Writing about McDonald’s is a dangerous thing for a food writer. There are two possible outcomes: you turn up your nose and write a snobby screed, offending those who eat there and like it. Or you write something in its defense, and you piss off 99% of the people who read food blogs, who love “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and who think the entryway to Hell isn’t marked, as Dante suggested, with the phrase “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” but, instead, by golden arches.
Perhaps, if I tread lightly, I can avoid these two outcomes by simply telling the story of our Sunday drive home from Cape Cod and our detour, when we were hungry, to McDonald’s for lunch.
It wasn’t a very thought-over excursion. You know how car trips work: you’re on the road, you’re listening to powerful songs like “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell” by Das Racist (click that link for the hilarious song of the weekend), and someone in the car declares: “I’m getting hungry. Should we stop for lunch?”
You wait for the next exit and at the next exit, you see what options are available. And it just so happened that at the exit we exited to, the main option available to us was McDonald’s.
Let’s take a brief emotional detour, for a second, and note that much of my childhood was spent going to McDonald’s. So was Craig’s. For both of us, and the others in the car (our friends Josh and Anna) the name McDonald’s doesn’t immediately trigger “evil.” For example, in 5th grade, my mom threw a surprise birthday party for me at a McDonald’s. We were going to Florida for what New Yorkers called “intercession” (this is back when I lived on Long Island) and I thought I wasn’t going to have a birthday party. But then we walked into a McDonald’s and I saw my grandmother standing at the back and I thought: “What’s she doing here?” And I walked over to say hi and all my friends popped up and yelled “surprise!” That happened at a McDonald’s.
So some of that came flooding back as I sipped my favorite drink from childhood, the creepily named “Orange Drink”:
At least, they used to call it “Orange Drink.” Craig called it that too when he ordered, but the woman gave him a blank stare and told him the soda machines were self-service. When we went to get our drinks, I noticed the orange drink (which still tastes the same as it did 20 years ago) is now called Hi-C fruit something or other. But it’s still the orange drink.
Here’s the thing about the orange drink at McDonald’s: it’s the most honest thing on the menu.
It’s not posturing, the way this chicken sandwich was posturing:
Note the wording on the box: “All The Best.” Just those three words are suspect. Is this chicken sandwich really “all the best”? We know it’s not. We know this bread is filled with stabilizers and preservatives, we know that lettuce and tomato are limp and insipid and that the chicken itself was probably a tortured animal in a miserable cage fed a steady diet of industrial corn.
But it sure tastes good! That’s the shocking thing. As much as I’m aware of all that’s wrong with McDonald’s, that first bite of the chicken sandwich was a happy one. The chicken exterior was nicely crispy, the interior was wonderfully moist. And the orange drink, which isn’t pretending to be anything other than corn syrup mixed with food coloring, was a nice way to wash it all down.
And then there are the fries:
I won’t be the first food writer to note that McDonald’s makes terrific fries. I’ve read interviews with chefs who try to emulate that crispy exterior and moist interior, that perfectly pleasing balance of salty, savory and sweet. These fries are prevalent around the world for a reason: food scientists engineered the formula and the formula works. There’s no real arguing with that.
It’s how you feel afterwards that’s the problem.
The car ride home after McDonald’s was slightly unpleasant. All that food, however good it might taste in the moment, produces both a physical and spiritual aftertaste. You start feeling the chemicals on your tongue, you start wondering what your patronization of such an institution means for the rest of humanity. You start questioning how often you went there growing up.
But then you turn up Das Racist, play a game of G-H-O-S-T and think about dinner. That’s the thing about fast food; you don’t have to think about it much. It’s easy. It’s pleasing. That’s why it’s popular, but also why it’s dangerous.