When Super Size Me came out, I was pretty surprised by the public’s reaction. It was an entertaining documentary, but could people really be shocked at how unhealthy it would be to eat McDonald’s every day for a month? Was it really a revelation that 30 days of grease-drenched fries, artery-clogging hamburgers, and 32 oz. sodas isn’t exactly a wise dieting option? Everyone I knew who saw the movie was so grossed out that they said they wouldn’t be able to eat McDonald’s for months. I had the opposite reaction — watching 90 minutes of some guy eat McDonald’s gave me an insatiable desire for McDonald’s. It was like McDonald’s porn. I got some later that day.
Warning: A drinking game in which you drink every time I write McDonald’s in this piece would be both dangerous and fun.
Everything at McDonald’s tastes like McDonald’s; in other words, not only can you use McDonald’s as an adjective for describing food, just like “spicy” or “crispy,” but they’ve managed to make nearly every item on their menu capture that McDonald’s spirit. The fry is the central atom of McDonald’s taste, a basic unit of superb debauchery — everything on the menu kind of tastes like their fries, from the underrated chicken sandwiches to the beloved hamburgers. They’ve achieved some kind of synergistic brand identity that most corporations would kill for — even Apple and Nike can’t claim a fundamental energy that so completely permeates its product.
As a kid I loved McDonald’s. Any self-conscious enjoyment I derive from McDonald’s now falls far short of the unceasing torrent of devotion I felt toward the company as a seven-year-old. McDonald’s chicken nuggets… oh, for the love of God, McDonald’s chicken nuggets. My passion for them knew no bounds. I didn’t need the side of fries. I didn’t need a burger. I didn’t need the Happy Meal toy (wait, it’s a plush Space Jam stuffed animal? Okay, I’ll take it). Just give me those freaking chicken nuggets. Sure, chicken “nuggets” don’t exactly correspond with a known aspect of a chicken’s anatomy, a la chicken wings or chicken breasts, and therefore could conceivably be concocted from some diabolical mixture of chicken scalps and rectal tissue. Guess what — I don’t care! I’m seven years old, and they taste like breaded magnificence.
In fact, one thing that has somewhat weakened my bond with McDonald’s over the years is their alteration of the recipe for their nuggets. In 2003, McDonald’s decided to make their nuggets from all white meat, as opposed to dark meat, or pre-treated leather, or whatever the hell it was they had been using before that. This was probably a victory for people concerned about nutrition, the ethical treatment of animals, consumer rights, and a host of other valid concerns, but it also somehow robbed the nuggets of their appeal. They no longer have that trademark taste that defines the rest of the menu. Now they pretty much taste like chicken as influenced by McDonald’s, whereas they used to taste like McDonald’s as influenced by chicken.
Beyond their scrumptious nuggets (side note: “scrumptious nuggets” is a potentially great name for a lucrative porn site/punk rock band), McDonald’s has plenty of other ingenious ways of ingratiating themselves to children. They market directly to kids, with a cast of colorful (albeit bizarre) characters, including a pedophiliac clown, a thief with a penchant for hamburgers, and a giant purple blob named after an unpleasant facial expression. McDonald’s also created the Happy Meal, designed specifically for children, and featuring a toy of greatly varying quality. McDonald’s has softened up in recent years, now including fruit instead of fries in their Happy Meals, but in 1991, homie didn’t play like that — the Happy Meal was 100% unwholesome delectability. But, even above that, McDonald’s came up with the brilliant idea of building giant enclosed playgrounds inside (or directly outside) their restaurants. Like many children of the 80s and 90s, I have more than a few memories that exist within the confines of those labyrinth crawl-tubes and unhygienic ball pits: making friends, playing games, getting into fights. They were like overly elaborate hamster cages, a perfect ecosystem for the trials and tribulations of young adolescence.
When I was a kid, my elementary school had a picnic on the school grounds one night a year. They coordinated the event with a nearby McDonald’s, and out of every purchase made by our families that night, some percentage would get donated back to the school. It was one of the school’s most popular traditions. More importantly, along with the Pinewood Derby, and the annual Skate Night at our local, rundown roller rink, it was one of the highlights of my social calendar.
My classmates and I loved to run over the school grounds at night, our daytime world shockingly and exhilaratingly inverted by shadows and made anew. Girls talked to boys, and boys ran off snickering with their friends, secretly perplexed by the brazen attitude the girls had adopted in the short time since 3 p.m. dismissal. The garbage cans overflowed with McDonald’s wrappers from digesting families picnicking out on the playground. It felt like McDonald’s was an inherent, basic aspect of life, right up there with family, friends, and school. Eating it was a celebration of being young, American, and privileged at the end of the 20th century.
It wasn’t until recently that I actually thought about the name McDonald’s and realized it sounds like bad Irish whiskey or the last name of a welterweight prize fighter in the 1930s. McDonald’s is such a centralized part of our culture (and my life), that I had heard and uttered the name thousands and thousands of times without ever actually considering it. In my mind, it conjures up its own set of images and associations, most of them carried over from childhood, all of them part of a larger, indivisible essence. Each McDonald’s restaurant, and what McDonald’s represents in entirety, is a great example of a simulacrum: a copy with no original. It is both sign and signifier, the two having cross-pollinated to the point of being inseparable. It is a monolith. McDonald’s is McDonald’s is McDonald’s is McDonald’s.