Saturday, March 20, 2010

My life at McDonald's

McDonald's received another dose of great publicity this week when a Colorado woman revealed that a Happy Meal she left out for a year maintained the same shape and look for 12 months. It didn't age and, though she didn't try this, probably tasted the same as it did the day she walked it out of her local restaurant.

It brought up the normal criticisms of McDonald's and its preservatives, as people everywhere wondered what fries and a burger do to your body if they don't decompose when left out in the open (to me that's a good sign; maybe the ingredients preserve livers, kidneys and stomachs as well as they preserve dollar burgers). It could be a hoax but it seems believable, despite some obvious flaws in her methodology.

I read this news and shrugged, the same reaction to every documentary, book and article I read about the horrors of McDonald's. No doubt all of these - from the movie Super Size Me to the book Fast Food Nation - are full of startling truths and disgusting anecdotes. But like a smoker who knows that the Surgeon General isn't lying, I continue to enjoy everything that's offered under the Golden Arches (it is a bit different than smoking, since very few people have gotten sick from secondhand grease).

Yesterday I told some friends that the more negative news I read about McDonald's, the more I crave its food. It's not a rebellious move, simply conditioning. When I hear the word McDonald's - even if it's used in a sentence that includes words like "higher rates of cancer" or "clogged arteries" or "diabetes" - my brain pictures the crispy McNuggets, or even soggy ones. I remember the unique smell that emanates from any McDonald's. God I love that smell - I wish it could be bottled and put into cologne form.

My love for McDonald's started in childhood, sustained by weekend trips to my grandparents'. We'd leave on Friday after my parents got off of work and always stop to eat in Mankato. Sometimes it was at Hardee's, but often it was McDonald's. As a kid I ordered a simple cheeseburger and small fries. Eventually the order grew along with my body and the order turned into a quarter-pounder and medium fries, before ultimately giving way to a double quarter-pounder, large fries and, just occasionally, a nine-piece Nugget. I'd wash it down with a large drink and a chocolate shake, counting on my genes to keep me from spilling outside my jeans.

McDonald's asks for so little - maybe six bucks - and gives so much in return, including an increased risk of dropping dead while shooting hoops with a grandchild at the age of 57.

So many McDonald's, so many memories:

There's one in Lakeville off of I35 that we always went to after trips to the metropolis, especially after Twins or Timberwolves games. Nothing perks up a depressed person who's just watched Brad Lohaus or Rich Becker like the aroma of McDonald's fries. If we didn't stop at this one, it was still another hour to Janesville and an hour of waiting for food. The food didn't taste any different, of course, but its location moves it to the top spot, despite the fact the bathrooms occasionally looked like they hadn't been cleaned since Ray Kroc was alive. The arches called us from the interstate and I'd start salivating the second we took the exit and then turned left for McDonald's.

The only time I've ever ordered a Big Mac was during the brief time I worked at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a wheelchair attendant. For whatever reason, during my brief time in that position, I always bought a Big Mac during my short lunch break. I'd order one every day - a value meal was an hour's pay - and find a seat at an unoccupied gate. Occasionally a passenger would stare at me, as if offended by the idea airport peons take breaks. Perhaps I was subconsciously punishing myself for being unable to land a newspaper job out of college and I didn't think I deserved the old reliables: quarter-pounders and chicken sandwiches. When I got hired at a newspaper and quit the airport, I also quit Big Macs and haven't had one since. There's something psychological at work here, though I don't want to know what it is.

Even after six years, I still don't quite trust New York City McDonald's. There seems to be something different about the taste compared to the ones back in Minnesota. Maybe I'm influenced too much by the hairnets worn by workers, something I'd never seen until moving out East. In theory this should be reassuring, but it makes me wonder: what follicle catastrophe happened that necessitated the move? How many hairs have to fall into shakes before a mid-level manager sends out a memo demanding hairnet use? And if the hairnets have stopped that problem, what other ones are lurking, waiting to be discovered by a hidden camera and an investigative reporter looking for a big scoop?

One of my go-to places on the Upper West Side also commits the cardinal sin of refusing to put ketchup dispensers out in the open. They don't even have a box filled with the insulting ketchup packets. Instead you have to ask the cashier for some. The workers dole them out with brutal efficiency, as if they're docked 10 bucks from their paycheck for every one package they distribute. Ketchup wasn't rationed like this during the world wars, why start now? Two packets are not enough for a medium order of fries and three aren't enough for a large.

Sidebar. Here's Letterman manning the drive-thru at McDonald's.

How deflating is it to watch a worker grab an order of fries that have been sitting under those harsh lights for five minutes? No, please, no. I can see that the fresh ones will be done in the fryer in 30 seconds. Please, wait. The limp fries land on the tray with a thud and the meal's off to a bad start even before you've taken the first bite. Everything usually evens out and the next trip will include the hot, crisp fries that have become so famous.

I say this without pride or exaggeration. During my sophomore year of college, I ate at McDonald's every day, with the possible exception of maybe 10 days. That's nine months and about 270 days. So figure about 300 meals, since I'd often hit it for lunch and dinner and rarely - just rarely - breakfast. None of the five people in our house cooked, so we single-handedly kept the Worthington franchise alive for nine months. During basketball that season, we'd often eat there before and after games. Our coach warned us not to eat milkshakes before games, as they would weigh us down while running up the court. I often ignored this plea, one reason my feet never seemed to move the way I wanted them to on defense.

Before I moved to New York and got married, I ate at McDonald's probably four times a week. It wasn't like the college days, but wasn't much better. But then I discovered the beauty of home-cooked meals. Now I eat there a few times a month. About six months ago, Louise noticed I always got headaches after eating at McDonald's, either the same night or the following morning. She immediately diagnosed the problem with a certain amount of glee: too much sodium from McDonald's, along with not enough water. I scoffed at the idea. I'd been eating McDonald's for most of my 34 years and had never suffered a side effect, although as Louise points out, I have been suffering from headaches most of my life (I saw no correlation). Eventually I could no longer ignore the evidence. Now I make sure to drink plenty of water before a trip to McDonald's. I have to prepare my body before ingesting their food, which is humbling and vaguely humiliating.

But I still go there. If documentaries, best-selling books and bizarre experiments don't eliminate my love of McDonald's, a few headaches won't either.

My love of McDonald's will last forever, just like their food.


Bruce said...

Just read your post as I had a mcdonalds earlier today and instantly got a banging headache!

Was wondering what causes this, but you mentioned not enough water. This would add up as I have hardly drunk anything up until earlier when I got home!

Thanks for the heads up! :)

Bruce, London UK

Shawn Fury said...

As much as I hate to admit it, I think my wife's right about my headaches and McDonald's. If I don't have water, I'll get one from it. I'm still convinced maybe it's psychosomatic at this point as she's convinced me this will happen, but the scientific evidence is getting a bit overwhelming.

I have discovered that I tend to get headaches more when eating the burgers, instead of the chicken tenders.

So yeah, drink water.