Friday, August 24, 2007

The United States of Arugula

The Big Mac has turned 40. While cultural icons like On the Road (50 this year) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (40 this year) gain respectability as they age, the iconic Big Mac seems ever more despised as the years pass. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation book and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me film were a killer one-two punch a few years back. But antipathy towards the "two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame-seed bun"sandwich is nothing new. Urban myths about what was "actually" in the burgers were common when I was in university. I have a relative who ran the burger factory in Spruce Grove back then which supplied all the western Canada McDonald's, so I knew first-hand that the burgers were not rain forest beef, not full of whatever. You can critique McDonald's for many sins, but the quality of its hamburgers isn't one of the reasons!

In my youth the nearest McDonald's was a half hour drive away, in the closest city to our town. So a Big Mac was a treat, despite the fact that the most common reason for visiting this city was to go to the dentist! Thus Big Macs and the dentist's drill are deeply associated in my psyche!

Nowadays, for my teenage son's generation, the Big Mac is uncool. One kid claims he is "allergic" to McDonald's, getting nauseous whenever he gets within 50 metres of the Mighty McD. Certainly McD's ubiquity on the urban landscape has erased most childhood memories of it as a special treat for me, but ....
  • The Canadian McDonald's corp, lead by CEO George Cohon, negotiated to get McD's into the USSR at the height of the Cold War, with success in 1990. Perhaps the Big Mac played a part in the downfall of Communism?! Read about it in Cohon's autobiography To Russia With Fries [ghostwritten by the fabulous David Macfarlane, author of the lovely novel, Summer Gone, and the memoir The Danger Tree]
  • The introduction of indoor playplaces (slides!) was a godsend to tired parents everywhere!
  • The one place with clean public bathrooms when I was backpacking through Europe!
  • With great size comes great responsibility, and opportunities. When McDonald's introduced premium salads in the US, they become one of the top buyers of "spring mix" lettuce (arugula, radicchio and frisee). With other mega-corps moving to fair trade suppliers it isn't beyond imagination that McD's could move this way.
To really understand how we North Americans moved from the era of a fatty 540 calorie Big Mac being a special treat to today's obsession with slow food, sustainable food, gourmet food, read David Kamp's excellent book, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. He walks the reader through the post-WWII changes in food habits, the food revolution of the past few decades. The intro notes a 1939 column in a New York newspaper showing how to pronounce "peet-za" and explaining that pizza is a "nice stunt to surprise the visiting relatives." Chapters cover all the larger-than-life figures, from Julia Child and Craig Clairborne to Alice Waters and James Beard to Mario Batali and the current crop of celebrity chefs.


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