled customers or could this all come together in some way in the suburbs? Could the suburbs of today who are often interested in developing entertainment and cultural districts really go after high-end and innovative food as a strategy to successfully compete against suburban fast food and chain restaurants?

Only McMansion owners want expensive deliveries of stone crabs

One Miami business owner describes his business and customers:

The process is simple. State law declares that stone crabs have to be cooked with six hours of being caught. For Abramowitz, there are about fifty fisherman and fifty boats who rake in thousands of pounds of stone crabs every morning. The crabs are then dunked for three minutes in boiling water, and placed in ice, where they will stay fresh for over three weeks. Then Abramowitz places them in boxes and ships them nationwide, using FedEx…
The average Fresh Stone Crabs order is over $400. His customers are mostly doctors, lawyers and CEOs with McMansions, all looking for someone to cater a party with fresh crabs. “It’s like a caviar business,” Abramowitz says.

The national shipping ability seems like a recent move for this business. Thus, it may be possible that the owner knows whether Miami area customers actually lived in McMansions.

At the same time, this description seems a little too convenient because of the two pieces of information provided about potential customers. First, we hear that the orders are typically pricey. A $400 price is a little different than ordering McDonald’s or ice cream delivered to your door. Second, we are told about the occupations of those doing the ordering: professionals who tend to have larger salaries. Who fits this bill (and could also desire caviar)? McMansion owners!

It sounds like the use of McMansion here is part of a description for people with money. Since McMansions are also often criticized for their architecture, this is not a positive term. Would a business owner want to say to people spending $400 on crabs, “Nice McMansion you have here?” Or, is it more likely that he is saying that the kinds of people who can afford and like to order stone crabs are people who live in larger houses in ritzier areas? And one way to say that quickly is to call their homes McMansions.

Job growth in the food service industry

What does America make? Increasingly, at least in terms of the number of workers, the answer is food:

In 1990, manufacturing was almost three times larger than the food service industry. But restaurants have gradually closed the gap. At current rates of growth, more people will work at restaurants than in manufacturing in 2020. This mirrors the shift in consumer spending. Restaurants’ share of America’s food budget has doubled from 25 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent today.


Yet, as Derek Thompson notes, our national rhetoric is still stuck in the era of factories and manufacturing:

But the most important feature of the restaurant jobs boom is not what it may say about the future, but rather the fact that it is happening in the first place. Trump and other politicians often say they want to help the common worker. But then they talk about the economy as if it were cryogenically frozen sometime around 1957. The U.S. still makes stuff, but mostly it serves stuff. To help American workers, it helps to begin with an honest accounting of what Americans actually do.

The jobs landscape has experienced much change in the last half century. Certain sectors – such as the tech industry or manufacturing – consistently receive a lot of attention. But, could someone unite the interests as well as depict a group to the public at large that would include restaurant workers, service workers, and nurses (among other fields that have grown tremendously)?

“It’s part of the American identity to have a grill”

This is the final line in a story on grilling. Here are some updates on the American grilling industry:

Grill sales in America are growing only by low single-digit percentages each year, and the market is nearly 20% smaller than it was a decade ago, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

U.S. grill manufacturers — led by Weber-Stephen Products, maker of the iconic Weber grills — also face stiff competition from imports, which now account for 56% of U.S. sales, up from 46% a decade ago, the IBISWorld data show.

Grill sales are closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing industry. So, not surprisingly, the grill business was hammered between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession took hold…

The Fourth of July is the most popular day of the year for outdoor grilling, with 76% of grill owners planning to fire up their barbecues on the holiday, the HPBA says. Those summer bookends, Memorial Day and Labor Day, tied for second place at 62%…

And in the heated debate between gas and charcoal, gas has the edge. Gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1%. The remaining 2.2% of grills sold were electric.

Based on this article, then grilling is tied to the single-family home, the lawn and backyard, eating meat, and American holidays. Perhaps it is a symbol of having the leisure time to cook slowly outside. We can add the grill – perhaps the distinctive Weber grill in particular – to other consumer goods that supposedly symbolize the American Dream (McMansions, SUVs, large sodas, fast food, big TVs, etc.).

Yet, other people in the world use grills or outdoor cooking spaces. Are Americans really that unique in this regard? Bon Appetit takes a look at grilling around the world after this introduction:

For Americans, firing up the Weber and grilling up some meat has a distinctly patriotic vibe–we barbecue on the 4th of July, after all, and no image of the American Dream would be complete without a cookout-friendly lawn behind that white picket fence–but we’re not the only ones who pride ourselves on our skill with charcoal and tongs. From satay in Singapore to asado in Argentina, there’s a whole world of grilling out there. You can always find regional variations from city to city, town to town, and family to family, but here are some of the world’s great grilling traditions.

So, perhaps Americans just do the grilling in distinct ways: often in private spaces (backyards of owned homes) at particular times (summer holidays).

McMansions as symptomatic of overconsumption in all areas

Reporting on the growing size of American houses, one writer starts off the column this way:

Americans’ waistlines aren’t the only things expanding. Their houses are, too.

This is a common tactic used by journalists and other writing about McMansions in the last fifteen years ago. This could have two purposes:

  1. Link the size of large homes – not owned by the majority of Americans – to other areas of life where Americans are likely to experience larger items.
  2. The problem may not be big houses but rather the fact that Americans like to consume all sorts of things.

I’ve seen a number of examples cited including SUVs, large TVs, air conditioning, and steak. Food comes up occasionally, whether steak or big restaurant portions or oversized sodas.

Regarding the second purpose, few of the news stories have space for tackling how to reduce overall consumption. The criticism is clear – leading the story with the quoted line implies that both things are bad – yet unexplained.