A Compendium of Great McDonald’s Writing

The golden arches. (Photo via Getty Images)

The golden arches. (Photo via Getty Images)

It was a good thing for the community of Flushing, Queens, when, last week, a resolution was brokered between the owner of a local McDonald’s and a group of recalcitrant elderly Koreans, who were fighting for their right to sit in the fast food restaurant for hours at a time. But it wasn’t so good for those who like to read about such matters—the charming stories that get at the heart of what people and neighborhoods are all about.

Indeed, Times reporters Sarah Maslin Nir and Jiha Ham, who brought the issue to the attention of a wide readership, did some undeniably lovely writing on the Queens kerfuffle. (A third and presumably final report, published by Ms. Nir alone, is on the front page of the Times today.) If a Best McDonald’s Writing book existed, their stuff would surely be in it. Which led to the idea that maybe such a book could exist. McDonald’s, it turns out, has inspired a surprising amount of good writing through the years. Here’s a sampling.

1. “The Trouble With Fries,” by Malcolm Gladwell
The New Yorker, March 2001

“This is the trouble with the French fry,” Mr. Gladwell writes, in this deep look at the evolution of the American French fry, published after the release of Fast Food Nation, which was originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. “The fact that it is cooked in fat makes it unhealthy. But the contrast that deep-frying creates between its interior and its exterior—between the golden shell and the pillowy whiteness beneath—is what makes it so irresistible.”

2. “How McDonald’s Came Back Bigger Than Ever,” by Keith O’Brien
The New York Times Magazine, May 2012

“Ronald, decked out in a gold tuxedo, a red wig, white face paint and red, floppy shoes (size 29 EEE) with yellow laces, had awakened around 5:30 a.m. that morning and driven about 90 minutes from somewhere near Burbank with his personal assistant, David Roe, to be here for the Spiels,” writes Mr. Obrien, on the rebranding of McDonald’s in recent years. “The clown, who declined to break character, talk about the makeup required for his job or give his real name — ‘He is Ronald,’ Roe told me, straight-faced; ‘that is his real name’ — mugged for photographs and then finally found Candace Spiel, wrapping his arms around her in a long embrace.”

3. “The McRib: Enjoy Your Symptom,” by Ian Bogost
The Atlantic, November 2013

“The McRib,” Mr. Bogost says, in this philosophical examination, which refers both to Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, “is like Holbein’s skull: we experience it as (quasi-)foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don’t sufficiently explain it. To understand McRib fully, we have to look at the sandwich askew.”

4. “The Specter of McDonald’s,” by Jonah Goldberg
National Review, June 2000

“McDonald’s is perceived by its enemies as a plague-carrier, imposing the pestilence of Western consumer culture and low standards on every hamlet,” Mr. Goldberg observes. “The reality is exactly the opposite: McDonald’s sprouts up naturally wherever there is enough economic oxygen to sustain it.”

5. “How McDonald’s Conquered France,” by Mike Steinberger
Slate, June 2009

“If you believed that McDonald’s was a blight on the American landscape, seeing it on French soil was like finding a peep show at the Vatican, and in a contest between Roquefort and Chicken McNuggets, I knew which side I was on,” Mr. Steinberger writes in this excerpt from his 2009 book Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. “But implicit in this attitude was a belief that McDonald’s had somehow been foisted on the French; that slick American marketing had lured them away from the bistro and into the arms of Ronald McDonald. However, that just wasn’t true. The French came to McDonald’s and la malbouffe (or fast-food) willingly, and in vast and steadily rising numbers.”

6. “McGranny,” by Helen Thompson
Texas Monthly, January 1992

“Nattily dressed in a navy-and-white linen outfit, Angie now greets customers and wipes tables,” writes Ms. Thompson, describing the 90-year-old McDonald’s employee Angie Runnels in this charming little profile. “‘I like the busy days,’ she discloses, ‘like the time a hundred and twenty schoolchildren came in here unannounced. I get tired when business is slow.’”

7. “Fast Food Nation Part One: The True Cost of America’s Diet,” by Eric Schlosser
Rolling Stone, September 1998

“A survey of American schoolchildren found that ninety-six percent could identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus,” Mr. Schlosser tells us. “The impact of McDonald’s on the nation’s culture, economy and diet is hard to overstate. Its corporate symbol – the Golden Arches – is now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.”

8. “Why the McWrap Is So Important to McDonald’s,” by Susan Berfield
Bloomberg Businessweek, July 2013

“In the early days of development, he tried dozens of flavors, including hoisin sauce and bulgogi (Korean grilled marinated beef),” Ms. Berfield says of Dan Coudreaut, the executive chef and vice president of culinary innovation at McDonald’s, who labored for a long, long time in perfecting the McWrap. “‘We did a beautiful Asian wrap with a nice slaw using daikon radish. But it was a little niche,’ he says. Niche is what they say at McDonald’s about goat cheese, too. And shrimp.”

9. “We Must Build An Enormous McWorld In Times Square, A Xanadu Representing A McDonald’s From Every Nation,” by Jeb Boniakowski
The Awl, January 2013

“Everyone talks about how globalization ‘McDonalds-izes’ the world,” says Mr. Boniakowski, “but the funny thing about a place like New York is that you can get basically every kind of food *except* whatever they serve at the foreign outposts of our proud American chains.”

10. “McDonald’s Is Impossible,” by Chelsea Martin
No Posit, Volume 1, March 2008

This poem is not exactly about McDonald’s, but it’s too good not to include. Here’s an excerpt:

Eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible.
Because before you can eat it, you have to order it.
And before you can order it, you have to decide what you want.
And before you can decide what you want, you have to read the menu.
And before you can read the menu, you have to be in front of the menu.
And before you can be in front of the menu, you have to wait in line.
And before you can wait in line, you have to drive to the restaurant.
And before you can drive to the restaurant, you have to get in your car.
And before you can get in your car, you have to put clothes on.
And before you can put clothes on, you have to get out of bed.
And before you can get out of bed, you have to stop being so depressed.
And before you can stop being so depressed, you have to understand what depression is.
 
And finally, no McDonald’s list would be complete without acknowledging that R. Kelly might not have written his best hits were it not for McDonald’s.