Recently I visited the art gallery at the University of Maine at Farmington, where I go to college. On the second floor of the gallery, part of a larger exhibit called “Here to There,” is a sculpture entitled “Complex”. One of the features of this sculpture are McDonald’s cheeseburger wrappers reborn and folded into flowers, sitting on various levels of the snowflake-shaped, multi-leveled construction.
When I saw the cheeseburger wrappers, immediately my mouth watered and the flavor of a perfect combination of ketchup, pickles, onions, and cheese filled my mouth. I wasn’t hungry at all, but just by seeing those wrappers — even in their new form — I instantaneously wanted a McDonald’s cheeseburger. The drive was almost like that for food, water, shelter, sex. The irony here is I despise McDonald’s and don’t care for any of their food. Still, the messages that the advertising has inundated me with for my entire life persist and have become so powerful that just seeing an image related to one of their products keys a savory feeling in my mouth.
I love cultural studies and criticism, so tonight I did an experiment in consumption. For one dinner, I diverged completely from my normal high-fiber diet of water, vegetables, lean meat or fish, and whole grains for one of the trademark American meals. I wanted to see how the delicious ideals I was left with would stand up to the real thing.
Too cheap to actually buy McDonald’s, I went to the dining hall and loaded up. I had three plates of food, totaling a slice of pizza, a cheeseburger with all the condiments, a large serving of fries, two plates of chicken nuggets with BBQ sauce, a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of oreo-style custard, a 16oz milkshake and a 12oz glass of coke.
My mouth was dripping with excitement for the cheeseburger. I knew very well the ingredients in the yellow cheese product that characterizes that ubiquitous American burger, and didn’t care. I shoved it in my face, shoveled in fries — ate the entire burger and was completely unsatisfied. However, because my mind recognized me eating a cheeseburger, my cravings subsided.
Next, I hastily ate the chicken nuggets. My teeth tore off the golden, fried breading around the mechanically separated chicken and I saw, for the first time, direct evidence of chicken mutilation. There is no part of a chicken that is shaped like a nugget, and the metal teethmarks in a symmetrical pattern beneath all the fried golden-ness spoke to its past. I sucked on a nugget for a long time, and there was no flavor. Dipping sauce was the only thing that excited my tastebuds.
The buttery, slightly-burned grilled cheese had that same narcotic, yellow, rubbery cheese substance that excited me like a beautiful woman. I struggled to get it down, to find flavor in an abyss of hydrogenated fats. I spooned down the warm custard, the yolky mass jiggling down my throat. I sipped about 6oz of the coke and then had to stop so as not to vomit.
I hope you can that this article has lost its journalistic integrity. My angle ought to be clear. In the five minute walk from the dining hall to my dorm, where I am composing this, I felt bloated and sick. My sides were cramping up as I ascended the stairs to the second floor of this building. My stomach is like a broiling pot of potato and trans-fat mash. This has made it clear to me the difference I feel after eating a bowl of fresh, crisp spinach and after binging on fast food. Even after only a single helping of fries or chicken nuggets, there is something intrinsically negative about those foods that, rather than rejuvenating and nourishing my body, it harms it in more ways than one.
I cherish and enjoy locally grown and organic food, especially that which comes out of my own garden back at home. Whole grains are like my life-blood; the hot cereals I cook in the mornings make most people run in fear of fiber. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a purist. In college, especially, who can be? I’m also not a vegetarian. I would prefer to eat only meat that was grass-fed and grass-finished, but again, that’s not practical at all right now. I also don’t want to pretend that I don’t like french fries; when it’s only on a “sometimes”, those types of foods are great. But because of my experience tonight, I will learn to value my health and my food a little bit more, and buy into advertising a little bit less.
So what about you? Does this image arouse your desire?
For those who would like more information on the excellent artwork on display at UMF right now, including the exhibit that inspired my experiment, go here: UMF Art Gallery Press Release