I’m the last person you’d expect to praise McDonald’s.
I hold the fast food chain responsible for childhood obesity, animal cruelty, environmental degradation, union busting, and the decline of the family dinner.
Not a bite has crossed these lips since I read Fast Food Nation, and short of a gun to my head, it’s unlikely that one ever will again.
Still, credit where credit is due.
McDonald’s first steamrolled its way into overseas markets as an exporter of American culture. Its standard-issue menu of burgers and fries famously transcended boundaries and borders so that customers everywhere were assured of the same Quarter Pounder whether they were in a McDonald’s in Mozambique, Malaysia, or Minnesota. It was seen as the worst form of globalization, corrupting cultures, adulterating diets, and trampling on local culinary traditions. And it did those things. The hamburger has truly become a global food, and you can find them not just at McDonald’s but on menus everywhere, from Greek tavernas to Egyptian mataams.
McDonald’s is truly a victim of its own success. Now that you can find burgers at cafés, cantinas, brasseries, and biergartens, their own version doesn’t register the same excitement it once did. When McDonald’s brought its first restaurant to Kuwait in 1994, the opening day line of 15,000 customers stretched for seven miles; when the 70th Kuwaiti outlet opened this year, it elicited a yawn.
McDonald’s has shown itself to be surprisingly mutable.
They’ve abandoned their goal of standardized globalization for one of internationalization. Instead of bringing the same cookie cutter menu items to every foreign locale, the chain adapts its offerings to local tastes, preferences, and available ingredients.
While America’s McDonald’s adhere to a proscribed menu of commoditized, mass-produced burgers, foreign franchisees are only required to stick with a short list of standard items and are encouraged to tinker with the rest of the food. Hamburgers come on patties of sticky rice in the Philippines and on flatbread in Greece. In India, where much of the population doesn’t eat beef, there’s a potato-patty McAloo Tikki burger and Israel has the kosher McFalafel. You can order cheese quiche in Brazil, red bean pie in Hong Kong, and traditional Caldo Verde soup (made with cabbage, kale, onion, potato and chorizo) in Portugal.
The overseas McDonald’s are often held to a higher standard.
They conform to local laws and sentiments by sourcing GMO-free ingredients, and beef is often lean, grass-fed, and hormone-free. They source locally, buy cheeses with no artificial dyes, soft drinks with no added corn syrup, and grill meats over charcoal fires. Even the workers’ pay is often better than in the U.S.
Ironically, McDonald’s, the world’s best exporter of American culture has become a champion of global food cultures.
But make no mistake about it, this is still fast food. It’s loaded with sodium, preservatives, and cheap fats, pre-cooked and kept wiltingly warm under the glare of heat lamps, and served in an excess of packaging.
It’s a cold comfort to think that the world’s culinary traditions are being preserved at food court kiosks.
The 26 year old Canadian author of McDonald’s Around the World has eaten at McDonald’s outlets in more than 50 countries (the trick, he says, is to cram as many layovers as possible into every travel itinerary). His blog chronicles the highs and lows of global eating at the Golden Arches.