Who can explain it? 25 years and 14 billion Big Macs later

Tom Nugent

July 01, 1993|By Tom Nugent

IT BEGAN on a summer afternoon in Pittsburgh, 25 years ago, when a curious customer at a local McDonald's peeled the wrapper from what would soon become the most popular sandwich on Earth.

The rest, of course, is hamburger history.

Biting into the world's very first Big Mac, how could that Pittsburgh diner have known that by 1993, more than 14 billion of the "twin all-beef patties" and the "golden sesame seed buns" would have been devoured at the 12,000 McDonald's outlets that now girdle the globe?

But that's what happened. For the frantically reproducing, 35-year-old McDonald's chain -- which now serves more than 23 million customers each day -- the birth of the Big Mac in 1968 would kick off the biggest success story in the history of American fast food.

And yet the sudden explosion of the "Big Mac Attack" phenomenon would also trigger a major social mystery, a haunting culinary enigma which thousands of American sociologists and economists so far have failed to solve. Put simply, the problem reads as follows:

Q. "Why do millions of Americans line up each day to ingest a standardized, machine-processed hamburger that tastes like a slab of paperboard with a pickle on it . . . while simultaneously gobbling stacks of assembly-line French fries with the flavor of splinters cut from an aging telephone pole?"

Who can account for such bizarre behavior? Who can explain how a nation that was smart enough to put a man on the moon became addicted to fast food with the texture of refrigerator insulation, and the taste of a boiled rag doll?

But we did. After wolfing more than 14 billion of the double-burgers slathered in "special sauce," America is a nation crawling with "Big Mac junkies," with helpless, drooling addicts who will do anything for their next fix from the deep-fat fryer. And yet, nobody can explain why! Sociologists, psychologists, demographers, macro-economists -- all have thrown up their hands in recent years, while admitting that the uncanny phenomenon is simply too complex to grasp.

Is it that bold pickle? they ask. Is it that gooey, dribbling sauce with its faint, sad tang of wilted onion? Or is it simply the blinding speed of preparation, which works on the mind with uncanny power, convincing you even before you take the first bite: Anything cooked this fast has to be great!

Who can say?

Like the disappearance of Judge Crater and the construction of the Egyptian sphinx, the puzzle of why millions of ordinary Americans would continue to snarf up such sterile, taste-bud-ravaging fare teases the mind with its haunting mystery.

So challenging is the conundrum, in fact, that after nearly three decades of struggling with it, the analysts of American cuisine have managed to produce only four "Unified Theories" of the "Addictive Power of the Big Mac."

These widely debated explanations include the following:

* Theory No. 1: "The British Connection." The proponents of this hotly disputed theory contend that the Big Mac Phenomenon is actually a classic example of "culinary ancestor-worship." Their reasoning: the U.S. was created as a political offshoot of Great Britain, and the British are without question the worst cooks on the planet Earth. Wolfing Big Macs, in short, is our way of holding on to our "culinary roots."

* Theory No. 2: "The Puritan Hatred-of-the-Taste-Buds Factor." This school of thought contends that McDonald's is simply a product of our Puritan heritage. Its supporters are fond of quoting H.L. Mencken, who long ago pointed out that a Puritan is someone who cannot endure the thought of actually enjoying anything. Conclusion: Eating at McDonald's is simply a disguised religious ritual that allows us to do a terrible penance for sin.

* Theory No. 3: "Poor Richard's Solution." According to this theory, McDonald's is the legacy of our most admired forefather, Ben Franklin, who taught that "time is money" -- and that wasting even 30 seconds of it is an unspeakable transgression. Schooled by Franklin's "Poor Richard," we've convinced ourselves that if a lunch can be cooked in less than a minute, it's actually a free lunch.

* Theory No. 4: "The Clown-as-Demon Occult Factor." This school, admittedly very small, insists that Ronald McDonald, with his grotesquely floppy shoes and his outer-space grin, is in fact a "culinary demon" who ultimately will enslave the entire planet in a vicious cycle of gulping burgers that taste like piles of slow-baked laundry lint. (Footnote: A splinter-group from this school also insists that the phrase "Big Mac Attack" is actually a form of demonic incantation.)

Interesting as they may be, however, these four theories fall sadly short of providing the coherent, unified explanation for which a heartburn-racked humankind so patiently waits.

And so the riddle must be left to some future thinker, to some bold and clear-sighted intellectual adventurer who will gaze upon the sesame-seeded roll and the wilted pickle in his hand . . . and while watching that gooey, orange sauce dribble on his pants, will dare to answer the burning question once and for all:

* Why am I eating this crap?

Tom Nugent, a Baltimore writer, refuses on principle to eat at McDonald's more than twice a week, unless he's really in a hurry.

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