James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Finding Meaning in the McMuffin

Finding Meaning in the McMuffin

Delta Flight 477, BCN to JFK. It’s a route I’ve traveled maybe 30 times in the past five years since making Barcelona my home, and every time I do, I eat the same breakfast just minutes before boarding: a Sausage McMuffin and café con leche from the second-floor McDonald’s in El Prat’s Boarding Area D. It’s less a move based on strategy and desire than instinct and muscle memory, but over the years, this little pre-flight Last Breakfast has become an edible bridge between one world and the next.

Of course, I recognize the sad irony in this: I’m on my way home to the US, where the Arches cast their sinister golden glow not more than a mile from where my parents live in North Carolina; the last thing I should be eating is a McMuffin. A more disciplined eater would step over to Dehesa Santa María and order up a breakfast Estrella Damn and a bocadillo of the finest jamón iberico available—take in Spain’s greatest culinary treasure one last time before exiting Iberia.

I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that if presented with the option of acorn-fed jamón from Joselito aged five years in the cool mountain air of Castilla y Leon, or an engineered bun stuffed with an industrial egg and an orange veil of cheese-like substance aged five minutes under a heat lamp, I would take the factory-made breakfast every time. As long as I was at the airport, as long as I was western bound. So deeply and inexorably intertwined are these two staples of my life that I’m quite certain my body would constitutionally reject anything other than a McMuffin minutes before boarding DL 477.

I have a long, complicated relationship with the McMuffin. A few years back, I co-wrote a series of books called Eat This, Not That, in which we analyzed the pillars of the American diet—breakfast cereal, beer, chain restaurants—and tried to debunk popular nutrition myths. The cover of one of our most popular books had an Egg McMuffin (Eat This! 300 calories, 12 grams of fat, 17 grams of protein) trouncing a Dunkin Donuts plain bagel with cream cheese (Not That! 470 calories, 17.5 grams of fat)—a controversial but undeniable affirmation of the McMuffin’s status as a near-perfect start to your day.

Many people will be scandalized by the suggestion that McDonald’s can be healthy; many more will be shocked by the notion that it can be delicious. I received more than a few angry letters during those heady years—roughly half from discerning eaters who chastised us for advocating anything other than free-range hemp burgers and small-batch heirloom kale shakes; the other half from people who would be damned if anyone, let alone a young punk buried behind a desk in Midtown Manhattan, was going to tell them how to eat. (My favorite fan mail from that era began this way: “Hey, Matt, eat a bag of crap you suck. Leave people alone stop trying to infuse us with healthy this and healthy that!”)

Haters gonna hate, but anyone who has ever felt the sense of anxiety pulling into a McDonald’s at 10:28 am, wondering whether some cruel-hearted cashier might deny them a bacon-laced biscuit, knows that while McDonald’s burgers are sad hockey pucks of moisture-less agony and that its potatoes never recovered from the loss of beef fat as a frying medium, its breakfast game is strong. McDonald’s, after years of bad ideas and worse publicity, is finally accepting what everyone else knows and turning breakfast into a corporate strategy: As of April this year, it’s been testing all-day biscuits, pancakes, and McMuffins in select markets across the US.

But my little airport habit isn’t about nutrition or gustatory pleasure. Of course, I’m not immune to the McMuffin’s virtues—the pepper-bombed sausage patty, the cheese paper, the way the warm, melty mass seems to require no chewing at all—but there is an imaginary line in my McDonald’s life drawn right on the edge of Boarding Area D. Outside that line, it’s a place I try studiously to avoid; inside the line, though, it is both a guiltless pleasure and a powerful reminder that food is nothing without context.

I’ve realized over years of wandering the world that I fear routine, but I cherish rituals. These little moments—Sunday morning vermouth in Barcelona’s Poble Sec, the first chopped pork sandwich in Carolina to kick off the summer—are what give structure and shape to a life that otherwise has very little. McDonald’s breakfast, for better or worse, has become a ritual I cherish. Unwrapping that warm little package and releasing a little plume of savory steam detonates a simple but potent thought in my crocodile brain: I am going home.

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