How’d We Get So Cheap? A Conversation with Bryant Simon

Chicken nuggets against a blue square background imposed in the upper-left corner of an image of a charred industrial kichen after a fire, run through with horizontal red stripes, suggests an image of the U.S. flag.

I remember the Hamlet Fire, the 1991 industrial disaster at a chicken processing plant in rural North Carolina. The fire killed 25 people, mostly African American women, because locked doors prevented their escape. I was in graduate school writing my dissertation about women workers in the early 20th-century garment industry. The jacket image of "The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives" by Bryant Simon. The title appears on a yellow background above a photograph of a food processing facility.Some of my subjects died in the infamous fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, also due to a locked door. Press coverage of Hamlet frequently connected the two fires, separated by eighty years. The Triangle fire is remembered as the spur for factory safety regulations; the Hamlet fire has been forgotten by most. Bryant Simon is changing that.

His new book, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017), is a “who really done it” tale that reveals the conditions that made the fire nearly inevitable, from culpable owners to entrenched racism to deregulation. In our conversation, Bryant explains how he created a gripping story that puts race and labor at the center of food studies and a forgotten, rural town at the center of global capitalism.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Nan Enstad: Could you tell us the bare bones of the story of the fire?

Bryant Simon: On September 3, 1991, the Imperial Food processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina exploded. This was a chicken processing plant that made chicken tenders, fajitas, and other items in the town of Hamlet, which is an incredibly small town on the North Carolina-South Carolina border. What happened that morning was the product of the long process of the degradation of working conditions and of working people’s lives and security in that plant.

A black and white photograph of a black hydraulic hose draped over a white apparatus.

The failed hydraulic hose that caused the Imperial Foods fire. Image from United States Fire Administration, September 2007.

The specific circumstance of the fire was that a hydraulic hose that was used to open and close a part in a gigantic fryer that fried the chicken tenders was fixed with the wrong parts because the owners of the plant, Emmett and Brad Roe, had balked at buying the right parts. When the fryer was turned on it spewed hydraulic fluid all over the place, including under the flames that were heating the fryer, causing an explosion. The explosion was so intense that it would eventually rip a hole in the ceiling. Workers in the front of the plant ran out the front door; but workers in the back—and these workers were largely women, many of them African American, and many of them single mothers—ran to the back of the plant where they found the doors locked. In one of the cases the door was double locked and latched from the outside. That door only opened to the inside so workers who kicked at it frantically didn’t know that they couldn’t get it to open. Eventually, 25 people died that morning. Another 50 or so survived, and the fire left just about as many children orphaned.

NE: It’s such a dramatic story and one of the things that I’m really amazed at with your book is how broadly you tell the story. It’s a story of labor, it’s a story of food and the food industry, it’s a story of politics and deregulation and the dismantling of the New Deal, and it’s a story about race and the changing geographies of small towns. You pull together all of these different themes through the idea of “cheap.” Could you tell us about “cheap”? What you mean by it and how did you come to it?

A photo portrait of a grey-haired man in an open-collar shirt wearing glasses and looking at the camera with a serious expression.

Bryant Simon. Photo by Glennis London Pagano.

BS: My entry point to this story was the food that was made at the plant—the chicken tenders and fajitas. I really started to think about the relationship between the food that was produced there and the fire, and I kept coming back to how inexpensive the food was, how inexpensive government was made to be, and how little the town and the people who worked there were valued by others. I felt like the idea that could pull this together is the idea of “cheap.”

Thinking about cheapness was also a way to think about what fundamental transformations were happening in the United States at the time and how this event was in the flow of that history.

Hamlet lent itself to this kind of thinking in some ways because it was the perfect Fordist town. I don’t want to push that too much, but it was the kind of place where white men, and to a certain extent African American men, had good union jobs working on the railroads.  They were emblematic of that kind of arrangement at the time: that if people were well paid they would spend a lot of money. What I was struck by was how different the “cheap” model was. It was a different social bargain that said: “We’re going to underpay you. We’re not going to regulate your lives very much. But we’ll give you cheap goods in order to survive.”

We’re going to underpay you. We’re not going to regulate your lives very much. But we’ll give you cheap goods in order to survive.

I was constantly amazed when survivors told me that when they got off of work, they essentially made the food that they produced at work for their children at home, and not because they liked it particularly, but because they couldn’t afford anything else. Their bodies, from the wear and tear of work, wouldn’t let them prepare much else.

The idea of “cheap” was in the sources as early as Jimmy Carter saying, “We gotta cut regulations because people want cheaper goods.” At the time both Democrats and Republicans quickly moved away from a New Deal way of thinking to this idea of “cheap.” So I was using “cheap” to describe the food and the government, but it’s also a word that describes a kind of social bargain that particularly enveloped the lives of the working poor in America during this period.

NE: Work and workers can be abstracted or absent in some food studies, but what’s so significant about your book is that they are very present. How did you get at that sense of the workers’ daily experience?

BS: Well, unfortunately I had my own experience of trauma while I was writing the book. My father was run over by a car about halfway through writing the book, and my mom was witness to this. Afterward, it was easy to understand that she was suffering from PTSD.

The most interesting person I met was a doctor who was hired by an insurance company. He documented that workers were suffering from PTSD so that they would continue to receive workers’ compensation payments. He drove back and forth to Hamlet hundreds of times and really helped people through their battles with PTSD. He was also able to introduce me to some of workers and help me understand the problem and how to talk to workers about it. His name is Stephen Frye, and he’s one of the few heroes in this book.

I could see that people were suffering. The first time I met with the woman I open the book with, Loretta Goodwin, it was a cooler-than-usual September day in Athens. I went to her house, a house she had bought with some settlement money, and the windows were all drawn. It was as if light had never seen that house. As we were talking she told me a story that just sticks with me about how she still has trouble sleeping. She gets mad at the TV, really mad, when there isn’t a show on because she wants to be able to stay up as long as possible to keep the demons away. Overall, there were some things I knew I would write about, but Loretta’s story was something I didn’t know I would write about. I’m not sure if I would have written about it in the same way if I hadn’t sort of experienced trauma myself.

A black and white photograph of the side of an industrial building taped off by caution tape. Fire char marks are visible over a partially obscured doorway.

Image of the side of the Imperial Foods plant after the fire. Image from United States Fire Administration, September 2007.

NE: By bringing the personal experiences, the understandings and self-understandings of the black community, and experiences of trauma into a story that’s also about national political shifts—even global economic shifts—you make black lives important to how we understand big economic change. I wondered if you had ideas about how your work intersects with Black Lives Matter and with our political moment?

BS: There was no doubt that I was influenced by the protests in Ferguson and calls for Black Lives Matter and also to the more facile kinds of notions that “All Lives Matter.” As I was re-writing the book I made a really conscious decision to explore this idea and to explore the way in which people’s lives—working people and African Americans who are over-represented among the working poor especially—how their lives have systematically been devalued by the economy and by political decisions. When you start to use a cost-benefit analysis to think about OSHA, you ask: whose lives are jeopardized in that?

Opting out of the Big Food system [is not] a solution to the issues of poverty and ill nutrition for the poor.

I also thought it was an important corrective to labor history. In a lot of ways America doesn’t deindustrialize in the 1970s; it reindustrializes on a rural basis, and there’s a global phenomenon to this. The face that that reindustrialization wears is often the face of women, and often the face of people of color. Yet their stories as labor stories aren’t told very often. So those two things were really in my head very deliberately as I was writing the book—particularly the section at the end of the book. The workers of the Imperial Foods processing plant saw their lives and their tragedy in the streams of history.

NE: One thing you said was that North Carolina was the most industrialized state in 1991. This story is very much about rural and small-town industrialization.

BS: That’s a particular model that gets repeated globally. I didn’t want to push this too hard, but one of the ways we define globalization is the fluidity of capital. But workers can’t move. Then capital goes to trap them in these isolated and vulnerable places. That’s what globalization is. What happened in Hamlet is part of a process of capitalism that is really prominent across the United States around this period. Take for example those Iowa meat packing plants that were union shops that got closed and get reopened as non-union shops. This mobilization of the countryside for a kind of industrialization happens all over the place. Also, because wages are pushed down, in these places you often have an expanding pool of labor that makes it even more attractive for business to locate there.

NE: What do you think about the recent purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon. When I first heard the news, the radio reporter reflexively said that it will be good for consumers. How do you see this in the context of the politics of cheap? Is it really good for consumers that these huge companies are running our food system?

BS: We know this isn’t good. It’s a food system that’s dangerous; we can see the evidence all around us. And it’s based on a lie, and that lie is the price that they charge things. One of the crucial aspects of this conversation is to try and figure out how we can have an honest calculation of what things cost. What a lot of people are doing is opting out of the Big Food system, but that’s not a solution to the issues of poverty, and dangerous calories, and ill nutrition for the poor. So to me, these need to be part of the conversation.

A black and white photo of a crowd of fair-skinned, dark-haired people in winter clothing hold heavy fabric banners reading "we mourn our loss" and the names of two unions--the "Ladies Waist & Dressmakers Union Local 25" and "United Hebrew Trades of New York". Behind them are storefronts, printed with Hebrew and English words.

A demonstration following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Image from National Archives at College Park, July 2016.

NE: After the Hamlet fire, many people connected it to the very famous Triangle Fire in 1911. The two fires seem like bookends of an era that you’re trying to illuminate.

BS:  I end the book with the Triangle Fire, and I do that because of what didn’t happen in the 1990s. The Triangle Fire really did change the conversation in New York and the rest of the country. And the fire in Hamlet briefly changed the conversation in North Carolina, but it didn’t really change the conversation around the rest of the country. To me that speaks to cheap’s greatest power: to make its alternatives hard to see, hard to articulate, and hard to find. I was stunned by that, and in part I think that this is a story of a moment—the largest industrial accident in North Carolina history—that doesn’t produce startling historical change.

Featured image: Chicken nuggets and the charred remains of the industrial chicken cooker which was located at the epicenter of the Imperial Foods fire. Images from Evan Amos, October, 2011, and United States Fire Administration, September, 2007.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Nan Enstad is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she teaches cultural history, gender history, and the history of capitalism. She is the author of Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Popular Culture and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Columbia University Press, 1999). Her latest book, Cigarettes Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism in the United States and China, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2018. She is beginning a new project about corporate agriculture and the ability of local communities to control their economy and environment. Her previous contribution to Edge Effects was “How Activists Are Taking on Factory Farms” (October 2016). Contact

Bryant Simon is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of four books: A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (Oxford University Press, 2004), Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (University of California Press, 2009), and, most recently, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (The New Press, 2017). He has edited, with Jane Dailey and Glenda Gilmore, “Jumpin’ Jim Crow”: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton University Press, 2001), and, with Juergen Martschukat, Food, Power, and Agency (Bloomsbury, 2017). He is currently collaborating with James Giesen on Food and Eating in America: A Documentary Reader (Wiley, February 2018). His writing also has appeared in the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post. Twitter. Contact.

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