The McDonald’s Debate: Is McCulture Always a Bad Thing?

The world is starting to look like America.  Everywhere has KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King.  Far too often, travel writers demand  that we must visit a city “before it gets a McDonald’s” or “before the Americans arrive,” as if once McDonald’s and the Americans arrive that it is no longer pure, as if it is no longer worthy.

For much of my life I have felt the same way.  I do not fly to Sydney to eat McNuggets.  On first sight, I was disappointed to see a McDonald’s in Bergen and Madrid and Karlstad.  Like most travelers, I do not want the world to be the same.  I want to continue to see differences and language barriers and exotic cuisines when I travel.  But today it struck me that these are my selfish wants and needs.

In our selfish ways, we want to see only bistros and boulangeries in Paris.  During our week abroad, we may sit at a different bistro each day, reveling in the “authentic” Paris experience.  But would we want to do this two hundred days a year?  Wouldn’t we crave something other than quiche and a croque monsieur?  When I dine out in my hometown of Houston, I do not always eat steak or barbecue, the most traditional of Texas foods.  I count among my favorite restaurants a variety of cuisines: Italian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, as well as good ol’ American.

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Why should the traveler’s desire to encounter a new experience interfere with the ability of the locals to lead a full life?  If I can eat at McDonald’s near my home, why can they not?  I love the french fries and the shakes.  Why am I as a traveler, as an American, entitled to keep them to myself?   For all of its supposed crimes against humanity, the fast food business is on to something.  They make good, consistent, cheap food.  If I can enjoy pad thai, sushi, tacos al carbon, bulgogi, and gnocchi in America, who am I to say that a Muscovite cannot enjoy an American hamburger, or the Dutch cannot partake in a McFish.  In our wonderful country, we eat at Indian restaurants with fresh-baked naan and a tandoor oven.  We buy croissants at the grocery store (and, dare I say, Burger King?).  Do Americans get an exclusive right to import tasty foreign treats from abroad?  Man cannot live on pizza alone.  And (heaven forbid) Norwegians were relegated to a life of eating only Norwegian food.  (“Oh, mom!  Lutefisk again?”).

Despite the availability of nearly every world cuisine, our nation’s most popular restaurant is still McDonald’s.   Why would we not export our most popular restaurant?   I know all of the “Fast Food Nation” arguments, and how we blame fast food for our ever-expanding national waistline.  I know that other nations fear globalization, just as Vermonters fear Wal Mart.  We want to meet the friendly café owner who treats all of her employees fairly, pays a reasonable wage, and makes all of her food from scratch.  We are not accustomed to that experience at home, yet we feel as if we should be entitled to that experience abroad.

But McDonald’s can be as comforting as the corner café.  A McDonald’s I visited in Leiden was filled with young people laughing, as if they were filming a TV ad, complete with women in head scarfs, dark-skinned, and light-skinned youngsters alike.  Some popped fries while talking on cell phones.  One blond teenager busied himself wrapping a gift in pink paper for his girlfriend.  Each seemed happy to be here.  All arrived by their own free will.  This scene would not have played out in a brown café.  McDonald’s can peacefully coexist in historic neighborhoods with Michelin-starred eateries.  We do not want to see McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées, but it is there, representing the essence of the American way, the egalitarian nature of McDonald’s.

At McDonald’s there is no class structure.  With many restaurants in tourist towns, you must venture far from the beaten path to ensure quality food at an affordable price.  I once ate at McDonald’s in Amsterdam, long after most restaurants had closed, because I knew that they would not treat a tourist differently than a local.  I knew that they would not be ripped off by an aggressive corner vendor serving me a falafel which had been cooked hours prior.  They serve meals on a tourists’ schedule.  At Burger King in France, you do not need to wait until noon for the restaurant to open.  And, you can even eat dinner at 5:00 in Madrid!

I, myself, prefer not to eat at McDonald’s overseas, but I must admit that I have.  On my first overseas trip, I arrived in Cannes on a wet and rainy March day, excited to explore.  I could not have been more disappointed to see a McDonald’s just off the Boulevard de la Croisette.  I wanted everything French, everything foreign.  But on my second day, I ate at McDonald’s because it was among the few restaurants that I could both afford & enjoy in this overpriced, unimpressive, stuffy French seaside town.  Even in the off-season, the waiters did not want to bother with a young American.  At McDonald’s they took my order with a smile, and I had plenty of Euros left over to buy a bus ticket to Nice.

I do not aim to eat American fast food when I travel.  In fact, I intentionally avoid it.  But is it reassuring to know that, no matter where on the planet I am dropped, I can find food, tasty and affordable food, day or night. The globalization of cuisines opens up our cultures to each other.  Food is an indicator of how we live differently, eat differently, experience life differently, and fast food is part of the global experience.

So for the lucky and moneyed few, who have the great privilege to travel to foreign lands, I encourage you to seek out new destinations, new cuisines, and new restaurants.  For those with unlimited time and unlimited money, I encourage you , when you see that McDonald’s, to just walk on by.  The rest of us just might stop by now and then, and we won’t even feel guilty about it.

Do you indulge in the occasional Big Mac, or avoid all fast food while traveling? Read more about food and travel here:

Learn more about author Matthew Stone and check out his BootsnAll articles here.

Photos by: EKSwitaj, yanivba,  Matthew Stone, Ant and Carrie’s photos

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Older comments on The McDonald’s Debate: Is McCulture Always a Bad Thing?

Denise Pulis
15 October 2010

‘…pad thai, sushi, tacos al carbon, bulgogi, and gnocchi in America, who am I to say that a Muscovite cannot enjoy an American hamburger, or the Dutch cannot partake in a McFish?’

The foreign foods you mentioned which have become normal in America are ‘fast’ foods but not ‘bad’ foods. McDonalds, as it has been proven by countless studies, is bad for your health, that’s why foodies around the world hate it.

Benjamin STone
15 October 2010

@Denise – Cheesecake is also bad for me, as are fresh-baked cookies or a handful of Doritos. I still have them every so often, because how can one go without an occasional dietary indulgence?

I’ll never understand why eating “bad for your health” food is okay if it’s seafood buckwheat crepe with cream sauce and a side of pomme frites, but bad if it’s a McChicken.

laughingnomad
15 October 2010

And besides…you can always count on a clean bathroom at McDonalds! :)

Debra Furphy
15 October 2010

When I was 16, I spent a year in France as an exchange student. My host family bent over backwards to show me the best of their region, the best of Paris, the best France could offer. That included museums, art galleries, tiny restaurants off dark alleys with amazing food, big, glitzy restaurants that cost a week’s salary for a family of 4 and their guest to eat at.

They were fully dedicated to giving me the full French experience. From breakfasts of butter slathered chocolate criossants and a rich cafe au lait to multi course dinners prepared by men who were legends in the kitchen, I tasted it all. (And gained 20 pounds!)

All year long, I ate foods drenched in rich sauces, sipped amazing wines and ate butter seemingly by the pound, slathered on crunchy thin loaves of bread and whipped into sauces and used to fry the meals.

When it was my last day there, I asked to take them to dinner. Anywhere they wanted.

…my host family chose McDonald’s. Not out of price consideration for a 16 year old, but because they, too, were tired of all the rich, fancy, artery clogging meals.

Sometimes, you just want a burger, even when surrounded by the Michelin starred restaurants and the option of a side of pomme frites cooked in duck fat.

lstunt
15 October 2010

While traveling through Latin America this past year, we often took advantage of the free, clean bathrooms. You could walk in, use the bathroom and walk out without buying anything and no one cared. We were also not above enjoying their ice cream- the dulce de leche flavor in Argentina was amazing!!

MontanaMark
15 October 2010

My wife and I have been traveling for two years. I am writing from our RV, a few miles from Nemrut Dagi, in eastern Turkey. Throughout Asia, Europe, the Pacific, and elsewhere, we have always enjoyed seeing the golden arches. A little home touch now and then is not a bad thing. In northern and western Europe, except Germany, McDonald’s offers the only reliable and free wifi there is–reason enough to visit and enjoy an expresso at the McCafe. From Norway to Italy, from Portugal to Austria, if you want to see ordinary Europeans, young and old, go to the local McDonald’s. Warning: it will be packed like no other place in town.

sissyt
15 October 2010

Sure, I try not to eat a McDonalds when I travel but it is funny that it’s become the symbol for a city ruined by tourism.
I’ve never eaten at a TGIFridays in the U.S. but when I lived in Kuala Lumpur we went there quite a few times. It was nice to have something ‘different’, lol. I imagine that is how lots of locals felt about it, too.

Dan The Chainsawman
15 October 2010

About the only fast food I’ll eat here in China is the KFC chicken burger. Other than that, I’ve no use for the Maccas slop. It is disgusting vile food that not only goes straight to your bottom it reduces your IQ each and every time you eat it by covering your brain in a layer of disgusting lard.

There are so many better things to eat. Why settle for so disgusting as McDonalds when you can dig into a heaping plate of street food for 1/10th of the price?

Sure I’ve been ripped off by street vendors. Yep, I’ve been charged a whole whooping 2 rmb more than the next guy. Who cares?

It is still cheaper and tastes better than Maccas any day. To top it off America is exporting obesity, poor health, and heart disease when we send out our McBrand of American culture.

Maccas, Burger King, and sadly KFC (hey I do like their chicken burgers) ought to be stopped at the border and told if they don’t turn away they’ll be committing an act of war and will be shot on sight.

A Joker
15 October 2010

This article is well-written, but the gist of it made my blood run cold. If this is a debate, I think the burden of proof lies pretty heavily on Team McDonalds.

McDonalds is affordable, sure. But that affordability comes with a heavy price; i.e. the well-documented destruction of rain forets, poor working conditions, subsidies of corn syrup, and supporting a completely unsustainable system of agriculture, amongst others. It takes 800 square miles of forest just to keep McDonald’s supplied with paper for one year.

Furthermore, it’s not like your choice is McDonalds vs. 4 star restaurant. Wherever you are in the world, you can eat at a falafel/kebab/padthai/koshari/etc place for as cheap as McDonalds and support the local economy. The nutritional value of even a humble falafel is better than what you can get at McDonalds. And ethnic food is never going to have the same high levels of fat, cholesterol, steroids, grease, and hormones. We’ve all seen the fries that don’t go bad in Supersize Me.

Going to McDonalds even occasionally is not okay. It’s a morally irresponsible act at best.

retomer
15 October 2010

I always get a kick checking out the McD menu in foreign countries – it is fun to see how the mega corp accommodates the local population, like the McTikka sandwich in Delhi.

I don’t eat the food, though I have been known to enjoy an ice cold fountain soda and hang out in the aircon when I’m in a country where the weather is scorching and ice is a luxury.

Denise Pulis
16 October 2010

@benjamin – ‘unhealthy food’ for me means food of very low quality, not fatty food. As @A Joker said ‘ethnic food is never going to have the same high levels of fat, cholesterol, steroids, grease, and hormones’, and that was what I was referring to as unhealthy in my comment

Bensonn Harris Wallace
16 October 2010

Chainsawman, the McDonalds spicy chicken burger in China is way better than KFC’s version. And actually, in Shanghai, you can get a chicken burger, fries and coke for 15RMB (at lunchtime only), compared with fried noodles on the street for about 6-7RMB. So the price gap is closing.

But where McDonalds really comes into its own in China is that is one of the best places to get a reasonably priced cup of coffee, in a country where “real” coffee is hard to find and ridiculously overpriced because of a huge, undiscerning middle class who have no idea what coffee should taste like.

Actually, the McCafe coffees in Australia and New Zealand are also among the best price to quality ratios you can buy in those countries, and they’re Rainforest Alliance certified.

A Joker: what you are suggesting seems to be in disagreement with their Rainforest Alliance and other corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives (http://mcdonalds.com.au/about-us/responsibility) – I’ve read “Fast Food Nation” (2001) and most people know of the movie “Super Size Me”, but do you think it is possible that McDonalds is changing in response to such negative publicity? Do you have any recent evidence to back up your claims?

A Joker
17 October 2010

It’s pretty hard to cite evidence via weblinks. It does seem like since 2006, McDonalds is less obliquely involved in deforestation. But that is really only one aspect of a slew of suckiness.

Coffee might be cheaper at Maccas but I’ll take the cafes of Melbourne or Wellington every time.

Eric Angevine
17 October 2010

Everyone who argues against McDonalds has made a personal choice not to eat there, and it’s one I happen to agree with. But who are any of us to deny that choice to someone else? Trying to “save the world” from our food is paternalistic and a tad insulting, really.

A Joker
17 October 2010

If I was physically trying to deny someone from entering McDonalds, sure. In real life, I wouldn’t ever tell someone not to eat where they wanted to. But this article was published to create a dialogue and, philosophically, I am opposed to fast food and McDonalds.

Paul Freeman
18 October 2010

When I’m at home I never eat at McDonald’s, on principle and because I just don’t like the food. (If my ethics and taste buds are in conflict, I will be the first to admit that I’ll follow my taste buds)

But a couple of times when traveling I have had the odd McMeal, either because there was some regional item such as the McCrockett in Amsterdam, or in Thailand because they would actually deliver to your hotel at 3am.

People seem to have a bit of a romanticized view of street vendor food though, just as they do in the local coffee vs Starbucks debate. I love supporting local businesses, but just been local isn’t enough, they have to have a quality product too.

Anne-Sophie Redisch
18 October 2010

Sadly, we have McDonald’s in Norway (but you don’t often find adults eating there). And I’m quite happy to say we don’t have one single branch of the horrible animal-abusing chain KFC here.

Hideo
19 October 2010

“They make good, consistent, cheap food”…hmmm

Consistent – yes, it is the same slop eveywhere with one or two local variations thrown in

Cheap – yep, for the most part

Good???? Are you having a laugh?

habannah
19 October 2010

I agree that it’s always fun to check out the Mickey D’s menu anywhere in the world. Local variations make it a hoot (has anyone tried the bulgogi burger in Korea?).

I hardly ever eat the food because I’m vegetarian and they really don’t make it their business to cater to the likes of me…

BUT it has saved my ass a few times when I’ve wandered for hours looking for vegetarian options and was unable to find ANYTHING in some very meat-oriented societies. I was reduced to eating McDonald’s fries, which made me cry because I don’t consider that a meal, but at least I didn’t starve.

And there’s always breakfast at 5 a.m. when you’re leaving the bar… Convenient.

July Jones
20 October 2010

Hey Matthew, I enjoyed reading your article and I understand your argument, to which I agree, more or less.

The reason why people have issues with McDonald’s is more from an economic standpoint. It has very strict rules about its products and will not yield to local variations. For example, everywhere you go in the world, the fries are made from Idaho potatoes. Of course Idaho potatoes are not native to Hong Kong and Venezuela, but McDonald’s is rigid about its uniformity and would rather import its American potato than support local potato farmers. Stuff like that.

As for importing chain restaurants, the United States has more than you think. Off the top of my head, I believe you can go to Aroma (Israel), Pret-A-Manger (UK), Nando’s (Portugal), El Pollo Campero (Guatemala), Wagamama (UK), and Tim Horton’s (Canada), and I’m pretty sure all of those are in NYC. That’s just to name a few. There are also more upper class establishments that have fewer locations but they’re all international, like Sushi Samba.

Some food for thought.

Nicola Lochery
23 October 2010

I am no big fan of the burger but when travelling with kids I have to say that it has been a welcome relief. Quick, cheap and you know that they will eat it even if it is fries and chicken nuggets. Interestingly there are cultural differences in the different restaurants. In Brunei they don’t serve meat and in Budapest they have quite a delightful McCoffee Shop with real cups and pastries. So maybe it’s not all bad.

Marcia Frost
23 October 2010

Interesting… I just returned from France and spent time with locals in Champagne and Burgundy. We talked a lot about food (it was a press trip that focused on food/wine in the regions) and how important it is in France. I was told by more than one person that they would never consider eating at McDonald’s, but it was a special treat they encouraged their teenagers to do with friends once or twice a month.

Gregory Hubbs
25 March 2011

McDonald’s is not food. If you wish to poison yourself and enrich a multinational franchise, you are free to make that choice. I feel that money should be spent in the local community and not put in the pockets of the shareholders. What is the point of travel if you eat the same crap abroad?

arcu-409
25 March 2011

Gregory I completely agree, imo the food is unspeakable, but worse than that is that they are pushing it so hard in so many places. They’ve got the $$ to plaster any city they want to. Was shocked last time at how Bangkok is being flooded with McD advertising. Local eateries will begin to suffer, and finally disappear,(much like the demise of many diners and coffee bars in the US)
OK….I admit I too sometimes hanker after non-local food after a few weeks of travel- Had the best HANDMADE fries ever in Pakse, Laos, two weeks ago……..

SJinacup
07 May 2011

Mcdonalds is not a bad thing. Infact I worked at two of them (Company and franchise). Company owned stores, have a higher wage, and better conditions. Not only that, but they also offer you a Mcpassport in which you can travel to other stores around the world and work. They provide wifi, cheap food and clean bathrooms.

They are not the devil, and a lot of what people say about them, is wrong or very outdated. They invest in protecting rainforests, they give millions of pounds to charity, they locally source their food as much as possible. They do lots of good things, yes they line their own pockets but what buisness does not? Personally I liked working with a company that most of its high up employees started the same way I did, serving and cooking.

In my eyes, Mcdonalds Customers are a far bigger problem that the corporation will ever be.

SJinacup
07 May 2011

@julyjones.

Your wrong. They do not only use one type of potatoe.

In the uk they use mccains and are made from 4 different kinds of potatoe.

Why would they make things ridiculously complicated for themselves and only use one. Depending on the country it changes.