From cradle to coronary, Ronald McDonald is watching you

Never trust anyone whose name rhymes. Jacques Chirac, two term President of France, was caught embezzling it large from the public fromage. Shaquille O’Neill, NBA all-star, was caught cheating a posteriori by his wife Shaunie. And then there’s the big one, the face that launched a thousand shits, the image that haunts your dreams as you’re going through your gastronomical spasms at 3am, feeling the bloating and regret and unsettling feeling of fast food fast rising, knowing that you’ve no one to blame but you’ll blame him anyway. The clown alabaster, the made-up prankster, Mr. Ronald McDonald.

No other PR puppet-master captivates kids quite like big Ronnie. The KFC Colonel, with his Southern charm and ol’ timer smile, is more of a family man. The Burger King king, who hardly features in their stores, is mercifully aloof with the distance borne of patronage. But Ronald McDonald, the flaming-haired mascot who triggers your childhood clown phobia with his ashen face and lipsticked grin? He’s not there to appeal to adults. He’s not even aimed at teenagers. He’s there for the small fries.

Because no other fast food chain demands a Faustian commitment quite like McDonald’s. McDonald’s doesn’t just want you to enjoy its floppy burgers and salty chips. It doesn’t just want you to wash down its battered chicken with litres of brown, syrupy water. It wants you to be part of the McFamily. From cradle to coronary. And it always has.

The mythical leader, the McMarketing, the Golden Arches on every highway. McDonald’s isn’t just a fast food chain; it’s a secular religion. It’s a siren song to a generation out-of-time. A dealer for a crowd who want a feel-good hit now, who need a momentary punch of ecstasy rising from a sugary rush, now. McDonald’s isn’t about an hour from now. It’s not about tomorrow. You don’t have any time for that. It’s about getting what you want when you want it and never having to apologise thank-you-very-much.

But strip away the veneer. Let the McScales fall from your eyes. Forget the easy familiarity of a thousand identikit stores. Rewire your brain to no longer speak McLanguage. And is the food really worth sixty years of hype? Is it really worth 69 million visitors a day?

Presentationally, the bag-box-no-cutlery combo that McDonald’s touts is what you would give to someone you don’t trust with sharp objects. It somehow seems apt that so many death row, night-before-the-big-day inmates order it as their last supper. And the packaging screams dispose-me. Nothing here is permanent, everything is perishable. This is a faith with no afterlife.

And then there’s the fare itself.

The Big Mac, one of the original McDonald’s band members before it went all hippie with salad shakers and chicken wraps, is questionably not even food. It’s more of a feeling really and that feeling is gastroenteritis.

The soft, airy, triple sesame bun; the flimsy beef patties camouflaged in iceberg lettuce; the yellow Play-Doh-like paste that is meant to resemble cheese; the runny mayo that cloys at the back of your throat. Take the Big Mac apart and you’d never eat any of this individually. Yet together, it creates a mood, perhaps just one of rosy-eyed familiarity, that somehow works.

The poor french fries, so skinny and emasculated, singed in oil with salt rubbed in the wounds, don’t remotely resemble anything French. The French are meticulous in their cuisine. Everything is coaxed and cajoled and guided until it reaches new gastronomical heights. This is more American – the fries that Henry Ford would have made. It’s all sliced and mass-produced, like it’s been cut by junkies in a rush.

The chicken nuggets are fascinating from an anthropological point of view. Chickens have sickles and saddles and shanks and spurs. They have thighs and wings and breasts and claws. The chicken is one of nature’s great inventions, a masterclass in Darwinian evolution. What they don’t have are nuggets.

Chicken nuggets are a Frankenstein of different unsellable parts of the carcass. Half is meat and the other half is, well, you don’t want to know. The result, of course, is something that does not belong to the Animal Kingdom. Nor should it belong to the food chain. Chicken nuggets are springy, dried-out paperweights that taste indistinguishable from the cardboard they come in. Nice with ketchup though.

And not satisfied with tinkering with the Lord’s divine plan, McDonald’s has another use for the humble chicken, the McChicken sandwich. The McChicken sandwich is effectively a large chicken nugget in a bun, drowning in sugary mayo with shredded lettuce as an accoutrement. It is designed to give you a salty, carb injection, both waking you up and knocking you out. Looking inside the bun feels like walking into a crime scene, but we’ve all seen this movie too many times to let that put us off.

And what of the atmosphere? Queuing up at a McDonald’s is for nostalgic geriatrics. These days, it’s all online, baby. You tap-tap-tap at the blazing screen to telecommunicate what you want to the server ten feet away and then you wait in line for your bingo number to be called. If you try to order an individual item instead of a meal, the machine will put up a fight. This is a company, not a charity.

It’s possible that the ambience of these mock American diners has changed over the last sixty years but I doubt it. Apart from the indecipherable R&B music that drawls out of the hidden speakerphones, it’s all pretty much the same. Plastic trays, plastic tables, plastic living. Young people all sit together, adults dine alone. A microcosm of the arc of your social life.

And yet, sitting in a McDonald’s, it’s hard not to be seduced. Yes, the food might be rubbery and the elbowing to get to your order is frustrating and you end up having to share a table with some guy in a hi-vis vest reading The Sun. And yes, you know that the whole place is a marketing ploy, an echo chamber of a thousand focus-grouped messages, subliminally hypnotising you to buy.

And yet, somehow, McDonald’s is part of our childhoods. It’s part of our lives. It’s the family member we never see and have reservations about but will never give up. We know there are better restaurants out there, but they’re not part of what makes us, us. McDonald’s isn’t just a brand, it’s part of who we are.

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