Friday, January 18, 2008

Think Outside the Bun

Are you hungry? No, I mean really hungry? Is there a man's hunger that stirs in you? Then why not try the new Big Bell Box Meal? Touted by Adam Corolla, this hefty box contains a volcano taco, beef burrito supreme, crunch wrap supreme, cinnamon twists, and a large soda. Surely 62 grams of fat and 1,900 calories should quell your empty belly rumblings.

It usually happens late at night, that I see an ad for some new, preposterous meal being served by a fast food chain. (Insert spokes person voice here… let’s go with Queen Latifa): “Having a craving for a little something sweet after your Pizza Hut? Add a cake to your order! KFC seeming a little messy? Let's put it in a bowl with gravy and cheese! Are your kids eating hamburgers with three patties? Then go for four… with bacon!” And every time, like an 11 year old boy with a vintage National Geographic, my mouth drops open, and I am stunned. They got me again.

This virgin fascination with the fast food industry’s seemingly unstoppable ability to one-up itself prompted me to do a little research. It all started when KFC introduced the Big Box Meal. Surely I had mixed up the facts that were slammed on the screen in a 30 second blip and this box was for a family, not one person (and being someone who loves the shock-and-awe of a good pop culture nugget, I wanted to get my facts straight). So I went online.

That’s when I entered the amazing world of fast food web sites. Like slipping through the rabbit hole, I was transported into a Willy Wonka world of giant chicken, glistening cheese, and secret sauce that curved around meat like a Victoria's Secret bra. Yum! The challenge is to find the illusive nutrition facts. Hmmm… Is it under “menu” or “about us”? One of my favorites is a site that makes you put all your items on a little plastic tray before calculating your fat and salt intake. “What kind of drink do you want?” prompts the screen, “and for dessert?”

The holy grail of these sites is no surprise: McDonalds. The USA site is typical: a couple of games for the kids, glossy slogans, some fluff about healthy food options… but go a little deeper and you will find a beautiful microcosm for the emerging global economy (listen up PoliSci people- there’s a master’s thesis in the making here!). Korea, Canada, India, Brazil. Each nation has its own unique McD’s site reflecting current ad campaigns, menu items, and kiddie schmaltz. Put on your rose colored glassed and watch the gentle fabric of each nation unfold: Russia has photos of patties rolling down the factory line; Israel's design is as crisp as lettuce backed with break-beats; United Arab Emirates has a dude with a Jeep in the sand; Sweden features a campy mix of Mexican pop to promote their "El Maco" sandwich… But the crown jewel in the golden arch is China. They’ve taken the red and yellow by force and produced a visually stunning firecracker of grassroots street style, chicken patties, and the Maoist zeal for order. I'm lovin' it.

I’ve come to look at fast food as a litmus of our society and greater world. We are marketed food that validates a fast-paced life without time for anything but hot, empty, comfort-filled calories. We are plagued with suggestions that tug at our primordial desire to be full. Fulfilled. Satisfied. Taco Bell is our Bob Dylan, leaking encrypted tales about our changing values as a nation. McDonald’s is the mouthpiece for our unsung youth. Watch for it. There’s a story to be told.

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