Branding is more fundamental to the US psyche than the Bible

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Wendy's.
Wendy's. Photograph: Getty Images

As we drove down the broad stretch of Highway 9, which, under its guise as State Street, forms the main thoroughfare of Hurricane, Utah, my 14-year-old confided that he found the girl on the illuminated Wendy’s sign “disturbing”. I can see his point: with her ketchup-red hair and pigtails akimbo; with the upstanding and presumably savagely starched piecrust collar of her shirtwaist; with her stylised freckles and unbelievably joyful smile, the Wendy’s girl (who, one can only assume, is the eponymous “Wendy”) has the same sinister aura of other humans-gone-logo. Still, she’d probably give that creepy Colonel Sanders a thrashing while beating up on that Chucky-doll-lookalike, Ronald McDonald, with a handy rolling pin.

Demon eyes

The fast-food logo that’s stayed with me most powerfully from the time I spent living in the States as a child is Orange Julius. Originally a fruit-juice stand flogging sugary OJ – hence the moniker – the chain had branched out into burgers and hotdogs under the winking sign of a little pitchfork-wielding demon by the time we were cruising the streets of Ithaca, NY, in the mid-1960s. You might’ve imagined that the marketing of fast food under such a diabolic presence had eventually fallen foul of the religious lobby, but what put paid to it (or him) was a suit by the alumni of Arizona State University, from whose own logo Orange Julius had been freely adapted; thus proving yet again that branding (and associated litigation) is far more fundamental to the American psyche than even the Bible.

Anyway, I never remember being scared of the Orange Julius devil – yet even now, sitting many thousands of miles away, the very thought of Wendy baring her teeth in the desert sunset is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. Mind you, this could be a somatic memory, because the air-conditioning in the joint was savage. “Quality Is Our Recipe”, that’s the Wendy’s shtick, a perfect little piece of nonsense in its own right. But then once you’re out in the American boondocks, you begin to suspend disbelief in these sorts of things – just as it seems entirely acceptable to bumble along the interstates in an SUV the size of a semi-detached house. Our hire car seemed grotesquely huge to me, until I pulled in to Wendy’s and parked it beside one whose wheel arches arced above it like the flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral. Inside there was the full-strength mortuary light, tiled dissection areas and melamine gurneys; the troughs full of real plants genetically engineered to resemble plastic ones. In the queue, pimply teens fresh from football practice sported those flesh-coloured and obscenely padded calf-length pants, while jiggling with the effects of a lifelong corn syrup comedown.

My teenager suppressed his fear long enough to order a “Baconator” (“Two ¼lb patties topped with fresh-cooked Applewood Smoked Bacon in between a premium buttered, toast-ed bun. Topped off with mayo, ketchup, and American cheese. Now that’s not just a sandwich, but a tasty treat”). I perused the info boards above the servery. There were scary salads and berry tea infusions – if I didn’t know better I might’ve thought I’d stumbled into a health-food joint.

Hail Caesar

But then this has been the way of it with the big fast-food chains: their response to accusations of super-sizing their customers while etiolating their workers has been not either/or but both/and. Wendy’s is no exception, with plenty of signage about corporate responsibility and donation boxes for worthy causes.

I had the spicy chicken Caesar salad, my wife a cheeseburger. For some dumb reason I also got us two cryogenic storage dewars full of tea the temperature of liquid nitrogen – and when I closed in on the table they top-heavily toppled out of the slots in the cardboard carrier and inundated my wife’s vintage Prada handbag. I’d already scored a perfect zero two days before when I put the open sunblock bottle in a shoulder bag with her vintage Prada bag. Now the handbag was definitively fucked – only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s blind elder sister Mary would still have deemed it stylish.

Inevitably the rest of the meal passed off with a certain froideur. I tried making a few jolly remarks about the square-cut beef patties Wendy’s use in their hamburgers (“We don’t cut corners!”), but these fell as flat as . . . well, as a square-cut patty. The food was the usual dreck but the staff were sweetness itself when it came to mopping up this perfect tea storm in the desert town of Hurricane.