The Call of the Arches: McDonald’s crazy psychology

Posted on 07.03.2012


Since all I can do tonight is intermittently sit on my ass and stretch my back, I’m going to do all of the blogging I’ve been meaning to do for the past week. So I’m going to apologize in advance to all of the email followers who are about to get bombarded.

I had a really interesting conversation with one of my students today. We were talking about traveling experiences and trying new things. The topic was different countries and their cuisine.

We’d started just by talking about Indian food, and I’d mentioned that I’d love to go to India and see if it’s similar to what we get over here in Germany and what I was used to in the US (I imagine the US version to be more authentic than Germany’s version, since the Germans seem to be deathly allergic to spice in all forms). I told him about how when I’d gone to Japan last year, I was both excited and scared to have the sushi and tempura (in multiple places) because I didn’t want it to be really different from what I thought I knew. Thankfully, it’s the same and I can eat happily in Germany knowing my sushi tastes just like Japanese sushi, even if there are some forms we’ll never get over here.

So we were talking about travel, and food, and the urge to try the local things and experience local life.

He mentioned to me how much he hates French cuisine, and told me about his last trip to Paris: after realizing that he wasn’t a fan of buttery, rich food, he was kind of walking around Paris in a bit of a daze: what the hell was he going to eat? It was then that he saw it: that gleaming beacon of capitalism, the Golden Arches. His favorite sandwich is OF COURSE the McRib (although it looks a bit different in Europe than in the US) and he immediately went in and ordered a value meal. He said he felt like he’d been saved. He ate the next three days at McDonald’s before returning home to the land of Lederhosen and Würst.

As someone who is trying really, really hard to eat better and make healthy choices, I could have told him something about going to the markets, buying fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. I could have said those things, but I didn’t. Why? Because even though I am normally gluten- and dairy-free, the same thing has happened to me.

It happened to me in Brussels. It was Sunday morning, and the breakfast at my hotel wasn’t any good and was far too expensive. So I braved the French-speaking city to find sustenance. The only issue with Sunday morning is that everything is closed, and since it’s an international city with a French base, it was all baguette and cheese that I could find. I was walking around in the morning, a little lost and starving. And that’s when I saw the arches. Sure, the menu was in French and I can only count to 3 in the language (I can’t even spell it: twa?), but I managed to make myself understood and bought two (deux?) hash browns (which happen to NOT EXIST in Germany) since these were most likely the least gluten-y thing I could get and I happen to love them, and also felt totally saved.

We laughed about our similar experiences with French-speaking cities, and then he told me about his experience with the Wall coming down: he was about 20, and he and his family drove across the border on that first day from the east and did the most ‘western’ thing they could think of: they visited their first EVER McDonald’s. He’s been hooked ever since. I told him about how my roommate and I couldn’t donate blood on 9/11 because we’d just gotten tattoos, so we did the most ‘American’ thing we could think of: we went and ate at McDonald’s.

Then we discussed how amazing it is that one can be anywhere in the world, but when you find the McDonald’s, you feel like you’re ‘home’ or ‘safe’. He mentioned feeling this way, too, and it’s not like McD’s is a German establishment, you know?

When I think back to my childhood, I think back to all of the nights after a softball or soccer game, or a concert at school. The entire team or band would meet at the McDonald’s and hang out there, sometimes for hours. It was here that I got my first lesson on dipping sauces from my crush, Robert. I’d always make sure to sit next to him or at his table, and he’d dip his fries in honey. It was something I’d never even considered before, but it was damn good and I’ve been hooked ever since, even though now honey is a lot harder to get at most stores. McDonald’s was a reward for a job well done or a place to relax. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would hang out behind the store in a wooded area. When we were hungry, it was either McDonald’s or the candy from the convenience store.

It’s easy, when I think back to all of the good times that happened in McDonald’s, to understand how it could be such a guilty pleasure for everyone my age, even though we know it’s bad for us. We know it’s completely unhealthy, just like hot dogs and funnel cake. But it’s really hard to separate that idea from the decades of great memories associated with the place. You can’t toss those memories away, and you certainly can’t make the stuff healthier, although some try.

Whether you’re an American in Germany, a German in Paris, or a Japanese person in India: when you walk into McDonald’s, you feel like you’ve just walked into your own country’s embassy or your own home. You know exactly what you want to eat, you know what the drink options will be (mostly) and you know where the napkins can be found. And when we’re surrounded by new, confusing or another language, it’s a strange comfort to be there, to take a break and have some normalcy, even if it’s not entirely the same and the signs are in a different language. It doesn’t matter, you know how the Big Mac is going to taste.

So I might be a born-again (mostly) health-nut. But I won’t deny that I love the completely normal McDonald’s Chicken nuggets (also with honey) and the Double Cheeseburger, and my dear friend the Bacon, Egg and Cheese biscuit. I know exactly what they’re made of and exactly how bad they are for me. But if I go to India and realize I’m not a fan of ‘real’ or ‘local’ Indian food, you know exactly where I’ll turn. And I’m ok with that.

Posted in: diet, food