Trips to the McDonald’s behind my first childhood home in suburban Chicago were a thrilling treat. A narrow, paved path in my neighborhood led to the rear of Ronald’s abode. I still can’t say whether I was more eager to walk down this secret-like path to fast food heaven or have a bite of my double cheeseburger.
As a Hindu, I rarely ate meat, especially red meat, as a child – in reverence to the sacred cow. But on occasion my Indian immigrant parents would take my brother and me to McDonald’s, or we would walk there on our own. I felt like a real American ordering up my double cheeseburger, and I fantasized about how my life would be different if I ate it several times a week as I imagined real Americans did. This fantasy usually also included the complete American lifestyle of having every kind of Barbie doll and cable TV. But I went with what I could get at the time…a cheesy beefy burger, times two. I was too fearful and naïve to be a real rebel at that age, so this was my acceptable rebellion – one which my parents allowed. As a 7-year-old kid, the stars were truly aligned when it was acceptable to walk down a secret path, eat a sacrilegious meal, and not piss off my parents.
Today, McDonald’s reminds me of obesity and not-so-real meat. It’s incredible how complete ignorance instills happiness.
We moved from my first childhood home to my second childhood home when I was 8 years old. My local McDonald’s seemed galaxies away, and the White Castle nearby took a close second. The funny thing is, I didn’t really miss it. Maybe I was just growing up. Maybe my tastes were becoming more discriminating. Or maybe the American dream started revealing itself as a lie. Who did this comfort food comfort?
My journey towards being more health conscious began in college. Until then, my mom made delicious, healthy, homemade meals pretty much every day of the week. I didn’t have to think about my own health choices, they were just placed in front of me. I did (and still do) have a tendency to indulge in cheese products and sugar, and my parents did their best to not introduce those items in the house. College was a different story. My meals were no longer controlled, and I only had to answer to my own will. To my dismay, dorm food, Thai food take out, and ramen noodles started to take a toll on my body. I don’t remember if it was the Freshman 10 or 15, but it wasn’t pretty. I needed to get healthier, so I started to better acquaint myself with food and nutrition. One summer, I interned in the Corporate Affairs department of Kraft Foods. This wasn’t really part of my diet plan, but at that point in my life, I thought I needed a good, stable career at a reputable company. I fielded calls from media, crafted statements touting the wonders of processed, convenience foods, and attended meetings to determine the how to market and promote the nutritional value of said foods. All the while, I knew that this department was merely a front. Media wasn’t even allowed to enter Kraft’s food factories! Nor was I. So, I was basically asked to represent food products without knowing where they came from for $12/hr.
Eventually, my pragmatic need for stability could not resolve my compassionate cries for food justice (which were slightly quelled after devouring a package of Chewy Chips Ahoy from the company store at 30% off). Adding to my big food company exposure, the dawn of the Internet Age and documentaries on Netflix gave me complete freedom for my own truth digging. The origin, processing, and marketing of food revealed itself to me in the likes of a horror flick. I was pained to learn about GMO’s, underpaid and overworked migrant farm workers, and enormous profit margins of food companies. The perceived benefits of the convenience and long shelf life of my beloved Kraft Macaroni & Cheese were suddenly at a disadvantage. Yet, I still longed for those feelings of comfort. I longed for the ignorance of the golden arches. And, I longed for some cheesy goodness. While rage at injustice trumped investing in certain food products, my cheese and sugar addiction spoke a different language.
I would love to exclaim that I saw this documentary about the nastiness of fast food burgers or the effects of Yellow #6 on my intestine, and I never touched it again! But, as a human being, I have emotions, cravings, and traditions with family and friends that are difficult to deny. So yes, I do still indulge in fast food on rare occasions. But most of the time, I try to buy grass-fed beef. The royal blue Macaroni & Cheese box makes an annual appearance in my shopping cart, but now I know a killer homemade recipe. And as much as I would love to attach the words organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, fair-trade before everything I eat, I resent that this labeling even exists along with the money I am paying for it. The class system in my fridge and pantry speak to corporate capital gains that prey upon my capital losses. So I do what I can. I happily reminisce about McDonald’s, while simultaneously (mostly) boycotting their food. I pay for grass-fed beef, while simultaneously feeling guilty for what is sacred. I accept living in these dualities because I accept that food is more than the object itself. It is family, friends, laborers, and corporate executives. It is animals, insects, chemicals, and machines. It is soil, fertilizer, waste, and seeds. It is joy, disgust, anticipation, and memory. And I’m lovin’ it.
Nisha Mody is a writer living in Chicago. She works as a speech-language pathologist in a public school. When she isn’t writing or running after children, she is making eggs, eating avocados, looking at bunny pictures, and reading. Read more of her writing at http://cuttingthecheez.tumblr.com.