Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

My McDonald's

Deep-fried aesthetics

My first encounter with McDonald’s was like a sitcom episode. A young and energetic émigré from Moscow, I arrived in Boston in 1981. By a stroke of good fortune I managed to get a job at an architectural firm, even though I could barely speak—let alone understand—basic English. My greatest desire was to blend in with my new colleagues, to be as normal and socially acceptable as possible. I noticed that the architects would sometimes return from lunch and tell everyone about a new place they’d found for a good sandwich, and that this information would usually generate a lively conversation. One day at lunchtime, I wandered a little further than usual from my office. Suddenly I came upon a strange new restaurant. It was all red and yellow, and very brightly lit. The prices were just right for my wallet. I ordered at random and tasted something I had never tried before: a hamburger, french fries, ketchup… Back at the office, I made an announcement: “Well, today I found a really great place to have lunch. You guys should try it, too.” “Really? What is it?” several voices asked. “It’s called McDonald’s,” I said proudly. Nobody laughed or said anything sarcastic, but I could see from their faces that something was wrong…

I remembered this story many years later, when the Iron Curtain started to sag, and the first incredulous visitors from the Soviet Union trickled into the West. I was taking one of these overwhelmed guests, an old school friend, on a long walk through Manhattan. We eventually settled into a small, comfortably dark restaurant in the Village, at the choice window table. Even before the menu arrived, I noticed that my friend was uncomfortable. He was turning in his chair, peeking out the window, looking distracted and anxious. On the other side of the street, in plain view, was a brightly lit McDonald’s in all of its red and yellow glory. I made an immediate decision. “Do you want to go there instead?” I asked. My friend eagerly leaped from his seat.

What is it about McDonald’s that attracts children and immigrants alike? As a rule, immigrants, like children, are very sensitive creatures. In their desire to blend in, they are conscious of making the wrong gesture, looking funny or different, standing out in any conspicuous way. The simple experience of entering a restaurant, asking for a table, and talking to a waiter can be intimidating. In this respect, McDonald’s is the ultimate populist place. No one can be excluded, you can come and go as you please. It’s okay to bring your children and to make a mess. Toys are given away along with nutritional information: there is something for everyone.

The most important populist aspect of McDonald’s is, of course, the food. Even though the American hamburger has been around since the late nineteenth century, it did not seize the public imagination until the 1940s. At that time, America was obsessed with self-service. The wartime workforce was scarce and expensive, while mechanization had made a giant leap. The drive to cut labor as much as possible resulted in a rapid proliferation of self-service gas stations, department stores, cafeterias, and fast-food restaurants. It is not by chance that the hamburger became a staple of these new eating establishments. American food has always been characterized by meals composed of distinct elements. Instead of one-pot meals, so common in old Europe, American dinner has historically had a tripartite structure: meat, potato, and vegetable. According to historian James Deetz, this difference points to a world view that places a greater emphasis on the individual and free choice.

Fast-food restaurants proposed a quite different trinity: hamburger, french fries, and soda. Importantly, however, the entire fast-food meal is composed of separate, modular, interchangeable elements. The inner structure of the burger itself can easily be separated into further components, all open for inspection. The assembly of each hamburger has a clearly mechanical nature. Even the look of the different parts alludes to various technological processes, rather than having the conventional appearance of cooked food. Thus the beef patty is produced by molding to a great degree of precision, just like plastic parts (the diameter of a McDonald’s burger is exactly 3.875 inches). Like aluminum extrusions, fries are shaped in precise square sections that have nothing to do with the shape of a potato. American cheese, itself a perfectly square yellow tile, is molded around the burger in a process that approximates thermo-forming. Only the bun still maintains some resemblance to conventional bread, but even there, the precise slicing creates two matching parts similar to the male and female parts of a mold. Individually added servings of ketchup play the role of oil and grease necessary for the working of any mechanical assembly.

Much has been written about McDonald’s development of special technologies that allowed the company to truly mechanize the fast-food business. Less often commented upon, however, is the fun component of all this necessary and unnecessary mechanization. Here, in my opinion, lies the real secret of McDonald’s popularity, because Americans love to play with things industrial, mechanical, and technological. From children to adults, we enjoy having more video games, cars, telephones and, now, computers than any other nation in the world. American roadside restaurants contributed to this obsession by bringing technology and play into the realm of basic food consumption.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, in an age of theme restaurants, the idea of having fun while eating seems obvious. It was not so when the McDonald brothers started their enterprise. The image of a typical roadside restaurant at the time was either faux-historical or cozily domestic. The spirit of the meal generally expressed simplicity and efficiency. As such, it was a far cry from the romance of, say, a contemporary American car. The famous golden arches of McDonald’s introduced a brave attempt to tie together architecture, food, and technology into a single unified, entertaining experience.

The arches were the intuitive invention of Richard McDonald, who insisted on their incorporation into his new restaurant building. Legend has it that several architects turned him down, not willing to deal with such a “tasteless” client. Eventually, one Stanley C. Meston, a local California architect, reluctantly accepted the commission. By the end of his work on the project, the arches had assumed their characteristic parabolic shape. As often noted, the curve most likely derived from Eero Saarinen’s prize-winning St. Louis Arch, not yet built but widely published at the time. The interesting thing is that Saarinen’s arch itself was probably influenced by a famous 1931 project, also unbuilt, by the great Le Corbusier. Yes, the first “golden arch” was proposed for Moscow, USSR, as the main compositional element for the giant Palace of Soviets. The rest is history.

Indeed, history is full of such improbable, ironic coincidences. Not only would the symbol of populist America derive from a high-Modernist architectural icon, but the ultimate capitalist machine of McDonald’s would be related to a palace for Communist Party congresses!

This connection became quite literal in the late 1980s, when newly liberalized Russia opened its doors to Western corporations. McDonald’s was one of the first, and certainly the most noticeable, of the foreign companies who seized the opportunity. The site of the first Russian McDonald’s was carefully chosen in the spiritual center of Moscow, across the street from the monument to Russia’s national poet, Pushkin. Even though it was reported to be the largest McDonald’s in the world, the lines to get in stretched around the block at all hours and in every kind of weather. Anecdotes circulated about business travelers who, after waiting in line for hours, would take the burger and fries (only one dinner was allowed per person) to their children deep in the provinces. After a long train journey, they would arrive days later to have the exotic food reheated and tasted by the whole family. Images of the local crowds, policemen in uniform, and the statue of Pushkin with the triumphant big M in the background became an obligatory part of any Western reportage about Russia in transition.

I visited the Moscow McDonald’s a few years later, when the queues were long gone. It was evening, and the brightly-lit place stood out even in its sumptuous Pushkin Square surroundings. The restaurant building was strangely attached to a conventional Soviet-style hi-rise, as if to permanently emphasize the existential collision of cultures. Driven by idle curiosity, I walked in and looked around. Surprisingly, the inside did not seem to differ from the familiar atmosphere of an American McDonald’s. Families with children, groups of teenagers, people of all ages and financial means seemed busy and at ease. A young uniformed girl at the register addressed me in Russian not with the local “Next!” but with “Can I help you?”, a hard-to-translate idiom that she was proud to say again and again. Suddenly, I felt at home. Because you can take McDonald’s out of America, but you can’t take America out of McDonald’s.