Follow Us:

America’s contribution to the world’s cuisines

No American town is complete without a McD. Even on international travel we often saved money by eating at McD.

BASAB DASGUPTA | New Delhi |

I vividly remember my first meal outside home in the USA. I had arrived the evening before in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to attend graduate school at Louisiana State University (LSU). I was being helped by Partha, the brother of someone I knew in college, to get settled. He suggested that we eat lunch at a hamburger place called “McDonald’s” (McD) located just outside the campus. I was in the process of learning various American surnames.

However, I was already familiar with the name “McDonald” because I used to be an avid follower of the game of cricket back in India; there was an Australian cricket player named Colin McDonald. He was a reliable opening batsman who visited India during the 1959-60 test series.

Hamburgers were, of course, made with beef – something we Hindus were not supposed to eat. I must confess that I had eaten beef in Kolkata even before coming to the US at a place called “Nizam” located close to the Lighthouse movie theatre.

This was an example of not teenage rebellion, but astute management of my limited budget. The mutton rolls at Nizam cost 50 paise while the beef rolls were only 35 and tasted better. As a result, I had no hesitation in having lunch at McD. A single hamburger cost 19 cents and a “double burger” with two beef patties and a slice of cheese cost 39 cents. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, supplemented by a small bag of French fries and a cup of Coca-Cola. It was my “love at first bite” with McD. The big sign outside the restaurant with two golden arches had a statement declaring “X millions of hamburgers sold”. I do not remember what the number X was. I do not see such numbers anymore. They probably stopped counting. I ate at that McD numerous times during my student days at LSU because of both price and proximity.

Coincidentally, when I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for my Ph.D. study at the University of Wisconsin, there was a McD within walking distance of our apartment. Money was tight those days and eating out for lunch everyday was out of the question. My wife used to make lunch for me – almost the same menu every day, a cold salami sandwich with some fruit, typically a banana or an apple. She generously granted me one wish though; I could eat my dream lunch at the McD every Friday – a quarter pounder with cheese, a medium fry, and a Coca-Cola. I anxiously waited for Friday every week just because of that meal. Life was good. McD thankfully switched from animal fat to vegetable oil in their cooking around that time; otherwise, I would have died of a heart attack by now.

Burger King was the only competitor of McD at that time. I learned about Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, In-nout Burger, Hardy’s, etc. much later. The menu at McD was simple. Apart from single and double burgers, there was a “Big Mac” and some breakfast items. I was fascinated by the concept of a double-deck burger in a Big Mac. When we used to go on road trips, we invariably looked for a McD to have lunch or dinner at, partly because we knew the menu and prices by heart. It also seemed that every town along our route, big or small, had an exit from the freeway leading to a McD.

No American town is complete without a McD. Even on international travel we often saved money by eating at McD. I have eaten at McD in Tokyo, Paris, Rome, London, Vienna, Mexico City, and Amsterdam. A gentleman in Paris lamented the fact that his children preferred fast food from McD over traditional French cuisine. When our daughter was born, her first trip outside the house at the age of three months was to a neighborhood McD.

After learning to say “Mama” and “Dada”, the third word in her vocabulary was “Macdo”. For her, the attraction was the colourful playground complete with the image of a smiling Ronald McDonald. The introduction of these playgrounds was a masterful strategy to attract children. We even held her birthday one year at McD. It was not just me, it seemed that the entire immigrant Indian community fell in love with McD.

A friend of ours who was looking to buy a house, openly declared that his selection criteria were very simple: “There has to be a McD and a K-Mart nearby”. He was not joking. Just like other businesses, McD has evolved over the years. They have resigned their decor, implemented new technology, and introduced many new items to their menu. Some of these items became permanent additions while others came and went.

McChicken, Chicken Nuggets, Filet-o-Fish, Kid’s meals, various coffees and shakes, and breakfast items such as Egg and Sausage McMuffin were all good permanent additions. Then there were others including salad items, especially in recent years that only lasted for a few months. Gone are fried apple pies. The jury is still out on the longevity of the “Crispy Chicken Sandwich”.

The most mysterious item is the tasty “McRib” because it comes and goes periodically like a comet and for no obvious reason. Coincidentally, I just saw an ad a few days ago which said that McRib is back for a “farewell tour”. I was pleasantly surprised during a trip to India during the nineties to see that McD had penetrated the Indian market. They cleverly used vegetables, tofu, and chicken in their patties instead of beet to conform to the local customs. Eating at a McD is a clear sign of attempted Americanization among locals just like wearing blue jeans.

Unfortunately, I must admit that offerings from many newer burger joints taste better than McD’s food because they use fresher ingredients. One exception is McD’s French fries which are unquestionably the best.

However, it is the familiar clean, and cheerful atmosphere and the taste that has been permanently ingrained in my taste buds that always draws me to McD. During my present retired life, I am still a loyal customer of McD, partly because my grandkids love those plastic toys that come with happy meals – another marketing ingenuity. The real attraction for me is their “senior coffee”, available to all seniors. It costs less than half of what it costs at Starbucks but tastes reasonably good and refills are free.

The coffee is probably the reason that you would often see a group of retired people hanging out at a McD in the morning and discussing their items of interest from politics to health issues to social security benefits. Whether you like McD or not, their drive-through service was a lifesaver during the pandemic, and they are offering decent “budget meals” amid the current period of high inflation. The long line of cars at their drive-through windows is a testament to their relentless efforts. McD has become the restaurant of choice for average Americans, especially minority groups.

Most importantly, they are still in business as one of the most popular and profitable restaurants despite numerous complaints and lawsuits alleging that their food is not good for health. Their arch-rival (no pun intended with the word “arch”) Burger King was sold to a Canadian company.

McD is the quintessential Americana because their longevity shows that Americans love items that are fast, “beefy” and affordable; it is also a gathering place for people from all segments of society. As their ads say, “I am loving it”.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in the industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)