Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 42: COMING TO THE DEFENCE OF THE BIG MAC — SORT OF

with 3 comments

What says “home” to a soldier?

To an American serving overseas, a Big Mac might come to mind. Or a Whopper from Burger King. To a Canadian soldier, a double-double, with a maple-glazed doughnut. From Tim Hortons, naturally.

Every culture has simple items that represent home and they are often not the government-produced images.

There are at least a million words written about the “dangers” of an American fast-food hamburgers laden with salt, fat and calories, especially when accompanied by the fries. Every home economist and nutrition expert will denounce our fast-food culture and point to the consumption of burgers, fries and sugary pop as one of the main reasons for obesity in children. The devil himself couldn’t come in for more opprobrium on this front. Rarely does anyone outside of the company’s incessant advertising praise a Big Mac , for example, for what it represents.

So, I guess the responsibility falls to me. Instead of writing today about the mountain of paper and research I’ve accumulated in this campaign, the books and all the newspaper clippings that have eaten the desk in my home office, I’m reminding myself that like it or loathe it, a fast food hamburger can mean so much more than a quick, filling (and fattening) meal.

When I first met a Big Mac it wasn’t in North America, it wasn’t beef, and it was incredibly expensive by local standards.

It was at a McDonald’s in Shanghai. The sandwich was a hot and spicy chicken burger, and eating at a McDonald’s in China is expensive for the Chinese, or it was at the time. According to the Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by China scholar James L. Watson: “eating at McDonald’s is still a big treat for low-income people.” Today, of course, much has changed. Globalization affects all of us, but the most profound effect surely must be the encroachment of Western culture into Eastern enclaves.

The book was published in 1997 and I was in China in 2001, but even nine years ago, fast-food Western style was new. When Golden Arches East was published, “a dinner at McDonald’s for a family of three normally cost one-sixth of a worker’s monthly salary. The price is definitely not considered a bargain and is not the reason why Beijing consumers come . . . . the McDonald’s experience has less to do with food than it does with a chance to explore American culture or to give their children a special treat.”

Why a chicken burger? Simple. In a country where KFC is McDonald’s biggest rival, pushing chicken instead of beef makes sense.

Even I have to admit that for a consumer of Western food, for someone who lives immersed in Western culture, having to go half-way around the world to eat under the golden arches seems bizarre.

But I’ve always been an A and W customer and luckily, I married a guy whose idea of fast food is also A and W. Until we were in China, and a meeting was scheduled for an incredibly clean and bright McDonald’s, we had both managed to avoid Big Macs and that ubiquitous clown, Ronald McDonald. (Was I the only kid who found clowns scary?)

I bring this up to lay my credentials on the line because I’m about to defend the fast-food culture of the United States. Why would someone on a campaign to get fit and healthy have anything to do with Big Macs or Whoppers any other of the pantheon of what one colleague used to refer to as the “squat and gobble” food court culture? None of them are “real food,” not in my lexicon. But so what?

What McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s deliver is not just food, but a culture. You don’t have to like it to appreciate that the sight of those familiar golden arches, the sight of anything that spells “home” means something to a man or women starved for any experience that communicates all the things that “home” means. I would never freely choose to eat at one of the aforementioned establishments, but I understand what they represent. One doesn’t necessarily get to choose the icons that represent her culture, and one doesn’t have to like them when they become ubiquitous. But everyone has to recognize the power they wield.

When the closing ceremonies for the Vancouver Winter Olympics were resoundingly panned by many Canadians who thought the giant floating beavers and hockey players; moose and Mounties were just too silly for words, who believed the commentary banal and the spokesmen “too American” for “real” Canadians, they were dead wrong. Neil Young, William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, Avril Lavigne, Michael Buble and Michael J. Fox, who alone received a thunderous welcome from the crowd, may have made their fame and fortune south of the border, but the last I looked, they were all born Canadian. And to have them send-up all those Canadian icons was a brilliant move.

What all of that represented, to us, was home. The non-Canadians watching knew that what they were seeing was “Canadian.” Yes, we invented Pablum and insulin and the telephone. Hockey is our game, more than lacrosse ever was. Most of the famous American comedians are disguised Canadians. But stick a telephone on a television screen and what the rest of the world sees is not a Canadian icon. Put a Mountie there, and everyone understands. Putting a Mountie in a canoe would just reinforce the stereotype.

And that’s what such symbols do: they remind us of home.

This is a long and exhausting introduction to the question of why I’m defending what a Big Mac represents. But it is important that someone come to the defence of what is seen as defenceless. Just this past week, both the Calgary Herald and the National Post ran stories on the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and head of the NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, ordering that American fast-food franchises operating at Kandahar Airfield be closed. No more Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway or TGIFriday.

The rationale, reports the newspapers, is that “this is a war zone — not an amusement park.” And apparently, it has much to do with perception. Western fast-food outlets apparently just don’t send the right message to the civilian population.

A posting on the International Security Assistance Force blog suggests that providing such luxuries to the fighting troops takes up precious room that could be used to transport ammunition, food and water.

Let me be one voice for the fourth essential item missing from that list, after ammunition, food and water: a sense of peace and security; a feeling that home isn’t so far away; a momentary escape from the ugly business of war. Because all of this is what familiar icons provide.

When the late Ann Landers, whose syndicated advice column reached millions of readers for almost 50 years, suggested that Americans write to servicemen (and in later years, servicewomen) she wasn’t suggesting they needed amusement. She knew, through the thousands of letters she received from her readers around the world, that being in a war far away from home was a lonely and soul-sucking job.

And if an ice cream cone or a fried mozzarella stick or a slice of pizza can ease the hard slog in a hostile territory, that’s a long way from making Kandahar Airfield an “amusement park.”

Meanwhile, there are reportedly no plans to close the Canadian-operated Tim Hortons. Indeed, a Defence Department spokeswoman was quoted as saying: “Kandahar Airfield Tim Hortons is an initiative to support our men and women in uniform for serving in Afghanistan.” How simple; how appropriate.

Ann Landers would be proud. And the Canadian government deserves a round of applause for recognizing what something as down to earth as a Tim Hortons means to our soldiers a long way from home.

NEXT: Exactly how much research can one collect?

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Written by Catherine Ford

March 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Finally A Program That Works!!!

    Malachi

    March 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm

  2. I can’t help pondering on the timing of your post with the report of the University of Regina professors protesting the scholarships given to the children of soldiers killed in battle. Juxtaposed against this is the report of an American base that offers massage to its homeland officers to ‘humanize’ their experience. It seems there is an epidemic of bad decisions in this arena.

    Jennifer Diakiw

    March 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm

  3. Interesting perspective. My reaction to all the press about fast food was probably typical: who cares. But you point out why they DO care. Indeed, I know when I come home from a trip to another continent, the first thing I always do is go for a fast food meal. (I refuse to eat it in a foreign country).

    big marcella

    March 31, 2010 at 9:14 am


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