McDonald’s, Pasolini, and the Traditional Cuisine of Moral Hazard, U.S.A



I walked by McDonald’s on the way home from my meeting tonight and was instantly struck by the staunch odor of seared, slaughtered meat. I was disgusted.

I totally lie. It smelled delicious. In there somewhere was a hint of fried potatoes and salt and warm bread. I salivated like a starving blood hound. I read somewhere (it is probably an urban myth–I don’t think any company has as many of those built up around it as McD’s) that company policy is to vent the fryers out onto the street to lure us in, like some tantalizing inscription on the Statue of Liberty of our senses: give us your poor, your hungry, your over-weight, your food addicted, your down-right-in-a-hurry.

Since I’ve turned vegetarian I rarely go into the place anymore. Except for an occasional ice-cream. Even then I feel guilty, like an abolitionist who goes to the market to buy a shovel and stays to watch the slave auction. I have nothing against people who eat meat. It would hypocritical of me if I did, since I did it for most of my life. And any man or woman who judges someone for doing what they no longer want or need to do is committing the worst sin next to larceny: spiritual arrogance. I’d be even more hypocritical if I didn’t tell you the one thing I regret most about being a vegetarian is not being able to scoff down a Big Mac once in awhile. I’ve been eating those things since I was ten, and they are the closest I’ve come to a perfect comfort food. When I was traveling around the world you could find a McDonald’s in every city, no matter what the country (except New Delhi. A few years before I was there in the summer of 2002 they opened one and angry Hindus burnt it to the ground on its first night. I mean, did the fucking development team at McDonald’s head office even have a discussion about opening up a hamburger joint in a country that worships cows so much they let them wander around unmolested on the streets?) In every country I went to the Big Mac always tasted the same. Even Coca Cola tastes different in some places, but the Mac never varies. No curry in the secret sauce, no coconut milk in the shakes. You might find some local colour on the menu (we even have McLobster here in Nova Scotia, for God’s Sake, which is a bit like putting a diamond ring on a tree branch) but the mainstays were the mainstays, and they always taste the same.

The reason for this is simple though not very appealing: they used to use the “build to stock” manufacturing process, precooking, dressing and wrapping most food prior to receiving customer orders according to strict franchise guidelines. But in 1998 McDonald shares for the first time started to decline as healthy eating became more popular thanks to Oprah et al and people started to think a little bit harder about food made with a number and not a human in mind. McDonald’s responded to the wall street stock by ditching the “build to stock”. They rolled out the “made for you” system, where the meat patties were pre-cooked but the other stuff they junked out on top were placed there after you ordered. Half the grass-lands in Argentina were still being devoured by fast-food designated live-stock, mind you, but at least your lettuce was fresh.

They also claim, somewhere on their site, to have originated Drive-Thrus. Entirely untrue. The first Drive-Thru window was installed at a bank in St Louis Missouri in 1930. Other restaurants have been arguing over who had the first one for years — In-And-Out Burger, Maid-Rite and Jack In The Box. All claim to have done it in the fifties. McDonald’s did not open their first Drive-Thru until 1975 near Fort Huacha outside Sierre Vista, Arizona. A military base was located there and the Drive-Thru was opened to serve military members who weren’t permitted to get out of their cars while wearing fatigues. So McDonald’s can claim to be the first fast food chain to specifically target the hearts and arteries of U.S. servicemen.

This blog entry has turned out a lot bitchier than I intended.

In truth, I don’t hate McDonald’s. And I like Ray Kroc’s story, though it says a lot about our culture that the founder of a burger joint would be named Time’s Top 100 Most Important People of The Century. Before him were the McDonald brothers, who founded the chain and implemented the Speedy Service System which would become the foundation for all the glorious food our modern society enjoys today — greasy burgers, slimy chickens, cornmeal-stuffed burritos and foot-long subs. Crok bought them out for 2.7 million in 1961, though since their goal was to make a million each before they died they should have been happy with that ( even though Kroc screwed them out of the royalty agreement on the hand-shake deal and opened a new McDonald’s near their original restaurant, renamed The Big M, when they wouldn’t sell it to him because they wanted to donate it to their employees.) Yet even the McDonald brothers didn’t originate the fast food process entirely. White Castle, that American fast food chain I had never heard of til Harold and Kumar, developed the Speedy System two decades before the McDonald’s brothers. As Brian Guare says in his play Six Degrees of Separation, “Everything is somebody else’s.”

I’m not complaining, 1500 words to the contrary. If we didn’t buy it, they wouldn’t serve it. I read only a few pages of Fast Food Nation because I decided I really didn’t want to know the truth. I enjoyed my Big Macs too much. I recently had a discussion with a woman, more of an argument really, about genetically modified foods. She thought they were bad. She didn’t know exactly why they were bad, mind you. Had never read a study. Never got a degree ( at least in genetics). She was tired, she said, of Big Greedy Corporations ramming it down the throats of the little guy (she was more eloquent than that, but I’m tired and it’s the best I can do tonight.) I don’t disagree there are problems with genetically modified foods, including seed contamination, planned sterility, the loss of biodiversity. What I disagree with is painting an entire industry with the same brush, especially when we have no scientific evidence to back some of it up. Further, the world has serious problems, and I don’t doubt for a minute that unhindered and unregulated multinational corporations are a part of that problem. They could pose a real threat to our way of life, and yes, food patents and patents on conventional breeding techniques are a real concern, especially in Europe. But this is our problem, and does not arise solely because of a few greedy billionaires. These companies exist in part because an over-burdened planet ( human beings might have been the earth’s first invasive species) is trying to feed, clothe, house and entertain itself, and we are failing miserably (except maybe at the entertainment. I always liken our modern entertainment industry to Nero launching the Roman games to distract the populace from the reality of a crumbling empire.) I have little patience with people railing against GM foods and not mentioning wealth redistribution, which starts with us, not Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and George Soros. The world is a complex place. There is no one demon. Each time I buy a burger I reduce a swath of grassland in Argentina. Each time my friend starts her car she gives a dollar to the multinationals. The answer is not to not start the car, or eat that burger (I chose to not eat meat for the cow not for the grass.) The answer is just not to look at GM foods and cry that they are killing the world, but to do something about it. If McDonald’s blew the smell of rotten meat out their vents (and I bet there is plenty of it around) they wouldn’t get a single customer.

I really don’t know what I’m trying to say here. Perhaps just this: that McDonald’s and companies like it are indicative of a poverty of values. It’s not just the food, its the reasons why we make it and eat it. In his masterpiece Salo from 1975 the Italian director Pasolini had some of his characters eat shit.  It was terribly difficult to watch–I gagged at one point–though Pasolini said later it was not intended just to gross out . It was rather metaphor for the rise in popularity of canned and fast foods in Italy at the time of Salos making. Pasolini knew the score. He saw what was coming. Fast food empires like McDonald’s are not evil corporations intent on tearing down the walls of our hearts with trans-fats and cholesterol. Well, they are, but they are not just that. It is a more like a sterling silver case of moral hazard, on their part, and Pasolini’s bad taste on ours. They are, ultimately, though, and when you get right down to it,  symbols of our collective emptiness. Our hollow 21st century desperation. I think there’s a whole goddamned lot of us who are actually (if maybe secretly) sad that Y2K turned out to be a dud. (I’ll throw the lulus a bone, and mentioned 2012 too.) Then we wouldn’t have to face the terrifying uncertainty of a new millennium, to face another round of rapidly accelerating “progress unmoored from God.”

We stopped cooking food for ourselves when we stopped being part of a culture, a community and a people. That’s why it tastes the same everywhere we go. GM foods are indicative of even more: we are, eventually, going to be forced to gladly modify foods just to continue to eat. We are part of a massive cybernetic system that includes Monsanto and McDonald’s. Calling them names won’t help (thought it can be kind of fun and they are easy targets.) As a friend of mine said to me recently: the system itself is breaking down. It has been for years, probably since the first international oil crisis in ’73, though none of us like to admit it.

There are many things I love about our time. I think the Internet may be a possible salvation for us, as the unprecedented free exchange of information and global cultural ratcheting (or cumulative culture) could put enough heads together to solve some or many of the problems facing us today. Instead of six billion individual brains, we could have six million basal ganglia and one massive global brain, and that might do more for our knowledge and learning than a platoon of Einsteins or a battalion of Freuds ever would. But that is a topic for another post. For now, the next time I walk by McDonald’s maybe I’ll hold my nose, avoiding that olfactory song of the sirens. Or maybe I’ll just not stop in for that ice cream anymore There must be some Mom and Pop Shop down the road that sells it too.


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