Monday, November 15, 2010

Dirty confessions from a fat food blogger

I know that I’m trying to keep the focus of this blog directed more onto local eateries, but something’s been weighing on my soul.  As a food blogger, I don’t feel like I could post in good faith if I didn’t get it off my chest. 

I have a confession to make.  The Monday after Easter Sunday, I’m the reason why you can’t find Cadbury crème eggs.

Don’t judge me…

A victorious panda, April 2010
Crème eggs are the daytime soap opera of the food world—compact, sweet, and devoid of any nutritionally redeeming value at all.  They’re available for about six weeks a year, so I need a stash to carry me through the late spring, summer, autumn, and winter months.  And at 50% off, how can I not stock up, I ask you?  It seems that others are also on to my scheme now.  This past April, I was at a local chemist’s, and I hit the mother lode—a sealed box of crème eggs, the remnants of another open box, and a sealed box of the store’s knock off crème eggs.  As I waited on line at the register, another customer walked in and asked where the clearance candy was…the crème eggs in particular.  I stood there, defiantly holding my prize like a hungry lion lording over the corpse of a fallen zebra.  The customer retreated, probably to the next closest chemist.  Photos of the trophy were Tweeted.  Blood sugars in the Panda household were high that night.

There’s something about the appeal of seasonal foods.  Most of them aren’t that good in the first place—much less good for us—but we still swarm retailers when news of their arrival begins to break on the social networks and food tracking sites.
Like the slasher in a teen splatter-pic, it never really goes away...
McDonalds first, and perhaps still most sinister, foray into seasonal food came in 1970, with the arrival of the Shamrock Shake and the cultural appropriation of a green-tinted Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey.  The design was sheer, simplistic edible brilliance: a mint-flavored milkshake that appeared in mid-February, and rarely lasted until the 17th of March, as syrup supplies always seemed to vanish in advance--a feat that makes even Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice frappuccino/latte blush.  As a kid growing up, the real harbinger of spring wasn’t the melting of Michigan snow (since I recall a few winters that extended well into March), but the arrival of the first kid who tortured the rest of his classmates with stories about the first Shamrock Shake of the holiday season.

Stop looking at me like that. I never said that I couldn’t be a cruel bastard at times. As I see it, I was just live food blogging decades before it came to be.  Besides, as the token fat kid in school, I had a reputation to live up to—being an encyclopedia of all things edible.

The next entry in the McDonalds seasonal menu was the arrival of the Happy Meal.  This source of interfamily domestic disputes (trust me, when I worked for McDonalds in Flint as a teenager, I saw more than one child battle with parents to get one) was originally a limited offering.  I remember getting my first one in 1978…and promptly being disappointed when my toy was a plastic bracelet with letter stickers, allowing one to create personal bling.  McDonalds compensated me for my disappointment the next year, though, with the Star Trek: The Motion Picture Happy Meals.  A family trip to visit my grandparents in St. Loius ensured so many McDonalds visits (between the round trip road travel itself, and my father’s periodic need to get away from his southern in-laws), that I had every toy in the collection.  Eventually, the Happy Meal would graduate to full-time menu status, creating a cult of closet toy collectors.

With friends like this...
But the most lauded and legendary of the limited McDonalds menu items has to be the McRib.  The sandwich debuted in 1981, and soon found itself relegated to seasonal fare, kept on life support by a rabid fanbase.  Aside from each year’s “must have” toy (ala 1984's Cabbage Patch Kids, 1998's Furby, last year’s Zhu-Zhu Pets, or 2006’s Nintendo Wii), how many products have their own online trackers?  Like most of McDonald’s meat, the McRib is a conglomeration of animal parts, cast into a meatlike patty, which is cooked, topped with barbeque sauce, onions, pickles, and served on a warmed bun.

I shouldn’t like this sandwich.  It has no nutritional merit to it at all—shaped and formed pork part slurry, soggy pickles, frozen onions, and a sauce that tastes more like spiced catsup than barbeque sauce.  But like with the aforementioned coney island hotdog, those ingredients make a Voltron-like combination that proves irresistible to the most hardened of McDonalds anti-corporate critics.  I took a nibble of the plain pork patty, and it wasn’t that stellar.  But when I took a bite of the whole sandwich, the flavors all came together, like the Joker’s deadly grooming products from Tim Burton’s first Batman film.  I shouldn’t like this sandwich, but year after year, I just can’t quit it.  As I type this, I sit in a booth, nursing the same sense of shame I had when I first realized I’d entered puberty and was called to the board to work out a math problem on the chalkboard.  It’s McDonalds. I worked for them in the 1980s.  I've seen what happens in those kitchens.  I should know better.  But such is the psychological hold of the phrase “for a limited time only!” when applied to nostalgic fast food items.

Seriously, for the past week, my Facebook and Twitter feed has been peppered with entries like this: I just had a McRib… Why do people eat this shit, much less wait all year for it?  I don’t think I’ve seen one person in my social circle try the sandwich for the first time and like it. I seem to be one of the few people who will even admit to liking it if pressed hard enough.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the McRib is a secret shame for diners?  In my 2:30pm trip to the McDonalds on Western Boulevard, I saw no less than five people in the dining room order the sandwich and fully consume it.   Widely maligned as it is, it sells…and no one seems to know why?

McDonalds gets it, though.  Much like a culinary version of Ladyhawke, limited supply creates increased demand.  If the sandwich wasn’t so addictive, the plan would almost be pure, unadulterated, Karl Rove-esque evil.  But accusations of malevolence always give way to food addiction in a paired contest, so we forgive McDonalds and start sniffing around the stores at the end of October, waiting for our next fix.

…meanwhile, I’m already making my list of local chemists.  Easter’s coming, after all.

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