Journey from silverware to plastic forks
It was not without dismay that I saw McDonald's open a block away from Carnegie Hall on what had been Greta Garbo's favorite New York street. Ubiquitous rubbery hamburgers insinuated themselves into Manhattan just as they had permeated the rest of the globe.
For years I bypassed fast-food joints with smugness, never stepping inside until my first child reached 2. From then on, the pace quickened exponentially. My children recognized what the big M stood for long before they learned the alphabet. Soon hardly a week went by without a Big Mac.
But if I couldn't refuse to take my offspring to fast-food hamburger chains, I remained icily aloof. As they gobbled up Happy Meals, I read the newspaper. At Burger King, I adjusted countless golden cardboard crowns while looking at my watch. The most I'd deign to imbibe was black coffee.
I criticized the ugly egg-yolk arches - then they started to blend architecture into the surroundings. I complained about environmentally detrimental Styrofoam; they cut down on excess wrapping. I griped about the standardized menu; they added local touches worldwide. I pointed out the unhealthy ubiquity of beef; they dreamed up chicken nuggets. I mourned the lack of vegetables; they began to offer mixed salads. I seized on the high fat content in their dairy products; they switched to low-fat milk. I nagged about sugary soft drinks; they featured pure fruit juice.
So, was I happy? No way.
I wanted a restaurant to feel more like a Parisian bistro than a visit to kindergarten. I preferred checked tablecloths and candles to fluorescent lights and rubber pyramids warning of a slippery floor. I longed for a maitre d', not teenagers wearing name tags who tirelessly mopped the entranceway. I wanted a prix fixe that included profiteroles instead of pink packets of Sweet 'N Low and tiny vials of half-and-half.
But my kids voted a block more solid than the Old South. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, or bust, they whined. One thing was for sure: At McDonald's the kids never left anything on their plates. They didn't even have plates.
Slowly my boycott began to crumble. Cracks appeared in my wall of refusal. I began to dip French fries inside those little packets of ketchup. I started to grope under napkins for onion rings left behind on their trays. Suddenly ravenous, I'd order my own cheeseburger. It was a slippery slope. Next I made it a double cheeseburger - extra ketchup. Appetite came with the eating.
My children grew up. Never again would I have to ask the manager to hunt down a blue balloon. I could order eggs Benedict instead of an Egg McMuffin. I could sample bean curd in my soup. I could decide whether cilantro was really edible. In short, I was free.
French bistros beckoned. But somehow I began to notice greasy spots on those checked tablecloths and their not quite spic-and-span restrooms. I suspected that the dimness of candlelight was aimed at more than just romantic ambience.
So when on the Via Branco in Rio de Janeiro, I was happy to spot a McDonald's and stand in line, grateful for everybody's help on how to say "straw" in Spanish. In Hong Kong I was glad for the familiarity of a vanilla shake. At Burger King in London I called out "Hold the pickles" in pure New Yorkese. Imperceptibly I became an aficionado of what I had loved to lambaste.
Recently, I was driving with my grown daughters, pressed for time. We were hungry, but they both recoiled at my suggestion for a fast-food stop. It was sashimi, curry, seven-grain bread they wanted. We were just around the block from a great northern-Italian place. They longed for Thai. One daughter had become a vegetarian. The other grimaced at the thought of a prefab patty microwaved inside a cottony bun.
My 20-somethings were not alone. It is now chic for fast food to take flak from the very people who grew up begging for it. Financial mavens report that McDonald's is past its heyday, but as the world's palates turn elsewhere, I am happily behind the curve.
My girls are appalled at a mother co-opted by Ronald McDonald, at a mom whose yearnings have inexplicably plummeted from foie gras to an Oreo McFlurry. The enemy has become my pal. Put it down as something to do with empty nests, or just the comfort of the familiar.
I like ordering a Happy Meal just for myself, sitting down and knowing beforehand exactly how everything will taste. Sated for at least two hours, I bus my tray. As I head for the door, I hand my plastic prize to the nearest toddler I see. If ever I long for a paper crown or a blue balloon, I don't let on. Still, whenever I bite into a burger at McDonald's overlooking 57th Street, I'm glad Garbo is not around to see.