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Temple of the Golden Arches

A search for the prize at the bottom of Santa Fe’s McDonald’s

September 17, 2008, 12:00 am

When I spy the brown lettering of a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper, even from afar, when I hear the crackle of the butcher paper opening and I inhale the first vapors of ketchup and minced onion—arf. I am Pavlov’s dog.

It’s not so much a deluge of salivation as it is a flood of memory while a window opens to my mind’s eye. It’s a triangle-shaped window that looks onto a college football stadium and illuminates the floor of my Auntie Sharon’s dorm room, where she and I eat cookies shaped like Grimace and Hamburglar and punch out the perforated shapes on the side of a Happy Meal box. A fold here, a fold there, and suddenly the box has become a castle, a Temple of the Golden Arches. I am 5 years old and thoroughly entranced.

That’s Happy McDonald’s Memory #1, which is followed by a similar flashback brought on by the hot mayonnaise in a McChicken sandwich. In this memory, I’m a few years older and “student of the week,” a class award that comes with a McDonald’s lunch with the teacher. Too young to realize that every kid is honored sometime during the year, I’m just overjoyed to be allowed to order my first grown-up sandwich.

I’m not 100 percent confident in the authenticity of these recollections. Amazingly, 25 years later, my aunt more or less confirms the first one, but Happy McDonald’s Memory #2—especially the blond faceless Teacher X—isn’t consistent with my other school memories. The Golden Arches are so deeply embedded into the architecture of American identity, I suspect I’ve plagiarized this one from a Saturday morning commercial.

But that’s the magic of McDonald’s; having developed the ultimate convenience food and the ultimate food service efficiency system, McDonald’s decided the best way to control a fiercely competitive market was to sell a completely artificial—but thoroughly American—“experience.”

Sixty years ago this fall, Dick and Mac McDonald closed their barbecue restaurant in San Bernadino, Calif., because they realized they could make a lot more money by just selling burgers—and selling them fast. They reengineered their kitchen to work like a well-greased machine and dubbed it the “Speedee Service System.” That concept launched the fast-food industry as we know it and, by combining innovation with enterprise, defined the American Dream.

Then that dream was crushed, or enhanced, depending on whether you’re the McDonald Brothers or Ray Kroc, who grabbed control in 1953 (the corporation does not recognize 1948 as the beginning of the McEmpire). McDonald’s established itself as a kiddy paradise with playgrounds and Happy Meal toys and an actual clown named Ronald. Simultaneously, McDonald’s developed formulas for extremely cheap and addictive food, which, as Eric Schlosser reports in his book Fast Food Nation, has contributed to global problems ranging from rain-forest destruction to worker exploitation to the obesity epidemic.

When I picked up the term “cultural imperialism” in my own college dorm, I edged away from McDonald’s and guiltily tucked away my memories of McNugget-dipping and ball-pit frolicking. Only in the last year have I begun reconciling with my ol’ friend Mickey D.

Mostly it’s because the four McDonald’s in Santa Fe aren’t the same McDonald’s of my youth, but have more to offer in everything from the food served to the ambiance of the local locations.

And, in the years since Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s binge-diet documentary, Super Size Me, the restaurant’s corporate strategy—from nutritional priorities to animal-handling ethics—has adapted to a more informed, more demanding consumer, while still remaining mindful of the budgetary crunch that comes with economic downswings. Regionally, McDonald’s applauds itself for serving as a launching pad for Hispanic and immigrant workers—perhaps even more so in Santa Fe where the $6.55 national minimum wage has been replaced by a $9.50 living wage.

Yes, for the first time in a long, long while, the cloud over that triangle-shaped dorm window of my soul is parting. But the question remains: Can a modern, socially conscious Santa Fean have his Big Mac and eat it, too?

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