Fast-Food Notion

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

I parted ways with McDonald's years ago, the way one leaves a high school boyfriend: It's the right thing to do, but you still feel a twinge of regret.

For me, patronizing McDonald's and other fast-food joints amounted to an act of teenage rebellion. My mother, a European, took extraordinary steps to keep our family away from such places. She packed lunches for us when we headed up Interstate 95 to visit relatives, and even as a full-time working mother she wouldn't succumb to the lure of the golden arches.

So perhaps it was inevitable that I gravitated toward McDonald's and Roy Rogers as soon as I was old enough to eat out with my friends. We spent endless hours gossiping in the McDonald's downstairs in Mazza Gallerie and trolling the fixin's bar at the Roy's near Tenley Circle, looking for pickles and other cheap sources of late-night sustenance. These hangouts even inspired lingo among us: For years my best friend and I used the phrase "He gave me a french fry" to convey the idea of someone's romantic attentions, the remnant of an 11th-grade after-school encounter.

My fast-food romance came to an abrupt end my senior year, when I picked up my regular order (six Chicken McNuggets with hot mustard sauce, small fries, no fountain soda) and discovered that someone had already taken a McChomp out of one of my nuggets. I walked out and never looked back. These days, I'm much more likely to opt for sushi or assemble a salad at home.

Still, I've watched the fanfare surrounding "Fast Food Nation" with interest. The movie, which opens nationwide Nov. 17, is based on Eric Schlosser's best-selling expose. "Fast Food Nation" uses the fictional "Mickey's" to exemplify the darker side of burger chains: E. coli stemming from manure in the meat; meatpacking plants where illegal Mexican employees are subjected to sexual harassment and brutal workplace injuries; and, yes, disaffected teenage workers who drop burgers on the floor and put them back on the grill without a second's thought. Considering my own experience toiling at low-end D.C. restaurants, that last notion seems anything but far-fetched.

It's hard to launch a public relations offensive to counter the exchange between Greg Kinnear, as Mickey's marketing VP, and his boss, discussing how fecal matter has contaminated their burger. It culminates in this quote: "I'm saying there's [expletive] in the meat."

Compare that with the posting on http://www.bestfoodnation.com/ , a Web site sponsored by McDonald's suppliers. It starts off with "Myth: Ground beef is contaminated with cattle feces" and proceeds to use such phrases as "zero tolerance" and "science-based intervention technology." McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker had a pithier reply. In response to an e-mail inquiry, he wrote, "The movie is Hollywood fiction."

After I saw a screening of the film, nostalgia got the better of me, so I decided to give Riker's eating establishment another chance. I scoped out my old haunts -- McDonald's is alive and well, and recently renovated, in Mazza, and it has taken over the Roy's at Wisconsin and Van Ness streets NW -- and went to the Tenley location.

For a grand total of $6.04, I got a three-piece order of Chicken Selects (the more elegant version of McNuggets), large fries and an impossibly large plastic-foam cup for sweet iced tea. I filled a few plastic containers with hot mustard sauce and ketchup, and dug in.

Reunited, and it tastes so . . . salty, greasy and satisfying. I knew I would suffer a fast-food hangover later and wonder why I had strayed from my usual grilled fish or pasta. But for the moment, I didn't care. A piano sonata played on the sound system as I checked out the single parents with children, along with a few older folks. I was disappointed not to see sullen teenagers hunched over their fries, but I would have had better luck if I'd stopped by after some pseudo-punk band's show at Fort Reno.

I don't think I'll be heading back any time soon, though: It's hard to go back to an old flame, especially when the ambiance at his place includes fluorescent lights and plastic seating.

But it was comforting, in a way, to know that after all these years, the place hasn't changed. Except that this time, no one had beaten me to a bite of the nuggets.

Juliet Eilperin is a national reporter.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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