Big Mac mythos is a state of mind on a sesame bun

January 18, 1994|By Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace,Los Angeles Times

It was born a mere burger.

In 1968, when America first tasted the double-decker called Big Mac, the world barely batted an eye. Back then, uttering the phrase "two all-beef patties" did not prompt children to break into song. It was a simpler time, when people just said Thousand Island dressing, not "special sauce," and the public saw McDonald's wide-bodied, tomatoless concoction as a sandwich -- nothing more.

But more than 25 years later, thanks to relentless marketing and global expansion, Big Mac has come to mean more than lunch. Today, the world's most popular sandwich is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, as ubiquitous as Coke. More than 14 billion Big Macs have been sold in 66 countries. And no matter where it's assembled, the squishy, salty sandwich always goes down the same way.

"With so few icons left that you can really depend on . . . it's dependable -- one less surprise in a world filled with unpleasant surprises," says Eugene Secunda, a marketing professor at Adelphi University in New York. "It's part of the mythic culture of America."

"It's the Paul Bunyan of hamburgers," says Larry Orenstein, an advertising consultant who helped make the Big Mac famous. "It's an American institution, like Johnny Appleseed."

Like any standard-bearer, Big Mac has borne a heavy burden. In its short lifetime, it's been dissected, deconstructed and vilified. Thanks to President Clinton, it is fodder for comedians. ("Anyone who says Clinton doesn't inhale," goes one joke, "never saw him around a Big Mac.") Worse, it is held up as a symbol of the deterioration of everything from mass culture to eating habits.

"No single brand-name food has clogged more heart arteries," says Phil Sokolof of the National Heartsavers Association. "It has made many bypass surgeons and morticians independently wealthy."

But today, as Americans who can't remember life before the Big Mac threaten to outnumber those who can, its cultural significance has far surpassed its gastronomic value (500 calories, including 26 grams of fat and 100 milligrams of cholesterol).

So what if Big Macs are yucky? They're also intrinsically American. And because of that, they have a loyal following of grease junkies, gourmands and scholars.

"No one buys a Big Mac for the simple reason of eating it," claims Michael R. Steele, whose anthropological essay about McDonald's is included in the book "Ronald Revisited: The World of Ronald McDonald."

"Instead, the behavior is part of an entire 'gestalt' in which the consumer participates on a subliminal level," Mr. Steele writes. "The purchase of a Big Mac involves a 'deep' interior perception of self, family, country and socioeconomic status. Along with a Big Mac, a consumer 'buys' a vision of himself at leisure on a well-deserved break; a vision of family cohesiveness . . . [and] a particular type of patriotism."

All that for just $1.99? And it all began in Southern California.

"The Big Mac is, unfortunately, Southern California's greatest culinary contribution to the world," says Jonathan Gold, who writes the Counter Intelligence restaurant column for the Los Angeles Times. "Just as with movies, it proves we know what's popular."

Richard and Maurice "Mac" McDonald moved to Hollywood from New Hampshire in the summer of 1928. Their dream was to own a chain of movie houses, but their first theater in Glendora, Calif., drew smaller crowds than the nearby hot dog stand. They took the hint, opening a typical Southern California drive-in with carhop service and 35-cent burgers.

Then, in 1948, they revolutionized the way Americans eat out.

"We wondered what would happen if we sold almost nothing else but hamburgers, cut the price to 15 cents, eliminated carhop service, reduced the staff . . . got rid of plates, forks, knives and tipping, and just made the whole thing a cheap, efficient operation where people wouldn't have to wait," Richard McDonald, now 84, says in Jeffrey Tennyson's new book, "Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger."

By the time a milkshake salesman named Ray Kroc bought McDonald's in 1961, more than 100 franchisees were peddling burgers around the nation.

The McDonald brothers had laid the foundation, but it took another Southern California entrepreneur to build the burger that would beget the Big Mac.

In the 1930s, Bob Wian owned a popular hamburger stand in Glendale. One night in 1937, when a regular customer asked him for "something different for a change," Mr. Wian carved a sesame seed bun into three slices, placed two patties between them and finished it off with lettuce, cheese and relish.

The sandwich, dubbed the Bob's Big Boy, was an instant hit. Word of the unusually built burger and its pudgy-cheeked, overall-clad mascot spread quickly.

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