When I played Little League softball, our team jerseys, an itchy-but-easily-washed polyester, were a bright primary yellow. Our patron was a local McDonald’s franchise that rewarded wins with a free hamburger and small soft drink — a semi-covert marketing strategy we happily embraced. In the second year, when our pitcher’s accuracy improved dramatically, we had a winning record. That summer, we ate a lot of hamburgers. We’d ride in groups of twos or threes across town to the appointed McDonald’s, piling into minivans or, with any luck, Jenny’s mom’s convertible. We’d slurp Dr Peppers and devour our just-big-enough burgers. McDonald’s was my introduction to onion, minced and reconstituted from its freeze-dried form, and the smallest dab of yellow mustard, its sharpness masked by the sweet-and-tangy ketchup, the perfect-but-always-too-small pickle. After our meal we’d play outside, shaking the Hamburglar jail and squeezing down the too-narrow twisty slides. Our childhoods were waning, but in those long summer evenings, we held on.
In college, Wendy’s was the fast-food restaurant of choice, given its two-minute proximity to my dorm. It was a step up from McDonald’s: thick milkshakes that required a spoon, spicy chicken sandwiches, baked potatoes topped with cheese sauce and broccoli. Taco Bell was strictly drinking food — grease and sugar to forestall or recoup from a hangover. And then I started to grow up and work in restaurants, and good food abounded: ravioli rolled into thin sheets, filled and pressed each morning; olive tapenade and garlic-laden cream cheese, served with flatbread grilled over fire; paper-thin beef carpaccio, marinated with lemon and capers, garnished with shaved Parmesan. Working in restaurants provided me with both an education about good food and the opportunity to eat it often. For years after I left the industry, I shunned fast food.
Then I had a son. At 8 months of age, he pulled himself into a standing position and immediately began to cruise the furniture. He was a whirlwind of activity, energy begging to be released. As he grew into a preschooler, expending physical activity was our daily priority. In summers, we’d rotate trips to the park with visits to the zoo and wildlife sanctuary. When it rained, we’d hit the children’s museum, but that was a pricey, once- or twice-a-month treat. In my search for indoor alternatives, I discovered an oldie but a goody: McDonald’s PlayPlace.
Despite his border-collie-level energy, my son had little interest in food. He nursed past his second birthday. His main “solid” foods were pureed fruit and veggie pouches and PB&J sandwiches on raisin bread. He ate with his hands until age 4, having no motivation to learn to use cutlery — or to try new foods that required it. Luckily, french fries with ketchup were among his favorite foods. So at McDonald’s, I ordered him a Happy Meal, deep-fryer guilt assuaged by the inclusion of a few peeled apple slices. I instructed the boy to eat a single chicken nugget before he could see his toy or play on the indoor jungle gym, a labyrinth of foam mats and plastic tubes. Apparently, this suspense was an excellent motivator to get my son — who otherwise refused to eat meat — to try a McNugget. And, it turns out, he liked them.
And so I found myself living a flurry of contradictions. On rainy days, I brought my son to McDonald’s, a fast-food restaurant, for exercise and protein. I ordered a salad — the greens included kale! — topped with a piece of glorious, crispy battered chicken. Never mind how that chicken was raised or slaughtered or what the fast-food workers were paid — sorry, Michael Pollan — my son was eating the meat! He was voluntarily ingesting much-needed protein into his string-bean body. And I was drinking a soda, because I was sleep-deprived with baby No. 2 and desperately needed caffeine, but anyway, it was diet. I couldn’t handle the spike to my blood sugar. The baby was hungry, too, so as my older son jumped and climbed and shrieked with delight, deeply entrenched in the pleasures of childhood, I unhooked my bra in McDonald’s PlayPlace to feed my new baby the original fast food.
Tara DaPra teaches English composition and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Her writing has appeared in such places as Creative Nonfiction, Inside Higher Ed and Sheepshead Review.