Author’s note: In 2013, I spent three and a half weeks teaching in the United Kingdom. This is one in an amazingly sporadic series exploring my time there.
The feeling was a little weird, like waking from a fuzzy afternoon nap to find my brain floating about two feet to the left. It was the McDonald’s restaurant’s fault. It had to be, even though I didn’t do anything crazy like eat there; I just walked by.
The Golden Arches hung on the front of the restaurant, the customary yellow-upon-red scheme as normal to me as my face in the mirror. But the slim brick building wedged between a moneychanger/souvenir shop (“Best Rates! Euro! American! London shirts, cheap!”) and the Bolivian Consulate (or maybe restaurant. I can’t read Aymaran), was probably 500 years old. Things 500 years old in the States are dug up by archeologists and put in museums; in the U.K. people buy Big Macs in them.
I think this is what bothered me; the McDonald’s restaurant wasn’t in its natural environment.
The restaurant chain, that began as a barbecue joint in Monrovia, California, in 1937 (offering more than 20 barbecue items on its menu), moved to San Bernadino, California, in 1948 and became a hamburger, French fry, and milkshake drive in.
Mixer salesman Ray Kroc bought franchising rights to the restaurant in 1955 and, 58 years later, America is the second fattest country in the world (thank you, Mexico).
The first McDonald’s sat on the side of a highway. That’s where McDonald’s are supposed to be, on busy sidewalk-free roadways Americans have to drive to. This restaurant in London was right on the pavement where just anyone could walk in, which is a bit careless of the planning and zoning department.
Stickers for the “Great Tastes of America: Louisiana BBQ, Chicago Supreme, Arizona Nacho Grande, California Melt, New York Classic,” adorned the windows, making me wonder why, in a city with food readily available from almost every culture on this planet, would anyone go out of their way to eat an Arizona Nacho Grande Quarter Pounder? A lot of people would. The place was packed.
As frightening as this is, American food might just be part of the international cultural experience. There are 1,200 McDonald’s in the United Kingdom, but, unlike in America, McDonald’s doesn’t sit at the top of the fast-food mountain. It’s not Burger King either, although the burger chain has 1,400 locations in the U.K. The biggest American fast food location here is Subway with 1,500 restaurants.
Yep. Bread and lunchmeat.
The U.K. also has plenty of Pizza Hut restaurants (400 stores), Dominos Pizza (770), KFC (777), and Starbucks (556). There are also a couple of TGIFridays in London, as well as a Chipotle Mexican Grill. What’s next for the British? Eating grits at Waffle House?
This made me wonder where all the British fast-food franchises were. I saw a few Pret a Manger restaurants, which sell healthy freshly made sandwiches, but there are only 230 of these shops in England (and one in Wales), and the famous British hamburger joint Wimpy only has 150 locations in the entire United Kingdom.
As I continued down the street I walked the walk of the righteous food snob because I didn’t avoided American food. I ate traditional British food, food in restaurants operated by people from countries most Americans don’t know exist, and street vendors. The French truffade I purchased for £4.50 near Westminster Abbey is sort of a pancake made with potatoes cooked in goose fat mixed with cheese, sausage, and ham. It was delicious.
They don’t sell that at McDonald’s, even in France. Seriously, I checked.
Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An Epic Beer Run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.