Mystery Object #2: Arby’s Sauce Dispenser

“The Appearance of Variety”

Sometimes mystery objects can be right in front of my face—camouflaged by their ubiquity. All it takes is just the right moment, when my guard is down and then suddenly I see them for what they really are. This is definitely what happened last week when I came upon this amazing object.

I had been walking back along University Avenue after shooting a collection of photos of the light rail construction when I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I was next to Arby’s when the wonderful smell of deep-fried Good Friday fast food fish hit my nose. Arby’s had a sale on their fish sandwiches—at an obscene price. I think they were two for three dollars. Unable to resist the aroma of deep fried fish I went in and ordered two sandwiches.

I found a seat across from a most amazing object—a dispenser of five different sauces. The dispenser, done in bright colors, promised me the choice of ketchup, Horsey Sauce®, Arby’s Sauce®, a mustard or Spicy Three Pepper® sauce. Admittedly, only a few of the sauces would likely taste good on my fish sandwiches, but the choice that the dispenser offered made me consider trying every flavor.

As I ate, I considered the Arby’s sauce dispenser as an artifact of American food culture—of the logic of contemporary food production and consumption. The dispenser offers the colorful appearance of choice, of variety and the satisfaction of individual tastes. Beneath the colorful appearance of difference, however, the sauces are all largely the same. Their primary ingredients are high fructose corn syrup, oil, water, and vinegar. They are only differentiated by a small amount of spices and artificial colors and flavors.

Of course sauces are common in many different culinary traditions. Generally, however, they are used to prepare foods or to be eaten with specific foods in commonly understood ways. It seemed to me that the difference with the sauces in the dispenser is that they are not intended to go with just one food—they are general sauces. There is not a culinary tradition behind using a specific sauce with a specific food—the customer him or herself gets to choose what they want.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the sauces aren’t made to enhance a food’s flavor but to provide it.  The “different” sauces are applied to the company’s bland, homogeneously grown and prepared food product. The roast beef, fish or chicken are simply a bland industrial protein served on a bun. The protein is then a foundation for sauce—adding the flavors that the food was prepared without.

I see the sauces as an opportunity to customize my mass-produced food—to make it fit my taste—to make it mine. Beneath this appearance, however, we are engaged with food production and consumption in a way that is remarkable similar. In this way, the “sauce logic” of the fast food experience is both homogenizing and individuating—we can all feel that we are being unique individuals while consuming the same.

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