In The Hamburger: A History, Ozersky talks about how the hamburger has functioned as a symbol of prosperity. Because beef has historically been expensive, a consumer can gain social prestige by eating it. It can be a way to express class and wealth. Because hamburgers are made of ground beef, they can function as a middle ground that is at once aspirational and attainable. Ozersky considers this part of the hamburger’s longstanding appeal. However, in the past few decades, fast food chains that had originally been the province of the middle class in years before are now coded as “poor”. This is very obvious in popular culture. On Urban Dictionary, the top definition of McDonald’s is:
A place where people eat a lot, get fat, and then sue to get money.
I ate at McDonald’s everyday for 7 years and now I weight 500 pound, so I’m gonna sue them to make some cash
(click image to enlarge)
The whole site feels a little like a peek into the id of popular culture, but this is a helpful definition. It shows what’s the most commonly accepted read on McDonald’s as a brand. None of the associations are good ones.
In the (relevant) definitions of hamburger on the site, it’s interesting to note that the food itself is still valued–but with specific mention that a true hamburger is not the same as the ones sold by fast food joints. Here’s the top definition for hamburger:
A very tasty food which consists of beef, hamburger buns, and a wide variety of toppings including, but not limited to: Mustard, Ketchup, Pickles, BBQ, Bacon, Lettuce, Onion. The best hamburgers can be found at bars or are homemade.
You can find fake, nasty hamburgers at many fast food places.
This definition subverts several aspects of the hamburger as interpreted by fast food joints. Burger King’s burgers are “fake” and “nasty”. The author’s statement that the best hamburgers are either homemade or come from bars implies that real hamburgers come from unique establishments or as the product of hard work. Because Americans live in a society in which our patterns of consumption are configured as statements of identity, hamburgers as defined by Urban Dictionary user Meijer’s! express individualism. The hamburgers that fast food corporations manufacture to uniform standards across the globe lack the same authenticity that hamburgers are meant to embody. Often, when we talk about food being authentic, it’s in the context of whether a dish is made the same way it would be by the people that originated it. We can apply that meaning here, but I also think that the question of authenticity gets a little more complicated. McDonald’s is regarded as a symbol of America. It follows that McDonald’s hamburgers would be authentic, since hamburgers are an iconic American food intertwined with the development of a major brand and a particularly American way of dining. So excluding fast food burgers from the designation of authentic has to be a deliberate choice. It’s a rejection of the things that McDonald’s represents in favor of another view of America.
McDonald’s is associated with obesity, laziness, cultural imperialism, and poverty. These themes come up again and again in the entries on the site. There’s a certain level of vitriol in the definitions that’s a little shocking until you consider how loaded the topic is. It’s not just food at this point–because of the associated concepts, discussion of McDonald’s veers into the territory of moral judgment. Talking about the ways in which patterns of food consumption are read as moral or immoral probably goes beyond the scope of this post, but food from McDonald’s and the people who eat it are positioned as an immoral. This is not only because of the lack of nutritious options on the menu and the extremely low wages paid to employees, but also due to the brand’s association with poor customers, who are also coded as immoral in much of public discourse. Part of the demonization of the brand is a result of the moralistic way in which poverty (and obesity, which is in some respects a related issue) is framed in America. The bars in Meijer’s! definition of the hamburger are much more evocative of the working or middle class, an American fantasy of hard work and comfortably modest living. Hamburgers as an American staple must always contend with the legacy of the major fast food corporations, but Meijer’s! repositions the icon to show another face of America, one that they find more palatable.