I’m loving it. Because I can.
I have a slightly strange relationship with McDonalds because despite eating there extremely rarely, it seems to have been part of some of the most pivotal moments of my life. I first went to Russia on a school trip just after the Berlin Wall had fallen but while Russia was still part of the USSR (just). The winds of change were most definitely blowing through Russia like a bad Scorpion song: A McDonalds had recently opened up in central Moscow. As naïve school kids we stared in astonishment at the enormous queue of people standing in Pushkin Square. Who would queue like that, for McDonalds? Later when I studied Russian at University I came to understand what drove those people to queue. And I became one myself.
For the first semester of my University year abroad I lived in Yaroslavl’, a city the size of Liverpool which is located 5 hours north of Moscow by train. It’s hard to understand if you hadn’t seen it, but for most of the time there was little food in the supermarkets during that autumn and winter in the early 1990s. Generally we could find bread, some tvorog and chocolate bars but fresh meat, fruit or vegetables were harder to come by. Truly, it’s hard to believe this now when our supermarkets are overflowing with imported fresh produce flown in from every corner of the world. One day in Yaroslavl’ I saw an enormous queue of people standing in the snow with the line snaking its way towards a large lorry with its back doors open. I decided to make like the locals and joined the queue. It seemed popular, whatever was being sold. I asked the people in front what was for sale from the back of the lorry. They didn’t know. And neither did the people in front of them. I just hoped I wasn’t standing in the freezing cold for plastic toy dolls or some other useless item. As I got closer to the front of the queue I could see what it was: cheese! For 2 months the city didn’t have any cheese. I bought an enormous 2 kilo Edam-like round of the cheese and lugged it home to share out with my fellow students.
Due to this general lack of food, we regularly travelled to Moscow for the weekends. To eat. Mainly in McDonalds. The Golden Arches was cheap (at least for us foreigners), had consistent food standards and a menu of food items you could actually buy to eat – all things which could not be said of many Russian restaurants at the time. We’d see small families in there for whom McDonalds was a huge treat, excitedly tucking into their first “Биг Мак”. Sometimes a family of 3 or 4 would be sharing a single portion of French fries between them as this was all they could afford but they desperately wanted a taste of Western capitalism. So McDonalds always feels like a treat place to me. Somewhere which can be relied on when you’re starving and it’s minus 25C outside.
McDonalds was also the first place I ate meat (the irony!) after many years of being a vegetarian. I’d suffered throughout my 20s with increasingly severe bouts of anaemia and my GP had told me that I was going to have to eat red meat to get enough iron in my diet. I no longer believe that my anaemia was caused by being vegetarian, but at the time I didn’t know any better.
So it was with this backdrop of my personal history that we wandered into a McDonalds in Stockholm.
I’d heard through the gluten free community that McDonalds in Stockholm offered gluten free buns. I asked the server if she had any “of course”, she replied as if it were the most normal request in the world. I ordered a Big Mac for old time’s sake. The server told me it wouldn’t be quite like a normal Big Mac as it would only have the top and bottom of the gluten free bun, and not the 3rd slice of bread in the middle. Perfect with me! She then said something which pleasantly surprised me; if I wanted ketchup I could either take it from the regular ketchup pump or I could have individual sachets. She said many Coeliacs preferred to take the individual sachets. I was impressed with this level of understanding but I can’t help thinking this would not happen in the UK, even if gluten free buns were available.
So how did the Swedish gluten free Big Mac taste?
Once I’d got over the sheer joy of being able to have something which has been off limits for many years, I decided that the gluten free bun was tasty. However after eating two-thirds of the bun it became too sweet for me. This isn’t very surprising as I’m not normally a fan of white bread. The good thing was that the bun held its shape well and didn’t crumble. Apart from the gluten free bun, the Big Mac tasted just as I remembered.
The French fries are safe to eat because they are cooked in clean oil and not with gluten containing food items, thus avoiding cross contamination.
McDonalds may not be the height of gastronomy but sometimes it’s good to do things, just because you can.