Here is the column I wrote in response to the discussion that followed my post on McDonald’s.
When my editor and I began talking through the “30 Restaurants in 30 Days” project for my blog, I said that I wanted to pick as broad and as surprising a range of restaurants as I could. We started brainstorming, and I threw out the names of restaurants — French and Thai, in the city center and beyond its periphery, down home and exotic — that had piqued my interest recently. “What about McDonald’s?” I asked. My editor blinked.
Seriously. I was curious to try the fast-food chain’s new line of McCafé coffee drinks. If their lattes were less expensive than Starbucks and no worse, then I’d have some good, informed opinion to share.
“Are you going to get a burger, too?” asked my editor, thinking a cup of coffee wasn’t much of a blog post.
“I can’t,” I said, admitting that I’m way too wary of ground beef. I always ask about where the meat comes from before ordering a burger in any restaurant. Is it ground in house? Ground for the restaurant by a local meat supplier? Purchased as an 80 percent lean chuck in bulk? Purchased as a preformed patty?
For me it isn’t a matter of personal politics; it’s a matter of personal skeeze.
I’ve read enough about lax federal regulations regarding meat processing. One hamburger can contain meat commingled from hundreds of different animals from around the globe. It can be labeled “beef” and contain all manners of cow flesh, cow excrement and enough ammonia added to keep pathogens from a microscopic society as complex as Dr. Seuss’ Whoville.
I know there is plenty wrong with the food chain today, and I am more likely to get sick from bagged spinach irrigated with tainted water as I am from a mystery meat burger cooked to a safe and juiceless 165 degrees. I know that a fried chicken breast on a bun can be just as contaminated as beef, and that salmonella is a more widespread danger than E. coli poisoning.
But skeeze is skeeze. What mysteries lurk inside these pressed brown meat bits? Does anybody know?
Then again, I thought, maybe I should just get over it and have a burger.
I think the last time I ate a Big Mac, Hillary Clinton was picking out chintz for the East Wing. Yet I remember kind of liking this moist, squishy sandwich. I enjoy sloppy burgers made with thin patties and loads of toppings like you get at Grindhouse, Holeman & Finch and other places these days. Thin patties are back.
I figured I’d go to McDonald’s, get my coffee and get my burger, but also check to see if the staff had any answers for customers concerned about food safety and sourcing. They didn’t.
Alas, as soon as I opened the bun to add some ketchup, I looked at the grayish mass inside and couldn’t eat it. It’s irrational, I know. But I saw scenes of “Fast Food Nation” replay in my mind. Then I saw the wood chipper scene from “Fargo,” and all was lost.
So I blogged about the experience quickly and, I’ll admit, flippantly.
Anyone who read the comments on that blog post knows that I promptly had my top round handed to me on a platter.
Some readers thought the blog post was a fey attempt at gotcha journalism. I can see why they’d think that.
Some thought it sounded like I was harassing and abusing the staff by asking stupid, leading questions. That was not the case. At one branch of McDonald’s the staff and I had a nice, funny conversation. At another, I was referred politely to a manager.
Others simply thought I was acting like a pantywaist.
That may the most accurate criticism yet.
Skeeze is skeeze, and even food writers are susceptible to it.
Although I didn’t walk into McDonald’s with a political agenda, I left with one.
All restaurants should have a mechanism in place to discuss food safety and sourcing with customers if they ask. They could have a brochure. They could take down the certification from the wall. They could refer you to the Web site, which is where I did eventually learn that McDonald’s buys mostly American beef but also a small amount from Australia and New Zealand.
But if a restaurant doesn’t have an answer when all I do is ask, I don’t want to give them my business.