The deplorable tendencies of this hell- for-leather, live-in-the-future republic include a tendency to neglect important memories and milestones. Yet even in the swirl and rush of recent events, amidst a foaming sea of politics, and with deep thoughts jostling one another in the public mind, a few of us have been in a fever of impatience for two November ceremonies.
We intend to keep in moral trim by celebrating the 50th birthday of Nabisco's Ritz cracker. And on Nov. 20, we shall silently meditate on the meaning of it all as McDonald's sells its 50 billionth hamburger.
A few months ago, Nabisco, unable to restrain itself, held a bash at the Waldorf to celebrate its cracker. But purists know that the Ritz cracker was not born until November 1934. It was a Depression baby, and its name was an act of bravado.
Imagine. While people were living in Hoovervilles and eating saltine crackers in soup lines, someone launched a cracker called Ritz. That was like launching an expensive magazine about business during the nation's worst business crisis -- and audaciously calling it "Fortune." That is, of course, what Henry Luce did.
Nabisco considered hundreds of names and lit upon Ritz because Cesar Ritz's hotel on the Place Vendome in Paris is, well, ritzy. Sure, it made no sense to conjure up visions of luxury in 1934. And it was crazy to do so with a simple cracker. But the cracker was an instant success, and 50 years later Nabisco is selling 60 million of the things. Every day.
Today, with the Depression no longer even a memory for most Americans, it takes more than a fancy name to suggest luxury. But the Japanese are trying. They manufacture, for instance, "the Mercedes of strollers." The Aprica stroller comes in a "limited edition" Classic Leather series for upscale toddlers.
An advertisement for the Aston Martin Lagonda automobile says: "It comes in 23 colors, including envy green." Another advertisement for it proclaims: "It's not just another $150,000 car." A third says in large type: "Demoralize thy neighbor." The text reads: "It's one thing to trundle by in a Bentley, Jaguar, Mercedes or the like. Everyone in your neighborhood has one of those. . . . Should your neighbors ask where they can get a Lagonda, tell them they probably can't."
But anyone can get a cracker. So why name a cracker after a hotel that is one of the world's most conspicuous symbols of exclusivity? Because, silly, the name affirmed, in a dark time, the glistening American faith. The faith is that the average American has a right to live above average. That is why a U.S. senator became indignant when told that half of America's families were making less than the median family income.
That scandal -- regrettably, it is still the case -- is not the fault of Ray Kroc. He is responsible for making more millionaires than any American who ever lived. He founded McDonald's. Many of the franchise holders have become millionaires by serving meals that cost 35 cents when Kroc opened his first store in 1955 (hamburger 15 cents, French fries 10 cents, Coke 10 cents). That meal now costs $1.50.
As a philosopher once said, life is one damn thing after another. Kroc understood a crucial fact of commercial life in a country that spans a continent: If you sell one small thing after another, often enough, you will get pots of money. Or, to put the point concisely: Life is cumulative.
Verily, things add up. McDonald's is selling 140 hamburgers a second; it has 14 million customers a day here and 3 million more overseas. Seventeen million customers a day is like inviting Australia to lunch and allowing it to bring New Zealand as a guest. Fifty billion hamburgers would fill 45 towers the size of Chicago's Sears Tower, the world's tallest building. The flour for 50 billion hamburger buns would cover the ski slopes of Aspen and Vail 10 feet deep.
McDonald's food is not for everyone. The poet Coleridge, for example, preferred eating honeydew and drinking the milk of paradise. But that is not fit food for a republic. The cuisine of the common man is a cracker called Ritz, covered with peanut butter and jelly. Or a Big Mac.
Emancipated thinkers -- people enslaved by their passion for appearing superior to popular taste -- assume an austere, wary look at the mere mention of McDonald's, a name they speak as though it soils their lips. But I suspect that they creep like Chingachgook (James Fenimore Cooper's Indian who rushed silently through forests without even snapping a twig) through the golden arches.