McDonald’s is cutting down on the french fries and adding a few apple slices to its Happy Meals for children. There’s something wrong when a “happy meal” refers to the food you’re eating and not the people you’re eating it with. I’ve had many happy meals in my life, but I don’t think any of them occurred while I was strapped into a seat belt.
But what is fascinating about this development is that it claws at the soft underbelly of the fast-food myth. Think about it: What could be a faster food than a whole apple? You don’t have to cook it, peel it or (and this may come as a surprise to McDonald’s) even slice it. You can just pick it up and eat it. And if you want, you can buy more than one apple at a time, which means you don’t have to drive to a fast-food restaurant every time you’re hungry for an apple. It turns out there are lots of foods like that – cherries, peaches, grapes, nectarines – that come ready to eat. What could be faster? Some fruits you have to peel, like bananas and oranges, but I’m told it is an amazingly simple and fast thing to do. Most of us can peel a banana in the same time it would take to unwrap a burger and we don’t need to pay anyone to do it.
It turns out that most fruits and a lot of vegetables are all pretty much fast food. A lot of fast-food places put raw lettuce, tomatoes and onions on top of their burgers. It almost makes you wonder if you put enough ketchup and mustard on a bun, would you really need the burger in there?
If only there was some convenient, inexpensive place nearby where everyone could buy raw or easy to prepare vegetables; something that we would all drive by as often as the fast-food joints. Say, a big store with a big parking lot that would devote a lot of its space to fruits and vegetables right inside the front door, so you could get in and out as fast as you could at a fast-food place. Oh, yeah, I forgot, we already have them: They’re called grocery stores. They are just as convenient as fast-food outlets. Oh, right, you do actually have to go in the store to buy the food; you usually can’t sit in the car and have it handed to you. So there’s the added benefit of walking, oh, a hundred yards or two. You may spot some other things in the grocery store that are ready to eat without cooking – milk, nuts, pickles, bread, pineapples, yogurt, shredded wheat, salads and a thousand other things.
There’s nothing wrong with fast food (and, full disclosure, I have eaten plenty of it) except thinking a hamburger and fries are the only foods that are quick to prepare. We all know how long it takes to cook hamburgers at home. It doesn’t take long, but it doesn’t take 30 seconds, either. So how do the fast-food places do it? Think about what you would have to do to a hamburger to get from raw to cooked in 30 seconds. You would have to make the patty very, very thin. Which is why instead of one thick patty, you get a “double” burger. You could precook the patty and heat it up when a customer orders one, but that’s not the way most people would say they serve them at home. And we usually don’t make french fries at home, and yet, most people would say eating good food with family and friends at a table is a happy meal. Eating out of a bag in a moving car is actually pretty sad.
Jim Mullen’s latest book “Now in Paperback!” is now in paperback. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.