I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with McDonalds. Like any such relationship, I have had many amazing experiences, many ups and downs, many memories. And the relationship has endured through all of that. Until last week, that is.
But let us not start there.
Flash back to the day I landed in America as a young graduate student. I had just traveled for 30+ hours, after taking 3 back-to-back connecting flights, and an unplanned bus ride. My first flight – and it was my first ever flight as in the first time I sat in an aeroplane – had started from Mumbai. The flight had stop overs in Cairo and Frankfurt, finally terminating in New York at JFK. Then, after clearing immigration and customs, another flight from New York to Pittsburgh. Then a small propeller plane from Pittsburgh to State College, which couldn’t land due to bad weather so had to be diverted to Harrisburg. Then we were put on a bus to State College.
The most vivid memory I have of that bus ride was when, after leaving the bus station, the bus was starting to merge on to a highway. There was a triple trailer truck going at high speed on the highway. I had no idea that such things even existed. I thought it was a train and we were about to crash into it! Or did buses in America have the ability to ride on rails? Who knew? To me, America was a land of magic at that point. You could have convinced me that flying carpets were commonplace around here. Thankfully we didn’t crash or convert into a rail car. We just smoothly merged in behind the triple trailer. I got to learn an important lesson about this novel technique called “merging into a highway” involving something I had never seen before, called an “on ramp”. I really felt like I was in a futuristic sci-fi movie at that point.
Anyway, at the end of that, we got dropped off at the airport in the middle of the night. Thankfully, a sleep deprived undergraduate student, who had waited at the airport for god knows how long, welcomed me and took me to a dorm to sleep for the night. To this day, I have no idea who he was because I was in too much of a daze at that point and he left as soon as he dropped me off. That was an extremely kind thing to do for a complete stranger. I really wish had remembered his name. Thank you young man (well, may be not so young anymore), whoever you are. I wish you a long and healthy life.
The next morning, me and a couple of other international students who had also arrived during the night (one of them is my friend on facebook, let us see if he reads this far. The other one I lost track of in the subsequent years), decided to go out for breakfast. We had no idea where we would find food, but luckily for us, I noticed the big M sign of McDonalds. That was pretty much the only thing I knew about America at that point. One, you could get cheap food at McDonalds. And two, if you really needed a restroom, you could use theirs. I guess that is pretty much the most necessary and sufficient knowledge you need to have to go anywhere in the world. (Sorry to disagree Douglas Adams, but towels come much later in the order of priorities. But I do love your other stuff very much.)
Anyway, so I saw the sign, and euphorically, I told my friends that our troubles were over! I guess they knew even lesser about America than that at that point, so both of them agreed to follow. We went in and looked at the menu behind the counter. I knew that McDonalds served burgers and they contained beef. But I had imagined that they must have something veggie, too. (Remember this was during the 80’s, well before salads and parfaits started appearing on the menu). I had heard of fries, and I was OK with eating just those. As we went down the menu, we noticed that they had something called Hamburger, and something called Cheeseburger. My logical brain kicked into action and a light went on inside. If a Hamburger is a ham sandwich (or so I thought), then a Cheeseburger must be a cheese sandwich! That made perfect sense to me. So I ordered and sat down to eat. I am not sure what the other guys ordered, and I hope they forgive me if they followed my lead.
First bite, and although I had never eaten beef or any burger of any kind before, I realized that there was something different about this sandwich. I could see the cheese but there was something else. Is it some kind of masala? May be fried potatoes or something? The idea that it could be beef (or ham, as I thought it might be at that time) crossed my mind. May be they gave me a hamburger instead of a cheeseburger? Neither I nor any of my friends had any idea what it was. But we were so hungry, we went ahead and ate it anyway.
Not that I would have dared to throw it out either. Where I came from, we didn’t waste food. (Not always such a great idea as one ages unfortunately, as the fat tire around my waist is would attest to.) Plus, I didn’t have much money at all at that point, and wasting perfectly edible food would have been unthinkable. Whats more, I actually kind of liked the sandwich. “Well, I will find out later what is in it. For now, let’s eat.” I rationalized. My mother had told me this story of Maharishi Vishwamitra, one of the ancient sages of India, who had eaten dog meat once because he was extremely hungry and there was nothing else to eat. I was hungry too, so I was perfectly within the bounds of what a Brahman is allowed to do.
Once I had crossed that bridge though, it was like I had found a whole new country! In the subsequent 2 years while I was at Penn State, I ate burgers regularly. In fact, about once a semester, McDonalds would have a week long “McDLT special” and I would eat the sandwich everyday for that whole week. It was cheap, and filling, and I really liked it. It was only after I graduated and got a well-paying job that I stopped eating burgers. I figured, I can afford to eat better stuff now. No need to eat burgers.
But my love affair with McDonalds continued in a different form. I started really liking their breakfast. Particularly the egg-and-cheese biscuit. It is great when you are traveling or have an early morning meeting or something. I still eat it relatively often. Though, as I have gotten older, I ask them to hold the bacon. And I take my coffee decaf now. So, my regular order at McDonalds is “egg and cheese biscuit, no meat. And a small decaf coffee, 2 creams, 2 sugars.” And I really enjoy it. It brings back a lot of memories.
Anyway, one day last week, I decided to go to McDonalds for breakfast. I ordered my standard breakfast, and I got this (picture above). I am not sure what it was, but I think they messed up my order and gave me a griddle. I usually don’t complain about such things. It is an opportunity for me to try something new that I would never try otherwise. (It can lead to some amazing experiences, as I have already explained you above.) Or may be I am just too lazy to get up and go back to the counter and complain, trying to look all disappointed and ask for the manager and so on. Just not a pleasant experience for anyone, not just them but even for me.
So I opened my sandwich (or griddle, as it turned out) and I realized that it had this big M stamped on it. It totally thew me off. It was eerie. It was like someone had stamped a big M on my forehead. It was a clear realization that I was about it eat something alien and I had gotten assimilated so well that I wouldn’t even notice – may be even feel proud of it!
I mean, we all know that fast food is not the best food in the world. Not only that, but we also know that large multinationals are powerful and dangerous creatures. They are supposedly “people” in the eyes of the law. Except they have a lot more money, a lot more manpower, a lot more control over the economy and politics and even their own destiny. They don’t need passports to travel anywhere, no security checks at the airport, never having to sit in economy, and no pickpockets to contend with in subways. Leaders, economists, business people, and regular people, all talk about them all the time. Celebrities endorse them. Investors love them. Retirees count on them. Young graduates want to work for them. What’s more, I am pretty sure they will far outlive everyone reading this. If they are people, they are clearly “first among people”. Sorry Mr. (or Ms.) President, you are second in line.
The multinationals involved in the food industry are even more scary. They play with our food (literally and figuratively). They manipulate it, dissect it, reconstitute it, engineer it to extract maximum profit. All these years, I had overlooked all of that because of this emotional relationship I had with them. They had managed to win me over with their convenience, low price, ubiquity, and even taste. But I felt like this time they went a bit too far. The big M sign stamped on my griddle was a stark reminder of the fact that what I was about it eat was definitely not food. It was a shameless self-promotional global-supply-chain-procured assembly-line-manufactured cost-benefit-bottomline-expert-analyzed investor-relation-wary market-researched-social-media-advertised artificially-fertilized-insecticide-sprayed-frozen-and-thawed-and-fried artificially-sweetened-and-fat-slathered race-to-the-bottom-winner absolutely 100% non-natural and anti-natural product. And it wasn’t even trying to hide it, in fact proud of it. It knew that I had become so accustomed to it, that it could proudly parade itself in its underwear in front of me, and I would still lap it up with a smile and come back for more.
Well, I guess, I am not sure anymore. May be this love affair is over.