Monday, May 27, 2013


Hillsboro, Mo.
Yeah, I know, McDonald's. Long time fans will recall that I am not a big McDonald's guy. That's putting it mildly. I will go out of my way to not eat at McD's. I will go just about anywhere to avoid them even if I'm just wanting a burger and fries. Especially if I'm wanting a burger and fries.
It's a long and at certain points, completely irrational story.
Back in the 80's I was stationed in northern Japan for three long mostly wet and cold years. Misawa was roughly on the same lattitude as Maine. It was between the ocean and the mountains, which meant the cold sloppy rains and snows just spun up and back over again. Days would go by without sunshine, it never got above eighty degrees while I was there. The divorce rate was double digit percentages higher than most other bases, cabin fever more than anything else. Full disclosure, my own first marriage broke up there within the first year. I spent the last two years in the dormitories/barracks. Fortunately as a seasoned NCO I got a room to myself. All alone, so very alone. The people looked differnt, spoke funny, and drove on the wrong side of their too-narrow roads. Walking downtown was like walking on a different planet, one that in every aspect was 10 to 20 percent smaller than in the U.S. Smaller buildings, cars, delivery trucks, roads and even people. That was part of its charm and also part of the alien-like aspect of being an American there. There was always something to remind you that you just weren't in Kansas anymore.
Occasionally someone would travel to the sprawling base down south near Tokyo, Yakota Air Base. Sometimes the traveler would collect money ahead of time, five dollars per serving, and while at Yakota, fill a cooler or two with Big Macs and bring them back.
Misawa didn't have a McDonald's downtown. There was a KFC about twenty or thirty miles away, but other than that there were no American franchises anywhere nearby.
Sure we could get burgers at the mess hall or the exchange cafeteria, but they weren't Big Macs. They lacked that 'thing' that franchise burger joints had.
In fact, those of us in the dorms could get two cheeseburgers from the mess hall a day, free, on top of the three full meals we were allowed.
But many of us paid the five bucks whenever the opportunity arose.
So my earlier memories of McDonald's were great. Big Macs tasted like America, like freedom, they tasted like home.
 After that things changed. Getting back to the states everything was readily available. I discovered the other chains and realized that their burgers actually tasted better than McD's. So I pretty much stopped going to the golden arches, preferring for many years Burger King, for the flame broiled taste.
But the kids wanted McDonald's. They always wanted McDonald's. If the kids were to choose any or every meal it would be McDonald's. So for many years, kids = McDonald's. They could get the exact same thing at every other place in town, but no, it had to be McD's.
McDonalds became for me the opposite of freedom, it became a sort of oppression, or at least an obligation.
We knew the nutrition numbers, we knew that large doses of McD's opiate-like fries were not good for us or the kids, but it was often the only thing that worked. As a reward, as a pacifier, as a bribe, the other franchises just didn't measure up.
Then there were the commercials, on TV and radio, a constant, pulsating deluge of catchy jingles and happy people. McDonald's advertising was relentless and massive. Kids being babysat by the boob tube were smacked over the head with hours of McD's ads. Kid's meals were more popular than any faddish toy on the market. Even though the toys were stamped out of cheap plastic in sweat shops and unto themselves worthless, the trinkets earned value merely for being in a happy meal.
Sure the other chains tried to copy every step, every deal, every campaign, but they were all permanently relegated to also-ran status under the wealth and weight of the McMachine.
McDonalds had struck gold and mastered it. Fast, really fast food, cheap, very cheap and in constant demand by the kids. No one has come even close to beating McD's at this game.
The food isn't really very good, the ingredients are questionable, the nutritional value kind of frightening, but fast, convenient and cheap is what America, and much of the world wanted.
The Place:
High on a hill entering Hillsboro from the north, around seven minutes from my house. You can't miss it. Angel asked me the last time I'd eaten there. "Never." I said.
"When's the last time you've been to a McDonalds anywhere?" She asked.
"A couple of months ago I stopped at one on the way into work to wait out a thunderstorm, I had coffee."
There's one on the way into work, I pass it every day, twice. For avoiding a thunderstorm it's quite convenient. I've driven that same route for seven years, that stormy day was the first time I'd ever set foot in it.
"Why don't you like. . . no, why do you hate McDonald's?"
"It's complicated."
We pulled in. I looked around and felt ready. Ready to take on what I knew to be eighty percent emotion and much less rationality.
We went in. I stepped up and looked overhead at the menu. No real need to, I was going to have the flagship burger, the one that tasted like freedom, America, home. A big Mac.
I looked around the plastic counter at the plastic tables and plastic booths. I felt nothing. As if ordered up by fate I noticed the overhead speakers were playing country music. Great, not helping at all.
The Food:
I had the #1, medium.
Angel ordered the #7, the ranch BLT chicken sandwich, medium.
Adam went all American as well, a #1, without onions, medium.
We were handed our cups and sent on out way. I poured some unsweetened tea with a dash of low expectations. Adam tried a little of the sweet tea, poured it out and got pop instead.
"It tastes old." he said of the tea. It turns out any time he goes to McDonald's, or other chains, he takes a sip of the tea first before committing to it.
The music started grinding on me, it was awful. My tenuous mood was souring. Adam had loaded up on Ketchup packets and napkins, plopped them down on the table.
The food arrived, by that I mean Adam went and picked it up. The boxes were bright, colorful and promising. Even the purchased products were being used as marketing tools. The photos of the meals on the boxes looked like the sandwiches on TV, thick buns, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes and thick beef. Adam's no-onion order won his box a big label, the kind used to mark pallets at a warehouse. Marked with codes, timestamps and bold print 'No Onions' as if the order required extra-special care and unique, labor intensive assembly.
Opening the boxes revealed what we all already knew. That the burgers inside, even wrapped in a photo of a glossy thick delight, were dull, dingy, thin and limp. I've never seen meat that color anywhere else.
It's an old and all too common joke that the sandwiches on TV look nothing like those in real life. We've gotten used to that, we've accepted it, we really just don't care.
I ate my burger, ♫ two all-beef patties, special  sauce (Thousand Island dressing rip-off)  lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun ♫! And was, as I'd greatly expected, underwhelmed. The meat was limp and flat, the special sauce, uninspired. The fries were the real surprise though.
For years I've been saying on these hallowed pages that McD's fries were the world standard. I was wrong. They were too salty and not as crisp as I remembered them.  They were okay, but not meth-like addicting. I didn't even finish mine.
Adam didn't seem impressed either, he shrugged when asked. Angel said of her chicken, "I should have gone for the one without the ranch."
We ordered coffees and some cookies and left.
There was a good deal of negative bias going in to this place. I was disappointed that they didn't even come close to challenging my negative predisposition. I left feeling disappointed and cheated.
I felt let down, by America.
We together, e pluribus unum, have made this bastion of mediocrity a mighty and celebrated corporate symbol of this great nation. By allowing ourselves to be satisfied with inferior, bland and low quality products, again and again, we have, as with Walmart, championed the least common denominator. Anyone can make a better burger, anyone. I can make a better burger, as can BK, Hardee's, Wendy's Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box, Steak and Shake, as well as the Courthouse Grill in Hillsboro and even Ginny's Kitchen and Custard in Barnhart can do better. But no, we've crowned McD's as the king. Okay, maybe they're not as bad as Sonic or White Castle.
And that's why I dislike them so much. It's embarrassing that our vaunted national treasure and consistent chart topper of the fortune 500 of American companies is just so bland and unremarkable.
We all know it's not really that good, and it's certainly not good for us, but we march like dutiful soldiers to their counters and drive up windows simply because it's part of our culture, our lowered expectations, our cheap, familiar, comfort-food.
So I will continue to avoid the place. They have nothing I can't get better somewhere else almost as easily. Sure, other places try to copy Big McD, and are no better for us than this cheap, lazy food. But the leader begs to be a target of higher expectations. We expect our  President to be better than us, we expect our football players and other celebrities to behave better than us (just kidding). We should expect one of our largest and most visible exports to be better than the least of us. We demand quality and nutritional excellence from our underfunded and minimum-waged school cafeterias, yet from the plastic, golden-arched food line that feeds many of our kids a majority of the time, we gladly accept low quality, bland, and fat-filled greasy meals.
We can do better America, we can do better.

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