November 16, 2014
I made one of my contributions to the food movement this week stopping by McDonald’s for my once-a-year Big Mac. This observation could provoke a tangent on the “once-a-year” theme and whether or not my need to point that out reflects some sort of guilt feelings about frequenting such an icon of the industrial food system. But I don’t think I’ll head in that direction this morning. Take note of it, though because that thought is definitely worth a blog or two sometime in the future. I might have had a thought about the political implications of eating that Big Mac down on Grand River in East Lansing, and I generally do take a quick inventory of “what have I been eating lately” that’s roughly health-related before I decide what to do for lunch. But I wasn’t deeply worried about being seen at McDonald’s, or what people would say when they saw me carrying my McDonald’s cup down the hall of the Natural Resources Building after lunch. Or in full disclosure, it would have been the “industrial food system” thing that would have been on my mind had one of my garbology colleagues encountered the McDonald’s cup in my trash bin, rather than some deep indicator of my class identity. Perhaps they might think I’m not showing a proper commitment to “sticking it to The Man”.
But I wouldn’t have worried about them thinking that I was tainted by a lower-class value system. Maybe that’s because I still hang out with old hippies for whom being pegged as having lower-class values is a badge of distinction. Yet it was not like I was actually hoping that someone would see me flouting my déclassé McDonald’s cup, either. In fact, the only reason I become conscious that this little episode in my week might be blogworthy came later when I was listening to Marketplace on NPR. They were discussing how Pizza Hut was trying to “rebrand” itself as a more upscale place, and expressing doubts that it would work. They noted that all the trendy hipsters frequenting my classroom are heading to Chipotle in search of that “fast casual” vibe. Restaurant chains like Red Lobster or Olive Garden are really sucking wind in the current economic environment because they are too expensive for their former customers (who have seen too many years of stagnant growth in wages) and not hip enough for the fast casual crowd. You can read more about this take on food and identity in Forbes Magazine.
The radio analysts were saying that McDonald’s had already tried a rebranding strategy by upgrading their coffee and offering salads, but that it hadn’t really worked. It seems that the people who go to McDonald’s are still pretty much focused on getting the most for their food dollar. And it was then that I realized how embarrassing it is for my friends when I show up with that McDonald’s cup. I mean it’s not just my own image I have to worry about if I’m going to be a beacon of food ethics, don’t you know. Every parent experiences a phenomenon explained by Erving Goffman back in the late fifties: you have to be sensitive to the way that your everyday self is a performance in multiple little overlapping dramas. As far as your kids are concerned, you are expected to be “uncool” but there are limits, after all, and you need to learn what it is that will cause them to lose face in that pressure cooker of identity construction we know as the junior high or middle school.
So I’m writing this week to apologize to all my friends and colleagues in the Natural Resources building at MSU. Next year when I go to McDonald’s for my annual Big Mac, I’ll take off my socks and put one over the McDonald’s cup. Walking down the hall in a coat and tie with no socks won’t be a problem, will it?
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University