When I arrived in France, I had several goals set for my seven-month position as an English teaching assistant. Tasting as many Breton specialties as possible was a top priority on my list, and therefore, resisting my desires for American food went hand-in-hand with this ambition. My first lessons at the high school where I teach focused on this idea. I introduced myself and asked the students questions about Brittany and what local foods they deemed imperative for me to try. Knowing that French culture prides itself on its gastronomic expertise, I expected a never-ending list of specialties to arm myself with against my passion for hamburgers and fries. Unfortunately, after my students attempted numerous times to tell me that McDonald’s was in fact a Breton specialty, I knew I needed to turn elsewhere if I was to avoid eating American.
Though my colleagues tried their best to hook me on many fine Breton delicacies, there came a time where I had to come back to my roots. McDonald’s is a cultural institution in America; while every small town in France has a cathedral, in America, we have McDonald’s. I have been eating its cheeseburgers my whole life, from my earliest childhood years up through college. After five months living in France, no amount of foie gras, crepes, or oysters could satisfy my urge for something native to my tastes. Following a long day at school, and with my mouth craving the salty, fat-filled delight that is a McDonald’s Big Mac, I ended my ban on American food and caved to my heart’s desire.
As I walked up to McDonald’s, located just down the street from my high school, I felt as if I had walked back into America. The outside of the building resembled every McDonald’s I had ever seen back home, from the drive through to the outdoor children’s playground. Even the shape of the building, with the kitchen in the back, large dining room in the front, and red-sloped roof, was familiar. As I stepped onto the premises, I felt as if I belonged. Here, if anywhere in France, I would find my people. However, upon my entrance into the building, I knew I was in a McDonald’s unlike any I had seen in America. For starters, the dining room was clean. It was warm, spacious, and inviting. Had I really walked into a McDonald’s? I knew instantly that I would be dining in tonight, and I regretted that I did not bring my laptop to take advantage of the free WIFI. The thought never crossed my mind; McDonald’s in America has not caught on to that concept. Everywhere I looked, young professionals like me were busy working and studying on their computers. And as I scanned the room, there were no students present to witness my succumbing to desire. As I passed stainless-steel counters and plush booths, my hopes for my meal were on the rise.
The menu, though smaller than its American counterpart, contains many of the same basic options. Fat, double fat, grease, and a side of fries-up to you if you want it in chicken or beef form. While the prices are higher here, with a combination costing almost three dollars more than in America, I felt it was worth it simply because of the quality of the dining room. Fortunately, I paid for my meal before tasting the food, as I might have been persuaded otherwise had I had a sample first. My Big Mac, fries, and Coca-Cola, though similar in shape to the same combination in America, were much smaller in size. More importantly, French McDonald’s has not discovered a key concept that American McDonald’s has going for it: sauce. When in doubt, pour it on. Since the meat in any McDonald’s is always tasteless, the least you can do is cover it up with sauce. Finally, this McDonald’s violated a cardinal rule of any fast-food restaurant. Never restrict your customers’ ketchup access. The one packet I received for my fries was gone long before I finished my meal, and more ketchup could have gone a long way toward saving my burger.
Despite my objections, I managed to devour my meal, and I consider the experience a success. In one trip, I satisfied my cravings and at the same time convinced myself that I have no desire to return. However, the same cannot be said of my students, who can always be found at McDonald’s on any given day at school. The infiltration of the restaurant into French life is astonishing, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before McDonald’s fare truly becomes a Breton specialty.