An overweight man sits nearby, talking into a cell phone and taking large bites from a Big Mac. It’s gone in 60 seconds. A substantial mound of fries and nearly a quart of soda disappear just as quickly. At first, nothing about the context of the scene may seem extraordinary, if it weren’t for the content of the call. He’s relating a detailed description of the heart surgery he is undergoing the next morning, and the pre-op appointment he had just come from. “I don’t get it, I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he says, “I don’t know how I got heart disease.”
I also have a Big Mac. My companion watches as I peek underneath the bun. He’s amused by my curiosity and warns that it’s better not to know. But I do know—a few things, anyway. I know the Big Mac is the apocryphal “gourmet” hamburger: a triple-decker pop culture phenom that debuted in 1968. I know that one of these burgers is calorie laden (540), loaded with fat (29 grams), sodium (1,040 milligrams) and sugar (9 grams). Like everyone, I know the jingle: “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” What I don’t know is how it tastes, because I’ve never eaten one. Nor have I had the Quarter Pounder that my companion is inhaling, nor any of McDonald’s burgers. What’s more, I’ve lived my entire life until this moment without ever consuming a fast food burger—Burger King, Wendy’s, and Jack in the Box included. Granted, many of those years I spent as a vegetarian, but even in the years since I’ve renewed my meat lover’s membership, I’ve studiously avoided factory burgers. We know that a diet of fat-, salt-, and sugar-laden fast food has significantly contributed to our super-sized culture (in 2000, 64 percent of Americans were classified as overweight or obese), and consequently to an increase in diabetes, joint pain, stroke, and heart disease. In addition to health issues, authors such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have made strong cases for the negative political, economic, and environmental impact of a fast food nation. But during the field research for this issue’s burger story, I became curious. What’s the appeal? With so many flavorful, affordable, cooked-to-order burgers available, why are millions of factory burgers consumed daily?
And so, here I sit, and already I have misgivings. This is a burger? The meat patties are noticeably meager, hard, and gray. The cheese resembles a piece of limp plastic, and the few shreds of lettuce are more white than green. The most sizeable components are the three layers of spongy bread and sauce. By the second room temperature bite, I get it. Not the flavor, as there is none beyond white bread slathered in Thousand Island dressing. It’s the texture. Little chewing is required; it simply disintegrates in the mouth like homogenous baby food. It’s my first and last fast food burger. But not for the man scheduled for heart surgery. He’s at the counter ordering another.