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13/07/01 . John Walsh . Independent.co.uk . UK
Who Ate All the Burgers
For decades, we've been living in a fast-food world. Suddenly, everywhere you look, there's McTrouble. Could it be that we're finally overcoming our addiction to saturated fat and cardboard chips, to Happy Meals and nursery décor? Could the burger era really be coming to an end at last?
I could never understand about the gherkin. The rest of the fast-food package seemed to make sense in a curiously random, slung-together way - the tomato sauce, the strands of shredded lettuce, the sesame seeds on the toasted bun, the skinny chips, the extruded-cardboard tray - but the gherkin defeated me. What was it doing there? Who ever thought that any beef dish in history could be enlivened by a small pickled cucumber? It was disgusting. The taste reminded me of the smell of Venice, around the back canals in late July.
Like the Apollo Moon landings, or mood-altering substances, the memory of your first fast-food treat refuses to go away. I was living in Dublin in 1976 when McDonald's opened in Grafton Street, in the heart of the shopping center. Half the city turned up to check out this gleaming new snack bar. The queue of fascinated Irish gastronomes stretched round to Nassau Street. They chatted in the sunshine as if about to take their seats at a concert; they knew they were in at the birth of a global phenomenon, and were keen to register their personal view of it. We liked the gleaming chrome fixtures, the primary red-and-yellow nursery decor, the pleasing wooden tables with the "eezee-kleen" Formica tops, the metallic-sheeny food counter, and the girls and boys with their soda-jerk hats and Disneyland uniforms.
Tentatively, fantastically self-consciously, we ordered a burger and fries with a Coke. A brave woman, probably a tourist, ordered a Big Mac "to take away". What a terrible show-off she was, we thought.
We sat on the infant-playgroup chairs and took our first bites. Mine seemed fine until I encountered the gherkin. "Yuck," I said, "what the hell's this doing in here?" One by one, the others responded in the same way until four sliced, pickled and discarded green roundels lay pathetically draped over a polystyrene box. "Do you think they put in the gherkin just for a bit o' color?" asked the lady on my left, "or a bit o' salad?" "Not at all," said the woman on my right: "'Tis the only thing that tastes of anything apart from the ketchup." We nodded, finished our fizzy drinks and went out into the sunshine. "Not a success then?" I asked. The others made faces. "So you won't be coming back then?" I asked. "Oh sure," said the youngest."Why wouldn't I?"
There you have the paradox of McDonald's world. We did not like its noisome concoctions, and we went on eating them. We disapprove of the whole fast-food ethos and we end up saying: "The children are starving - isn't there a McDonald's somewhere in this wilderness?" We come back again and again to this dispiritingly childish experience as if mesmerized by a Mickey Finn (can it be the gherkin?). When it comes to bovine acceptance of what we're given, we are sad clowns as much as Ronald bloody McDonald himself.
Until now. Something is happening in Burger World. Things aren't going according to plan. Yesterday, Diageo, the drinks giant and owner of Burger King, announced that the foot-and-mouth crisis and worrying memories of BSE were affecting the sales of burgers right across Europe; so much so that the company is looking to sell the chain of 11,000 restaurants outright, or float it off as a separate business on the stock market, while the parent company gradually pulls out of food-related concerns. This is tough news for Burger King, which is in the middle of a $50m "restructuring" operation that precipitated the resignation of its president, Mikel Durham.
Meanwhile, things are far from rosy in McDonald's, the big daddy of Planet Fast Food with its 29,000 outlets in 120 countries that have made it the target du choix of Molotov cocktail-throwing anti-global demonstrators. In April the company announced a drop in profits of 16 per cent in its first quarter - again due to flagging sales in foot-and-mouth-haunted Europe. Its shares have fallen 15 per cent since January. But you can't blame everything on the livestock scare - this is the company's second quarterly earnings decline in a row. Look round and you find a remarkable new culture of complaint and disaffection in the land of the golden-arch logo and the clowning playmate.
Consider the following: this week, a McDonald's manager in Slough, Berkshire, told a court how he was (allegedly) instructed to fire a long-standing Asian employee and warned that there was too much "pepper" (ie. black personnel) employed in his restaurant. There's more race trouble in America, where Hindu lunchers are filing a suit against the chain for using beef favoring in chips, instead of vegetable oil as it promised. According to the Dow Jones News Service, a whopping 11 per cent of the chain's 43 million customers worldwide are sufficiently unimpressed every day with their McDonald's "unhappy meal" to complain to the management - and most of them are dissatisfied too with the way their complaint is handled. "Rude counter staff" is the most popular, er, beef, but "running out of Happy Meals" and "slow service" come high on the list. Customers are reported to be turning away "in droves".
Some are doing more than simply expressing displeasure. They are being violently sick. Every single day, 200,000 Americans are laid low with food poisoning - most of it blamed on fast food. But when it happens to McDonald's customers, the company's response is sometimes a little tactless. When a young friend of mine went down with salmonella after eating a McDonald's Indian dish at a London branch, his mother complained - and was kindly offered free-meal vouchers so he (and she) could enjoy the experience all over again.
A suspicion that has lurked in people's minds for 26 years - that they are eating, frankly, animal crap in a bun - was reinforced when Eric Schlosser published his best-selling book, Fast Food Nation, earlier this year. All over the US consumers paled as they read of "fecal contamination", the feeding of cows with cattle and chicken blood, the fact that the average burger contains meat from hundreds of cattle - and the strangely non-chicken nature of the Chicken McNugget (a white gungy substance held together by chemical stabilizers, injected with "beef extract"). Readers held their stomachs and resolved to give up fast food for ever.
Can this be the real reason for the sudden decline in fast-food fortunes? Have we suddenly grown up and decided not to be treated like kids, force-fed in brightly-lit rumpus rooms with bland, de-natured, zero-flavored non-food cooked at maximum speed on an industrial assembly line? It can't be that we've only just realized it's rubbish, and unsatisfying rubbish at that; we've known for years. You have only to open your Big Mac and consider the squat grey place-mats of meat - which resemble no meat known to mankind but rather a form of unleavened bread on to which some grey blotting paper has been unskillfully grafted - to remind yourself how off-putting this stuff is.
No wonder successive advertising agencies produced TV commercials for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders without ever actually showing the product. What's happening is that we're making the logical connection at last between cattle-disease epidemics and the blandly nasty luncheon snack we hold in our guilty hands. We've gone off the whole idea. We've gone off the problematic joy of the queue, the guilty wallow in saturated fat, the trashy floundering in cardboard boxes and cardboard fries, the near-English nomenclature ("A Quarter Pounder Meal is medium fries - do you wanna go large with that?"), the feeling that we too are on an assembly line, becoming as fattened and artificially plumped by this bizarre sustenance as any hapless McChicken. We cannot take any more.
McDonald's, to its credit, realizes this. With fast-food profits as flat as a cheeseburger slice, it is attempting to diversify into exotica. Into hotels, such as the three Golden Arch hotels in Zürich and Geneva in Switzerland and Lully in France. Into middle-class sandwich bars, with a 33 per cent share of Pret a Manger. Into hot dogs, which were launched in the UK recently, the first in the company's 46-year history. Into chicken, pizza and Mexican food chains. They've even, in a minimal nod to healthy eating, come up with the McSalad Shaker, a mêlée of red cabbage, grated carrot and supermarket lettuce in which half a dozen bits of clammy chicken tikka masala (supposedly now the nation's favorite dish) have been patriotically concealed.
Will we buy it? Will we continue to be suckered by the idea that "convenience" and food-as-fuel-stop somehow justify our support of a repellent meat-recovering industry? Will the toy in the Happy Meal be the only thing that governs our choice of children's lunch venue in the future? It is, perhaps, time to get sense. Time to reject the whole culture of contamination, the cuisine of cack. Time to reject that goddamn'd gherkin once and for all.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd