I have eaten my fill of McDonald’s french fries.
Not recently, of course. I haven’t actually eaten in a McDonald’s in years. But when I was a kid, growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, I keened and ached to sit under those golden arches and smack down on those salty, crispy fries. One of the best elementary school field trips was the day my class walked from the cement playground in semi-even lines to the McDonald’s three blocks away. We were allowed behind the gun-metal countertops, given a tour of the overheated “kitchen,” and watched the frozen, skinny fries being dunked in bubbling oil, coming out golden perfect. We all clamored for fries. They gave us each a free order of fries, which made having to wear the hair net perfectly worth it.
Like nearly every American kid born after 1950, I ate at McDonald’s more than I can count now. The best part about long road trips with my family was waking up in the morning in a crummy motel, knowing we could drive through a McDonald’s for breakfast. Mom and Dad would pull the plastic lids from styrofoam containers of weak coffee and slowly wake up in the front seat. My brother and I would douse our perfectly sized pancakes with overly sweet syrup from a little square, plastic pack, then lick it off our fingers for hours. The square sausage pattie — filled with little gristle pockets and salty fat — echoed the shape of the syrup packet, echoed the shape of the sytrofoam package it all arrived in, echoed the shape of my stomach when I had finished eating my breakfast. Afterwards, I always wondered why I had looked forward to it so much, when my stomach hurt and lurched for hours on the road after eating it. But the next morning, there we were, waiting in line to speak to a weary employee through the scratchy McDonald’s speaker.
At home, we only lived ten or fifteen blocks from McDonald’s, so at least once a week, my mother threw up her hands and gave in to the pleading. We left the kitchen and drove to McDonald’s. (Yes, we drove. This was LA, after all.) Sometimes I ordered Quarter Pounder, and sometimes two little burgers. (I never liked the Big Mac, mostly for the stringy shreds of lettuce that hunger over the side of the bun, and for the lurid color of the special sauce.) Later, I started ordering the Filet of Fish, a sudden change on the always-the-same menu when I was a kid. But always, there were fries. Golden, crispy, best when hot from the oil, rather disappointingly flubby when lukewarm, better yet when slathered in salt and slightly-sweet ketchup we had to squish from almost-impenetrable little packets we had to gnaw at with our teet —— McDonald’s fries were always the best.
One night, we were sitting in the plastic molded chairs at McDonald’s, mindlessly chomping on our food. We always inhaled it, our taste buds subsumed by the grease and salt, our senses overwhelmd by the overpowering experience of fast food, our eyes glazed and staring forward. I ate and ate my french fries, feeling sated, then that familiar feeling of too full. But I kept eating. When I reached my fingers in for the last bits of fries, I felt something unfamiliar. Something with a hard edge. I peered down into the bottom of the white, grease-stained bag and saw something black. Something large, withered, and fried. I pulled it out of the bag and peered at it.
It was a fried cockroach. There was a fried cockroach at the bottom of my french fries.
When my outraged parents demanded our money back, the greasy-faced employees simply gave us coupons for more McDonald’s food.
When I was in my twenties, I stopped eating at McDonald’s. I lived on a rural island off Seattle, where no chains existed. I became a vegetarian and started eating far more healthily. I began cooking, seriously, for the first time. I left the McDonald’s habit far behind me.
But once in a while, I’d start to jones for that taste: the hot crispiness, the insatiable saltiness, the golden taste. Every once in a while, I’d duck into McDonald’s for an order of french fries, including at the McDo just off 4th Street in New York, when I lived there.
The last time I ate at a meal at McDonald’s was under duress, when my friend and I were trying to recover from an unexpected trauma. Sharon and I had been driving across the country for a good swath of the summer of 2002. Every stop centered around food, of course. We took detours and tiny roads instead of the highway for the potential pie in the Amish country of Indiana or the enormous greasy breakfast in Wyoming. In the course of two weeks, we had successfully avoided any chain stores, hotels, or restaurants. But there we were, east of Burns, Oregon, in the flattest, dullest country either one of us had ever seen. And we were running out of gas. Frantic, we looked for any sign of life. There was none — just flat, grey scrubland, in a place so barren even the prairie dogs decided to stay away. We were starting to despair.
Finally, we saw a tiny, one-pump gas station in the distance. Grateful, we pulled in. A frowsy, middle-aged woman came out and started pumping our gas. Laconically, she said, “You two going toward Burns or coming away from it?” When we told her we were going toward it, she nodded, gravely, then said, “Watch out for the grasshoppers.” Befuddled, we paid her and drove away, relieved to know that we could drive without worrying about running out of gas.
About ten minutes later, as we were singing along to some jaunty song, we both squinted into the distance as we drove along. “What is that?” one of us managed to say, pointing to the brown cloud on the flat road before us. Before we could figure it out, we were in it. Grasshoppers — hundreds and hundreds of them — swarmed the road and hovered above it, which meant they launched themselves right into our car. All I could hear was thwack! thwack! thwack! as their hard exoskeletons smacked against our windshield. We couldn’t see for the dimming of the sun, blotted out by a plague of grasshoppers attacking our car. As they dive bombed the car, smashing against us, Sharon and I both screamed. Sharon covered her eyes with her hands. And she was driving. For a few moments, it felt like we were in The Ten Commandments, and Charlton Heston was mad at us. Luckily, after about a thousand yards, mysteriously, the plague of grasshoppers dissipated, and we were left on a bare, flat road again.
(In front of us was a motorcyclist without a helmet. I don’t want to imagine what driving through that patch was like for him.)
Still freaked out, Sharon and I drove into Burns. The first thing we saw was a McDonald’s. Sharon begged me to stop there and buy some food. “I just need some comfort food after that,” she said. I agreed, the memories of childhood road trips still in my mind. We opened the car doors, only to find dozens of dead grasshoppers spilling from the windshield onto our laps. Sharon screamed again. We raced inside.
I ordered a hamburger and a chocolate milkshake, plus a super-size order of fries, of course. It had been years since I’d eaten at McDonald’s. And how did it taste?
Like rancid grease. It sat heavy in my stomach, immediately. The milkshake was too sweet. The hamburger bun was soggy. And the fries? They made me feel a little sick, somehow. After our traumatic experience, I was not comforted.
I haven’t been in a McDonald’s since then.
So it isn’t much of a loss for me to find out that there is gluten on McDonald’s french fries. Possibly. Recently, just a few weeks ago, McDonald’s quietly acknowledged, with a little check mark on one of the pages of their website, that one of the flavoring agents in the oil in which they cook all the french fries is derived from wheat and dairy ingredients. Apparently, people have been asking for years, saying that they are growing sick from McDonald’s french fries. The monolithic corporation has been denying that there is gluten on the fries, thus negating the physical experience of hundreds of people, and also ensuring that people who shouldn’t be eating gluten are getting it, in a hidden way.
Why? Well, according to McDonald’s Director of Global Nutrition (there’s a title), “We knew there were always wheat and dairy derivatives in there, but they were not the protein component,” she said. “Technically, there are no allergens in there. What this is an example of is science evolving.” Doublespeak. Thanks for deciding for me.
Thanks to the Food Labelling Act of 2004, which went into effect this January, the packages of many foods are now quietly being changed, making it easier for those of us who have to avoid gluten. It still says only “wheat” on the side of the package, but that’s a start. I support those companies that are being honest now. And at least McDonald’s is being honest. Now.
Are the fries gluten-free? McDonald’s claims that they are, after testing. The Gluten Intolerance Group, an organization I respect, has issued the following statement:
The flavoring agent added to the oil during par-frying is possibly suspect, however until information is provided on testing of the flavoring agent we cannot say if it is a problem or not. The flavoring company has stated to
McDonald’s that the flavoring has no allergenic proteins and since McDonald’s policy is that the fryers used fry the French fries are dedicated and only used for potatoes, this would mean the fries are gluten-free. McDonald’s is expected to make an updated statement about this situation in the very near future. We anticipate that it may include information about recent testing.
Choosing to eat any food is always the individual consumer’s choice. If you feel uncomfortable with this information, it is ultimately your choice to eat the fries or not.
Does that make the fries gluten-free? I have no idea. Maybe? Probably. Could be.
I’m writing about all this to let everyone reading know: it’s hard to be gluten-free. There are so many choices, so many ways to grow sick. I feel remarkably upbeat about this, 90% of the time. My life has been changed, enormously, since I went gluten-free. But sometimes, I grow weary, thinking about how hard all this is.
What I do know is that having to be gluten-free also forces me, rather joyfully, to be mindful about what I eat. When I went into a McDonald’s for the first time in years, just to buy the fries you see in the photograph above (I threw them out right afterwards), I was struck by how bedraggled, greasy, and sad everyone in that restaurant looked. Eating at McDonald’s isn’t mindful. Syrup-seeping breakfast in a styrofoam package? Crunchy fried cockroaches? Insects thwacking against the windshield, followed by the feeling of a bowling ball in my stomach?
No thanks. I’ll pass.