Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Do McDonald's Hamburgers Taste Good?

Worldwide, McDonalds sells several million hamburgers per day, maybe even as many as 50 million. My guess is that people eat them because they like the way they taste -- along with various other reasons, especially cost and convenience. But it seems to me that if you want to understand why people, especially children, want to eat McDonalds' burgers, it makes sense to at least consider how they taste. The French Fries, too. I am not sure that the book I just read really came to grips with the way that McDonalds appeals to the human sense of taste: the tastes of fat, salty meat, of the carb-loaded bun, and the sweet and slightly acidic tomato flavor of catsup. Sure, sophisticated eaters criticize such a taste, but many many people of every possible background find fast food good, whether they admit it or not. 

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for History.
Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America is a very interesting study of economic history. It's about a quest for economic and racial justice as reflected in the struggle to enable Black Americans to own McDonalds franchises and share in the enormous profits that fast food chains take out of Black neighborhoods in America. It's a story of politics, corporate management and prejudice, institutional racism, and many other issues made visible by the one issue of franchise ownership and the racial unfairness of American corporate structure. It is a study of capitalism and its consequences. It describes how community activists, local politicians, and national leaders all cooperated to give Black entrepreneurs a place in the high-profit-making fast food industry.

In Franchise, author Marcia Chatelain tells a story of how over time, access to education and better jobs enabled Black advertising agents to become effective in creating demand for fast food in the Black community, and how fast food outlets became a part of the community through Black ownership and employment of Black workers. It tells how Black-owned franchises became exceptionally profitable despite a variety of impediments and lack of equal support from corporate management. Although centered on McDonalds, the book includes digressions about some very interesting fried-chicken chains and others as well.

In the introduction, the author explains that understanding the history of fast food franchising in Black neighborhoods provides necessary insight into the nutritional and health issues that are often at the forefront of recent discussions of how Black families eat:

"For too long, research on race and fast food has placed the onus solely on black palates and parents for the dismal state of black health. Without an understanding of how we got here, the food justice movement will never move beyond the idea of individual choice and continue to ignore structural disequilibrium. Knowing the caloric content and fat grams in a cheeseburger from Krystal is important. Educating the public on how much of the recommended daily allowance of sodium is exceeded by an order of Burger King onion rings is helpful. Promoting healthy lifestyles can improve lives. But understanding how shifts in the priorities of the mid-century civil rights struggle, changes in federal policy on business and urban development, and the boom years of fast food converged in the lives of black America is equally critical." (Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, p. 6). 

One chapter after another provides details of many events in American Black history and the search for racial justice from the 1960s onward. Within the Civil Rights movement and within many political struggles against entrenched racism, Chatelain presents the interaction between the McDonald's Corporation and activists in Black communities in a number of American cities, especially Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. The author's knowledge and passion make this a wonderful story, though sometimes I found the details a bit overwhelming. 

An illustration from Franchise, showing a Black-owned McDonald's spared during
the 1992 riots in the ghetto of Los Angeles, another interesting area of historic study. (p. 197)

As time went on, Chatelain says, healthy food became a national preoccupation, and many studies blamed fast food -- and people who chose it and gave it to their children -- for the increasing epidemic of obesity and food-related diseases:

"In the constant evaluation of black health as jeopardized, many public health advocates fixated on food choices and acknowledged the disproportionate numbers of fast food locations in black neighborhoods. But, few made the connection with the federal government’s concentrated, sustained efforts to bring more and more fast food into the inner city, nor did they see the handiwork of the civil rights authorities in sanctioning the process." (p. 252). 

In other words, there's a down-side:

"The idea of financially sound black institutions is alluring across the ideological spectrum because it allows white conservatives and liberals alike to claim plausible deniability in their role in supporting systems and policies that maintain racial capitalism. Whether it’s called black capitalism or empowerment, the politics of black business can serve many interests, except for those of blacks most susceptible to the extremes of capitalism and racism." (p. 257).

At the end of the book, Chatelain returns to the question of parental choices in what to feed children: 

"The castigation of the eating habits of poor people, or the choices they make for their children’s meals, obscures the origins of those choices." (p. 262).  

As I've said, I found this book very interesting and full of wonderful insights about American Black history and the role of civil rights leaders and political leaders in applying pressure for a more just system. In this review I have barely touched on the richness of this history book and its treatment of many issues of justice, equal opportunity, and community development. 

The only reservation I have about Franchise is the question of why McDonald's and most other fast food chains have such a strong appeal to consumers, which I believe is the taste of the food. People of all races, all classes, all economic levels, and many countries besides ours simply like to eat it. To really understand the way fast food flavors satisfy deep cravings requires reading at least one more book; for example, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. It's all about the taste! (I dare you to write a comment here about how you don't like fast food: that's not the point.)

Review © 2022 mae sander.



Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I've recently watched a programme about illness in a poor neighbourhood that had more fast food places (chicken based) rather than a decent grocery store. The restrictions in choice were made abundantly clear. As an aside, McDonald's is not cheap here and there are none in our impoverished communities.

Iris Flavia said...

Do you have to do this?!
I ordered hence another book!
When am I supposed to read all of them? And this sounds very interesting.
I need to skip training or such! ;-)
ATM I have three books parallel...

Jeanie said...

I confess, I like a McDonald's cheeseburger. I don't really think of them as cheeseburgers (or burgers) -- those belong on a grill. I think of them more like cheeseburger-food, not quite real but their own tasty, soft and squishy, which a real burger shouldn't be! (It should be medium rare -- softish but not squishy.) This is why I don't write menu descriptions!

Tina said...

We used to do our once a year quarter pounder but after the last time - ugh. I think it makes a differenec in us cooking at home 99% of the time so you notice the lack of quality in food when "dine" out. I do still love a pizza from a local Italian run place though.

Thansk so much for the good wishes for Doug's recovery. Appreciated :-)


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

This is a perspective on fast food that I know nothing about. Intriguing.

And, as a side note, I do not like eating in a fast food restaurant but it is not because of the food. I like to eat slowly. Mister Rogers-kind of slow. I like to sit on comfortable seating. I like subtle lighting. None of these are part of the fast food experience.

I have never eaten at a Mcdonald's.

Beth F said...

I don't like fast food, nor do we eat it -- *except* when on a road trip and we don't want to take time to sit in a restaurant. So that means McD about 4 times a year. I do, however, love diners, so it's not about the burgers and fries.

Like Tina, we eat at home 99% of the time, and when we eat out, we go to a real restaurant or diner. As for take-out? It's always a local ethnic restaurant, including a *locally* owned pizza place.

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up with fast food. We had home-cooked meals 99% of the time and when we we ate out, we ate in a restaurant. The only take-out we got was pizza from a restaurant owned by one of my relatives.

*shrug* everyone's experiences are different.