The allure of a good party is nearly irresistible, especially when it costs less than $3 to join in the fun. Last week, a fistful of change bought two Big Macs -- buy one, get one for a penny -- during McDonald's 35th birthday celebration for its prize pig of a sandwich. I had never eaten a whole Big Mac before and I figured this special occasion would be a good time to finally take the plunge. So I enlisted the help of lion-hearted Prospect designer Aaron Morales, and we set off to do irreversible damage to our innards.
The restaurant chain needed something festive to lift its drooping spirits. It recently got its Ronald McDonald pants sued off for making kids fat (the case was dropped), was forced to shutter 175 restaurants in 10 countries and posted its first financial loss -- ever. But few in the world have much sympathy for the fast-food powerhouse; after all, McDonald's and its pre-fab products have become nearly synonymous with evil American cultural hegemony. Just ask such world figures as France's Jacques Chirac ("I detest McDonald's"), Israel's Ezer Weizman ("We must be wary of McDonald's") or England's Prince Philip ("You people [McDonald's] are destroying the rainforests of the world by grazing your cheap cattle"). McDonald's has come under fire for countless alleged crimes: child-labor violations, being hostile to unions, using genetically modified food, stamping out local businesses and unique cuisines and making some downright nasty products. But internationally, nothing seems to sting like the restaurant's ubiquity, and its Golden Arches keep rising near hallowed cultural landmarks -- Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City, France's Champs Elysee, Russia's Red Square.
Some have turned the chain's omnipresence to good use. The Economist, for example, invented the Big Mac index, which compares the prices of the sandwich worldwide to determine how much a given country's currency may be under- or overvalued. Other opinion makers even embrace McDonald's worldwide popularity. In 1996, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman posited that countries with the chain restaurants in their capital cities never go to war with one other. Why? Because McDonald's appeals to the democracy-embracing middle classes, the people who yoke their countries to the global economy. And if a country is focused on playing well with others, it won't resort to untoward fisticuffs. Unfortunately, as The Boston Globe's Ideas section has cheekily reminded us, the United States bombed Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), in 1999 -- and that city boasted seven Big Mac shacks. Friedman has since amended his "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention" to a new model: Starbucks.
Many people are probably somewhere between McDonald's haters and McDonald's fans. And just as many probably combine the two positions -- which precisely describes my own stomach-churning experience of slogging through my first Big Mac. "Oh my God, there's this insane goo!" I said, after the first bite. "Yeah, that's the special sauce," said the unruffled Aaron in the key of duh. Looking down at my translucent notes (that's the grease, folks), I see that I wrote "lettuce=sad," "pen covered with Big Mac shellac" and other ruminations on the experience of chewing through the weird thickness yet slimy deliciousness of a Big Mac. The bun in the middle collapsed to nothing ("They just put it in there to give it more big," said Aaron) and the whole thing got rather squished. I had one perfect bite -- a beautiful harmony of bun, savory items and "meat" -- then one stomach-churning one, because the sauce-to-everything-else ratio was off (it was like sticking my head in a jar of Hellman's). But most bites were in between -- sort of pleasant, sort of revolting.
My queasy love-hate Big Mac experience seems, in a way, to reflect much of the outside world's reaction to the United States. "Ew, this is disgusting and too rich, but it's delicious. I hate it, give me more!" For many, the United States has become a fearsome Pac Man-amoeba, eating and assimilating everything in its path ("Wow, some fascinating indigenous crafts? Mine!") and then spreading like a great podded monster. But the United States inspires a fascination in others all the same, a desire to emulate, imitate, consume that culture -- through McDonald's, if necessary.
One country seems to be taking this harder than many others: France. The world's former highbrow cultural imperialists have met their lowbrow Waterloo, and in lieu of coming up with anything as full of hyperpuissance as le Big Mac, the French have made hating all things American a cornerstone of their culture. All the sniffing and scoffing sounds like that of a classy beauty who got knocked off her Best Culture pedestal by a trashy, silicone-boobed Barbie -- and she weel not 'av eet! As I leaned over my "Party with Big Mac" place mat, I noticed this question: "How many Big Mac sandwiches stacked one on top of the other would it take to equal the height of the Eiffel Tower (984 ft)?" Answer: 3,374. Honh honh! We can make an Eiffel Tower of Big Macs! I can hear the "mon dieus" from here.
But the French do have a point. There is something disturbing about America's cultural dominance, and I say this not as a patronizing fool who wants to cryogenically freeze all the "quaint" traditions around the world. I say this -- only half in jest -- as an omnivorous hedonist. If those traditions ain't there, then we will all miss out. McDonald's also has an inordinate amount of cachet abroad. If I were using the Big Mac index to measure cultural cool, I would say the chain is tremendously overvalued. And what kind of values is it spreading? The hectic preparation of inferior food by underpaid workers, the revelation that "anywhere you go it tastes exactly the same," according to Aaron. "It's the scary globalization of our lame culture."
Indeed, the Big Mac seems to inspire people to gluttony more than to artistic heights. At its last significant birthday -- the 30th -- the McDonald's people found the town that ate the most Big Macs per capita, a Southern California slag heap called Irwindale. The denizens of this town ate an average of 337 of the sandwiches each and every year. At the time, Irwindale only had a population of 1,045 people. Meanwhile, rioting broke out in England during the Big Mac's 25th anniversary, when some restaurants ran out of the sandwiches during the special two-for-one promotion.
But despite all the rotten things -- the rioting, the special sauce, all of that mess -- I still think the chain can't be entirely bad. Perhaps it's those unbelievable fries. And perhaps it's my experiences with McDonald's abroad. There was something comforting about slinking into one of the restaurants when I was frazzled with the unfamiliar -- the nasty, tiny whole birds and the butchering of snakes for our dinner in China, the reproachful eyeballs on the piles of dead bugs and tiny, dried fish in Thailand. Sure, I had some Ugly American moments: After being told once too often I couldn't possibly speak English -- and being heckled as a Southeast Asian woman -- in Japan, I stormed into a McDonald's. I tried to order a hamburger, and privately went all bitchcakes because I had to say "haanbaagaa" instead of "hamburger." "I mean, don't these people know that this is American!" I hissed, when what I really meant was, "Don't these people know that I'm American, and even if I weren't, that's no way to treat anyone?"
After that incident, I realized that McDonald's couldn't really be an insular, escapist refuge for me -- for the haanbaagaa reason, but also for the milkshake reason. McDonald's in Japan has delicacies never seen in a U.S. restaurant -- teriyaki burgers, corn potage soup, bacon potato pies and fantastically flavored milkshakes that became my saving grace during Japan's sweltering summers. McDonald's restaurants everywhere seem to put their own spin on the U.S. product, a kind of resistance to the idea of a monolithic culture. I'm sure that a lot of careful research was put into how to hook hapless billions by finding their cultural sweet spots. But at the time, there seemed to be a certain amount of give in what a McDonald's might sell. Each restaurant started to feel less like a purely American phenomenon -- an introduced predatory species -- and more like a semi-hybridized one. Everywhere around me, trendy young people were having similar experiences. Some kids even thought McDonald's was a Japanese restaurant. Everyone happily said "haanbaagaa," the word sounding both foreign and indigenous.
One U.S. colleague confessed that he had been terrified of Japanese food until he started eating the teriyaki burger. Then he started trying other things, and found he enjoyed them immensely. Was it possible that McDonald's could be a bridge of sorts, guiding the timorous over rocky cultural waters? A very dumbed-down bridge, but helpful nonetheless? I won't be calling Big Macs the new U.S. ambassadors -- at least not when there are worthier sandwiches out there, like the BK Broiler, and not when there are so many political issues in play. But I can't completely write McDonald's off when someone could be trying out their English by ordering a meal in some faraway restaurant, or when some expatriate is using a foreign McDonald's to edge out into the realm of native food, interactions or experiences. One must celebrate the flip side of that dialogue as well -- the international and domestic criticisms from the environmentalists, workers' rights groups, slow food activists, vegetarians, concerned moms and dads, even the cheese-chucking French farmers. It's a dynamic whole -- in the best-case scenario, its own sort of cultural and political exchange that isn't an equal discussion yet but is perhaps inching toward one. And that leaves a far better taste in my mouth than the Big Mac.
Noy Thrupkaew writes frequently about culture for the Prospect and TAP Online. She has not yet recovered from her Big Mac experience, nor has the pen she used to take notes.