Burger off

Food - Bee Wilson on how we became culinary serfs to McDonald's

Tatler magazine has always seemed to me like a revolution waiting to happen. How many pictures of toffs swilling champagne can it print before there is blood on the streets of London? The "Bystander" column, those pages of braying faces at fantastical parties, is capitalist society in its most advanced, most degenerate, most mystifying guise. Here is Il Conte di Lasagne dancing with Miss Trust Fund in Lord Frederick of Turpentine's Oxford punt. This is what Marx called the "enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world".

In such a context, it is hard to be surprised by anything, yet a detail in the latest "Bystander" gave me pause. At this year's Independence Day party hosted by the American ambassador, the beautiful chattering guests were served McDonald's chicken McNuggets. The brazenness of it! To pretend that these pygmy lumps of globalised pap are the best that America has to offer! It is somehow shocking, too, to see the pictures of smiling Europeans feigning gratification at such treats.

This surprise is misplaced, however, if one bears in mind the history of McDonald's. As the ambassador doubtless knows, it was through just such brazenness that those golden arches won the world over. In the early days, McDonald's managers learnt that, contrary to expectations, it was more profitable to change local eating habits than adapt the menu to suit them. This was true not just in the Far East, whose adaptability to Big Macs has been given considerable analysis by sociologists and economists in recent years, but also in Germany, Sweden, Australia and even - perhaps especially - in Britain.

The German case foreshadowed the British one. When McDonald's set up shop there in 1971, it tried to pander to what it thought were German tastes. In place of the plastic vibe of the American McDonald's, it made the stores dark, cosy and gemutlich, served up cheap beer and fried chicken sandwiches to please the German palate and divided the seating with hearty wooden partitions. Managers even thought about introducing Bratwurst. Yet the enterprise flopped. Compared to the classic burger, the German chicken sandwich was of erratic quality, and the cheap beer encouraged rough gangs of youths, while putting off families. Only when the wood look was scrapped, the beer played down and the regular menu of hamburger and fries installed did McDonald's really take off in West Germany.

Three years later, McDonald's entered the London market. Analysts predicted failure - surely nothing could ever replace our loyalty to pub grub and fish and chips. So they wooed us with fresh flowers, fabric cushions and free milk shakes. The more it wooed, the more we resisted. The English venture lost $10m in its first five years. When we came round, it was not because McDonald's reminded us of the food we already had, but because it reacted against it. McDonald's shakes were advertised as "triple thick", in contrast to our pathetic Nesquik drinks. Stores promoted "crisp fries" to make us see how soggy our beloved chip-shop cousins were. It did not take long for the recalcitrant British to appreciate that odd combination of sweet bun, processed cheese, mayonnaise-like orange sauce, onions and pickles that comprises a Big Mac. Soon, we were enslaved.

The British are actually more craven in their attachment to McDonald's than many other nations. Unlike the French, we do not wave Roquefort in mass rallies while calling for the end of McDonaldisation. We do not even demand very much from our quarter-pounder experience. A British McDonald's is generally nastier than the American original. I've visited branches on both coasts of the US that are clean, bright and fresh, equipped with self-service chrome ketchup pumps, big salads and cookies for the kids. Here, it seems that, McLibel protesters apart, we are content with unvarying stodge and fizz served in depressing surroundings by sullen, underpaid workers.

We have become culinary serfs and deserve all the McNuggets the ambassador condescends to serve us. Those idiot faces in Tatler haven't realised that the revolution has already happened. And it is ketchup, not blood, that's flowing in the streets.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street