Could the burger era really be coming to an end at last? John Walsh investigates

by Sunday, Jul. 15, 2001 at 12:20 AM

For decades, we've been living in a fast-food world. Suddenly, everywhere you look, there's McTrouble. Could it be that we're finally overcoming our addiction to saturated fat and cardboard chips, to Happy Meals and nursery d├ęcor? Could the burger era really be coming to an end at last? John Walsh investigates

John Walsh: Who ate all the burgers

For decades, we've been living in a fast-food world. Suddenly, everywhere you look, there's McTrouble. Could it be that we're finally overcoming our addiction to saturated fat and cardboard chips, to Happy Meals and nursery d or? Could the burger era really be coming to an end at last? John Walsh investigates

13 July 2001

I could never understand about the gherkin. The rest of the fast-food package seemed to make sense in a curiously random, slung-together way – the tomato sauce, the strands of shredded lettuce, the sesame seeds on the toasted bun, the skinny chips, the extruded-cardboard tray – but the gherkin defeated me. What was it doing there? Who ever thought that any beef dish in history could be enlivened by a small pickled cucumber? It was disgusting. The taste reminded me of the smell of Venice, around the back canals in late July.

Like the Apollo Moon landings, or mood-altering substances, the memory of your first fast-food treat refuses to go away. I was living in Dublin in 1976 when McDonald's opened in Grafton Street, in the heart of the shopping centre. Half the city turned up to check out this gleaming new snack bar. The queue of fascinated Irish gastronomes stretched round to Nassau Street. They chatted in the sunshine as if about to take their seats at a concert; they knew they were in at the birth of a global phenomenon, and were keen to register their personal view of it. We liked the gleaming chrome fixtures, the primary red-and-yellow nursery decor, the pleasing wooden tables with the "eezee-kleen" Formica tops, the metallic-sheeny food counter, and the girls and boys with their soda-jerk hats and Disneyland uniforms.

Tentatively, fantastically self-consciously, we ordered a burger and fries with a Coke. A brave woman, probably a tourist, ordered a Big Mac "to take away". What a terrible show-off she was, we thought.

We sat on the infant-playgroup chairs and took our first bites. Mine seemed fine until I encountered the gherkin. "Yuck," I said, "what the hell's this doing in here?" One by one, the others responded in the same way until four sliced, pickled and discarded green roundels lay pathetically draped over a polystyrene box. "Do you think they put in the gherkin just for a bit o' colour?" asked the lady on my left, "or a bit o' salad?" "Not at all," said the woman on my right: "'Tis the only thing that tastes of anything apart from the ketchup." We nodded, finished our fizzy drinks and went out into the sunshine. "Not a success then?" I asked. The others made faces. "So you won't be coming back then?" I asked. "Oh sure," said the youngest."Why wouldn't I?"

There you have the paradox of McDonald's world. We did not like its noisome concoctions, and we went on eating them. We disapprove of the whole fast-food ethos and we end up saying: "The children are starving – isn't there a McDonald's somewhere in this wilderness?" We come back again and again to this dispiritingly childish experience as if mesmerised by a Mickey Finn (can it be the gherkin?). When it comes to bovine acceptance of what we're given, we are sad clowns as much as Ronald bloody McDonald himself.

Until now. Something is happening in Burger World. Things aren't going according to plan. Yesterday, Diageo, the drinks giant and owner of Burger King, announced that the foot-and-mouth crisis and worrying memories of BSE were affecting the sales of burgers right across Europe; so much so that the company is looking to sell the chain of 11,000 restaurants outright, or float it off as a separate business on the stock market, while the parent company gradually pulls out of food-related concerns. This is tough news for Burger King, which is in the middle of a m "restructuring" operation that precipitated the resignation of its president, Mikel Durham.

Meanwhile, things are far from rosy in McDonald's, the big daddy of Planet Fast Food with its 29,000 outlets in 120 countries that have made it the target du choix of Molotov cocktail-throwing anti-global demonstrators. In April the company announced a drop in profits of 16 per cent in its first quarter – again due to flagging sales in foot-and-mouth-haunted Europe. Its shares have fallen 15 per cent since January. But you can't blame everything on the livestock scare – this is the company's second quarterly earnings decline in a row. Look round and you find a remarkable new culture of complaint and disaffection in the land of the golden-arch logo and the clowning playmate.

Consider the following: this week, a McDonald's manager in Slough, Berkshire, told a court how he was (allegedly) instructed to fire a long-standing Asian employee and warned that there was too much "pepper" (ie. black personnel) employed in his restaurant. There's more race trouble in America, where Hindu lunchers are filing a suit against the chain for using beef flavouring in chips, instead of vegetable oil as it promised. According to the Dow Jones News Service, a whopping 11 per cent of the chain's 43 million customers worldwide are sufficiently unimpressed every day with their McDonald's "unhappy meal" to complain to the management – and most of them are dissatisfied too with the way their complaint is handled. "Rude counter staff" is the most popular, er, beef, but "running out of Happy Meals" and "slow service" come high on the list. Customers are reported to be turning away "in droves".

Some are doing more than simply expressing displeasure. They are being violently sick. Every single day, 200,000 Americans are laid low with food poisoning – most of it blamed on fast food. But when it happens to McDonald's customers, the company's response is sometimes a little tactless. When a young friend of mine went down with salmonella after eating a McDonald's Indian dish at a London branch, his mother complained – and was kindly offered free-meal vouchers so he (and she) could enjoy the experience all over again.

A suspicion that has lurked in people's minds for 26 years – that they are eating, frankly, animal crap in a bun – was reinforced when Eric Schlosser published his best-selling book, Fast Food Nation, earlier this year. All over the US consumers paled as they read of "faecal contamination", the feeding of cows with cattle and chicken blood, the fact that the average burger contains meat from hundreds of cattle – and the strangely non-chicken nature of the Chicken McNugget (a white gungy substance held together by chemical stabilisers, injected with "beef extract"). Readers held their stomachs and resolved to give up fast food for ever.

Can this be the real reason for the sudden decline in fast-food fortunes? Have we suddenly grown up and decided not to be treated like kids, force-fed in brightly-lit rumpus rooms with bland, de-natured, zero-flavoured non-food cooked at maximum speed on an industrial assembly line? It can't be that we've only just realised it's rubbish, and unsatisfying rubbish at that; we've known for years. You have only to open your Big Mac and consider the squat grey place-mats of meat – which resemble no meat known to mankind but rather a form of unleavened bread on to which some grey blotting paper has been unskilfully grafted – to remind yourself how off-putting this stuff is.

No wonder successive advertising agencies produced TV commercials for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders without ever actually showing the product. What's happening is that we're making the logical connection at last between cattle-disease epidemics and the blandly nasty luncheon snack we hold in our guilty hands. We've gone off the whole idea. We've gone off the problematic joy of the queue, the guilty wallow in saturated fat, the trashy floundering in cardboard boxes and cardboard fries, the near-English nomenclature ("A Quarter Pounder Meal is medium fries – do you wanna go large with that?"), the feeling that we too are on an assembly line, becoming as fattened and artificially plumped by this bizarre sustenance as any hapless McChicken. We cannot take any more.

McDonald's, to its credit, realises this. With fast-food profits as flat as a cheeseburger slice, it is attempting to diversify into exotica. Into hotels, such as the three Golden Arch hotels in Zürich and Geneva in Switzerland and Lully in France. Into middle-class sandwich bars, with a 33 per cent share of Pret a Manger. Into hot dogs, which were launched in the UK recently, the first in the company's 46-year history. Into chicken, pizza and Mexican food chains. They've even, in a minimal nod to healthy eating, come up with the McSalad Shaker, a mêlée of red cabbage, grated carrot and supermarket lettuce in which half a dozen bits of clammy chicken tikka masala (supposedly now the nation's favourite dish) have been patriotically concealed.

Will we buy it? Will we continue to be suckered by the idea that "convenience" and food-as-fuel-stop somehow justify our support of a repellent meat-recovering industry? Will the toy in the Happy Meal be the only thing that governs our choice of children's lunch venue in the future? It is, perhaps, time to get sense. Time to reject the whole culture of contamination, the cuisine of cack. Time to reject that goddamn'd gherkin once and for all.

Kitchen confidential: what top foodies really think of the burger

Gordon Ramsay, chef

When you get a burger from McDonald's or Burger King and strip it of its garnish, what's left is a very flat, fatty, under-seasoned, under-flavoured piece of meat. It's the accessories ­ gherkins, salad and cheese ­ on a burger that make up the synthetic taste and cover up for the lack of flavour in the meat itself. Unless you go to somewhere like the Ivy or Caprice, you're not going to get a burger worth eating. It's time the public analysed what they were really eating andrealised that burgers like these aren't doing them any good.

Ruth Rogers, chef at the River Cafe, London

I'm an American, so I grew up on hamburgers and Coke, but I don't eat burgers any more. We stopped eating them because of the health issues ­ BSE and so on ­ and now I haven't eaten them in so long that I just can't do it. I've never had a McDonald's but the idea that you can get a meal so fast and do something else at the same time has certainly shaped the way we look at food.

Oliver Peyton, owner of the Atlantic Bar and Grill, Isola and Mash

I've only had a McDonald's once, when I was a child in Dublin and they opened there for the first time. I'm not against high-quality beefburgers, but with global companies, the nature of the beast is that they make their money by using highly processed ingredients. They need uniform production and that dictates everything, from how long the animals live to how they pump up their beef in factories to get margins.

Fergus Henderson, chef at St John, London

I sometimes buy mince to make hamburgers as a treat, but that's a million miles from fast food. I don't buy burgers. Everything about them upsets me: there's no pleasure in eating them, and because they're so processed there's no substance or notion of their origin. Fast food hasn't done much good at all: the notion of buying a family meal instead of making one shows how the industry has shaped culture.

Anthony Worrall Thompson, chef

I think fast-food restaurants are declining because people are more wary of their health. There's more of a worry about what goes into manufactured burgers ­ they're probably safer than before BSE, but it's like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. I love a fresh burger, but I wouldn't eat a fast-food one. Whole nations can become fast-food junkies, and I think that part of the reason that there's so much obesity around is because we eat too many carbohydrates (remember, a hamburger is two thirds bun). Cooking has now become more of a hobby, as opposed to a necessity, and this certainly reflects the boom in fast-food outlets.

Emma Crowhurst, presenter on BBC2's 'Food and Drink'

The only rare times that I eat fast food from Burger King are when I'm travelling up the motorway and there's no alternative. I cook burgers at home, and they are so superior to what you can buy. People don't cook because of the effort involved, but I can't believe what is consumed sometimes. The worst thing is that children consider fast food a treat, and it is also dubious when the fast-food chains include toys.

Original: Could the burger era really be coming to an end at last? John Walsh investigates