We’ve all done it. Whether from past pleasures or present guilt, late night excesses or hunger excuses, the lure of omnipresent fast food outlets strikes even the most ardent food critic every so often. And, one night in May 2009, the Arb’s Editor-in-Chief (and principal advocate of our fine dining principle, no less), Ash ‘Jonesy’ Lipkin, gave in…
I don’t know what came over me. One moment I was walking through Notting Hill assessing the merits of wearing sunglasses at night after a fashionable young waif in said accessory collided with me, uttering something that vaguely resembled an apology but could’ve equally been some form of abuse, and the next moment I found myself at the counter of McDonald’s asking for a Big Mac, large fries and a chocolate milkshake. Oh and a barbecue sauce too, please.
It took me by surprise. Those golden arches emerged from the gloom like a beacon of hope and comfort. A flashback to the Eighties and I began reminiscing about the times when going to McDonald’s was exciting, a treat that was only available at friends’ birthday parties. In those days Ronald was on television quite a bit too, prancing around in his scary clown outfit, beckoning parents to bring their kids into his fun-packed restaurants for a healthy dose of beef offal and deep fried starch.
So there I was, some 25 years later, a slave to hunger with fond memories of the decade that turned David Hasselhoff into a star and when Snickers were called Marathon, as they should be (why would you name a chocolate after a word that means ‘a snide, partially stifled laugh’?). Not a lot has changed in the interim. The harsh lighting and plastic seating remains, as do the greasy-skinned teenagers behind the counter. But what was I doing there? I, Jonesy, dubbed as ‘London’s most respected palate’, second only to Matthew Fort…and Jay Rayner…and perhaps Charles Campion, and, well, the list does go on, but you get my drift. Worryingly, I wasn’t inebriated; it wasn’t the kebab-after-the-pub syndrome. It was something far more ominous, the deep-seated influence from years of incessant advertising, and I wasn’t “lovin’ it”.
At once embarrassed and ashamed of my predicament, I slunk away from Ronald’s sordid lair trying to hide my brown paper bag of goodies like a pervert leaving an adult entertainment shop with a cache of pornography under his coat. I tried to convince myself that I was doing something good. Research, I kept telling myself, research. After all, Lawrence has recently sampled a meal at Little Chef (albeit the Popham branch revamped by Heston Blumenthal), so surely this sortie into the world of Ronald McDonald is equally valid? Deep down, I didn’t believe a word of it.
In the privacy of my car and under the dappled orange glow of a streetlight that lent a unique seediness to the already illicit atmosphere, I opened the warm bag to inhale the waft of forbidden fruits, a cacophony of sweet and savoury scents with something of the night about them. The first bite: soft bread leading to unctuous melted cheese, warmed gherkins and that sweet, tender beef, followed by a handful of skinny fries coated with just enough salt to make me want more, and more. A slurp of thick chocolate milkshake washed away the salt residue and the tang of barbecue sauce from my palate, in readiness for the next hit. And it went on, and on. Occasionally, a passerby would glance at my car, distracted by the fumbling movements from within, and I would flinch mid-mouthful, as if I’d just been caught doing something obscene to a prostitute.
Finally, the pleasure and turmoil of this Faustian experience was over. I scurried from the car to dump the brown bag into the nearest dustbin, lurking in the shadows and peering over my shoulder like a serial killer disposing of dismembered body parts. I had terrifying visions of bumping into someone I knew whilst clutching that crumpled bag, the following awkward conversation, the rumours and the mark on my reputation, the blacklisting from haute cuisine restaurants and my subsequent decline into a fast-food addiction ending in my tragic death from super-sized cholesterol.
Back inside the car, the scent of my immoral rendezvous still lingered. I felt dirty, and strangely ill. I could hear Ronald cackling at me hysterically, interspersed with the chastising voice of Lawrence saying “Good God man, what have you done?!” Like a crack addict on a come down, mine was surprisingly fast. I thought about all the badness I’d just consumed; the fake cheese, the parts of a cow that even a famished hyaena would pass up, the salt content of a small ocean. Would I even make it home before suffering total coronary failure?
And so, dear reader, this is my confessional. Forgive me Father Roux for I have sinned. The worst thing is that I enjoyed it, but I’m not so sure that I would do it again. Memories are there for recollection, not necessarily for reliving. In the Eighties it was different; I was young and naive, a Big Mac tasted good and that was all that mattered. Sure, I’d eaten home-cooked food, but McDonald’s offered something otherworldly, something glitzy and somehow dreamlike. It was a culinary Disneyland ride, a rollercoaster of unearthly flavours that were only available from this cheerful, benevolent clown.
The preternatural gastronomy of Ronald McDonald must remain under lock and key. Do not stare at those golden arches for too long. Ronald is waiting to entrap you, and we all know that clowns are evil.
First published 26th May 2009