Barcelona. Istanbul. Paris. Rome.
I’ve visited these four cities in the past two years, and sampled for myself each with their own distinctive and rich food cultures. Each is filled with a plethora of markets, restaurants and cafes. As a food enthusiast, I have trawled through spice bazaars, lamb kebab in hand, sat on the end of piers eating sea-fresh crab, sampled authentic Roman pizza while wandering alongside the Coliseum and scooped out of their shells garlic-scented snails in a French bistro.
And on day 2 I walked into a McDonalds and ordered a Big Mac.
Why do I do this? What possesses me to forgo all that authentic, local cuisine for a meal I am so accustomed to? I can (and do) have a McDonalds any time I want in the UK. As I write this, I am a mere 20 minutes away from a McDonalds. Yet surely, when I am on holiday, I should experience the native food of the country I’m in, and not succumb to the Golden Arches? Does it not speak of my cultural ineptitude, the fact that I can’t last so long as a week away from my beloved burgers, French fries and chicken McNuggets?
The tendency for me to walk into a McDonalds despite myself on these occasions has often amused and baffled me. Could it be that I am simply scared of trying new foreign food? On seeing a McDonalds in another country, it becomes more than a fast food chain- it becomes a symbol of a reliable food. McDonalds is the wearer traveller’s comfort blanket- a safe haven from the uncertainty of foreign tap water, poorly translated menus and unaccredited hygiene standards. The core to the McDonalds brand is its reliability. Whatever time, wherever you are, when you see a McDonalds, you can rely on the fact that a Big Mac will taste like a Big Mac. And that is true for any McDonalds, anywhere else in the world.
ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD.
Think about that. This reliability of product delivery in food is unique and unprecedented- think of the logistical difficulty of being able to deliver exactly the same product across cultures, across market conditions, and with different levels of local resources. It is truly impressive.
Now the thing is, I love trying new foods. I have no real issue with eating off the beaten track- in side-street restaurants, from market stalls and all that malarkey. I don’t run to McDonalds because I don’t feel safe eating anywhere else. So I don’t think that’s the reason.
Some would argue that the ubiquity of McDonalds globally is a symbol of cultural homogenisation, and the fact that I can be in almost any country in the world and have almost exactly the same food experience is a bad thing. The reason I enter into such establishments, the logic goes, is because I am culturally naive and, further, arrogant that nothing I sample locally could ever usurp the superiority of my beloved Filet O’ Fish. I am a Western traveller with an unsophisticated palate and no more.
I don’t really buy that either. I don’t eat McDonalds as a replacement to a local meal, rather in conjunction with it- swinging by a McDonalds to refuel rather than actively choosing it instead. McDonalds is simply there, when I’m hungry, and will suffice. And, well, what is really wrong with there being McDonalds restaurants across the world? If the demand is there, does it not seem reasonable for McDonalds operate? Even the mighty McDonalds will have to open a few more restaurants around the world before they risk threatening the global food landscape.
Of course I go on holiday to eat food I’m not used to. Of course the whole point of going abroad is to broaden your horizons, experience new things and come back home renewed, refreshed, and with a new perspective.
But sometimes, I just can’t help myself. Call it cultural fatigue. Call it capitalist dominance. Call it whatever.
Screw it- I’m supersizing the next one.