I DO remember the last time I felt the urge to eat a burger in a fast food restaurant even though it was at least ten years ago.
It had been years since I had darkened the doors of such an establishment, and I can still almost taste the sense of palpable disappointment with my choice of late lunch. How could something so silky with fat and briny with salt be so weirdly flavourless, I wondered, as if someone very clever had managed to fashion a soft bun and hot meat patty out of cardboard.
Even the pickles, which I had specifically cherished as a child, were thin, slimy discs that might have made Proust rethink the wisdom of writing his Recherches in seven volumes and decide instead to get a little exercise in the garden.
I suppose, back in the day, there was McDonalds and Burger King and little else where you could be sitting down and eating within minutes of entering and still get change from a fiver. Now, perhaps tastes have changed and there is stiffer competition. This week, the mighty McDonalds – still the biggest fast food chain in the world – said sales in October had declined almost 2 per cent, its first month-on-month blip since 2003. And while some might be hopeful that its recession-hit customers are instead bringing some wholesome soup in a thermos to save themselves some money, they are probably just saving up for a “proper” Big Mac and fries and eating somewhere even cheaper in the meantime.
But I remember the days when the fast food joint wasn’t just a place to walk past feeling a bit smug. To my childish mind, it was an institution. My favourite meal was the cheese burger, with fries of course, and that weird orange drink that probably had enough e-numbers to be sold nowadays to teenagers as a legal high. And the hot apple pie was served very hot indeed – just like the warning said on its cardboard pocket. It only took experience of burning the roof of one’s mouth on it once, and thereafter the restaurant’s need to be so health and safety conscious seemed a bit silly. Even if it was just there to ensure the restaurant avoided potential litigation.
While my younger years were spent pestering mum to take us to the McDonalds and attending birthday parties whose crowing point was the serving of a plasticky cake in the shape of the chain’s namesake clown, my teenage years were spent using it as a hang out. Which strikes me as being completely sad, in retrospect. But we had successfully infiltrated the place with slightly older boys who worked as night janitors, which mean we could sit in after hours and drink the stale, revolting coffee from styrofoam cups. Such were some of the dizzy heights of my teen rebellion.
But now you get the impression the pervasive fast food burger bar only does very well when there is nothing else to choose from. Think of the most forlorn motorway services you have ever been too – there are still several on the M1/A1. It is likely that it wasn’t even classy enough to have a Road Chef, only offering a grimy loo and a counter that dishes out food, of a sort, in greasy wrappers.
In the US burger heartland, you can see why the format might still be thriving. A friend of mine had to spend some time working in a US midwestern state – one that wasn’t even going to consider voting for Obama. It was a small town, and the only shops and restaurants seemed to offer a wild choice of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Walmart. When she eventually came home she ate home-made salad fiercely for weeks.
When such consumer mono-cultures exist, you can see how obesity becomes a problem for those who know nothing more than deep fried and super-sized.
But I see the efforts they have made to try to win back my custom. We have real coffee, they said. We have salads, too. The plastic, bolted-down four seaters have been replaced with a tasteful, dark-stain wood-grain laminate. In the UK and Ireland, McDonald’s sources its beef from local farmers – it does not use processed “pink slime”. Nor does it source its beef from genetically-modified horrors with no legs or bones being fed by tube – as at least one “urban myth” about the food chain has gone.
Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll have had my tea.