Motherland and apple pieby Wendell Steavenson / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
I know it’s become a dogma that McDonald’s is the fount of all ill-health, but I can’t help but remain a fan. I am very fond of a quarter-pounder with cheese. It once restored me from heat-stroke while reporting on a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. There’s nothing more welcome than a pair of golden arches when you are four hours into a long road trip. And, seriously, is there anything better for quelling a hangover?
The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I went to cure my political hangover at a preview screening of The Founder, a biopic about Raymond “Ray” Kroc, the mastermind behind McDonald’s. Kroc, born in Chicago in 1902 to Czech parents, begins the movie as a down-on-his-luck hero, a struggling middle-aged salesman humping a heavy multi-spindle milkshake mixer around out-of-the-way diners. “Increase supply and demand follows!” exhorts Kroc in the film to the nay-saying diner owners who shake their heads at him. Michael Keaton plays Kroc with a shorn head and a grinning, thrusting attitude; abrasive, impatient, ambitious. It’s a classic rags-to-riches American success story.
But at another level, especially in the second half, the film transforms into a very different—though equally Hollywood—story. From hero-entrepreneur, Kroc turns into the villain of American cinema: an evil corporation. McDonald’s has long veered between the sweet and the bitter, convenient and yummy but bad-for-you; the film reflects the wider dichotomy inherent in capitalism and globalisation. The McDonald’s story may have begun with a heroic ambition, but its successful world domination has turned it into an object of derision.
The McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant in 1937, a family-friendly place specialising in hot dogs. They invented their famous fast food system in 1948, the year that little Donald Trump turned two. Then, towards the end of the 1950s, Kroc took over the franchising and the number of restaurants began to mushroom. This is the era in which the movie is set—among the Americana of gas stations, cars, teenagers, hamburgers and roller-skates. This age is nostalgically recalled as an era when everybody knew their country was great, a time when its greatest generation settled into a prosperous middle-class assumption. On the face of it, McDonald’s was a perfectly benign embodiment of all that. A family eatery—what could be more apple pie? (Caution: filling is hot). Standardised quality, cleanliness, efficiency, burgers, fries, shakes, all served within 30 seconds.