I have had a love-hate relationship with McDonald’s for a long time.
When I was pregnant with my older daughter, we went on a beach vacation with the extended family; my husband and I grimaced when his brother and wife pulled into the parking lot under the golden arches. Their two- and four-year-old tumbled out and ran to the play structure. What a chaos of noise, bad food and cheap plastic toys! And that awful giant hamster tube of a playground! My husband and I privately vowed that we would never take our child to such a place.
Ha, ha, ha. We were doomed to repeat that same scenario a hundred times before our own children entered school. I couldn’t resist the few moments of rest while the girls tunneled through the hamster tube or jumped in the pit of bright plastic balls. I welcomed the occasional relief from cooking meals myself, and it was too exhausting to get them to sit still in actual restaurants. Thankfully, this passed by the time they were school-aged.
My parents were not food snobs like me; in fact, they loved fast food. My father introduced me to my first Krispy Kreme doughnut in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a treasured family tradition to eat at my grandmother’s favorite — Arby’s — on the drive down to Florida each summer. We lived in a Burger King town, and we usually stopped for dinner at the drive-thru on the way home after my piano lesson. I remember fondly the short period of time that Burger King actually served hot dogs, in long Styrofoam tubes.
One of my parents’ dearest Sunday morning traditions was stopping for an Egg McMuffin on Route 17 on the way to church in Manhattan. It was their favorite breakfast. When my father became ill and spent long months in the hospital, my mother still visited McDonald’s for breakfast on her way in to visit him.
After my father died and my mother was living alone, she slipped into depression and a certain apathy. “I wasn’t hungry today,” she’d report on the telephone, three thousand miles away, “so I just had some Diet Coke and potato chips for dinner.” Some days, she’d alternate and have Diet Coke and a Hostess snowball cupcake. Pretty quickly, we realized she was not doing well on her own and we arranged to have her come stay with us — first for visits of a few months, and eventually, on a permanent basis.
With us, she ate salads for the first time in years. We coaxed vegetables onto her plate, and fish, which she claims to hate. Our cupboards were bereft of potato chips and Hostess snack cakes. She paced the kitchen like a frustrated, caged animal. “Isn’t there anything sweet around here?” she’d complain. An occasional package of organic Newman-O’s showed up in the cookie jar, but for the most part, we kept the junk at bay.
Recently, my mother started volunteering at my daughter’s school. For thirty-five years she had been the secretary at my own elementary school, and she knew her way around a photocopy machine. She knew how to stuff envelopes and count out milk money, although they didn’t do that anymore. But it gave her a place to go on Wednesday mornings, a way to be useful. I started taking her to Starbucks on the way to school; I’d have a chai tea latte and she’d have a cup of tea. One morning I noticed a fancy, gourmet kind of Egg McMuffin — with aged cheddar cheese, a hefty English muffin and chicken-apple sausage. I pointed it out. “Want to try that?” She took a bite and sighed. “It’s not like the real thing.”
There is a McDonald’s about four blocks from the school. The next Wednesday I asked if she would like to go there. Her face lit up like Times Square. “Oh, boy!” she said. “I haven’t had an Egg McMuffin in ages!”
She just turned 84. We eat well most days of the week. Who am I to deprive her of this small pleasure? I turned into the parking lot. A dozen high school students were eating breakfast, a lot of commuters were dashing through on their way to work, and an assortment of older men looked like they would spend the day there. My mother gave me her order — although I certainly didn’t need to ask — and set off to completely blanket a table in unfolded paper napkins until it resembled a tablecloth.
I ordered her Egg McMuffin. I had not planned to order anything for myself; maybe just a cup of coffee or orange juice. But then I glanced up and saw “Sausage Biscuit” on the menu. I hesitated. I had not had a sausage biscuit since . . . I drifted into a reverie.
My father once owned a Stuckey’s franchise in North Carolina. Stuckey’s, a staple of the interstate throughout the Southeast, is a combination gas station, gift shop and snack bar. As a traveling salesman, he sold souvenir items to most of the Stuckey’s stores — he supplied those little state spoons, or felt banners that said “Stone Mountain, Georgia.” He spent so much time in Stuckey’s that eventually he bought one. The snack bar’s specialty item was sausage biscuits. I remember my father lifting me up over the counter and proudly introducing me to the cook, who whipped me up a plate of those mini sandwiches.
I carried the yellow plastic tray to the napkin-covered table. I sat down and unwrapped my sausage biscuit. My mother closed her eyes and smiled as she took the first bite. I knew she was transporting herself back to Route 17, and my father was sitting across from her. They were laughing and having a fine old time.
My sausage biscuit was a delicious combination of fluffy, tangy biscuit and salty, juicy sausage. I took a bite and closed my eyes. Suddenly, my father was sitting at the table, beaming and calling me Rascal. We took breakfast at that plastic booth in McDonald’s, our family of three; two longing, one invisible.
19 replies on “McMemories”
What a great story! I love the image of your mom hunting for snack cakes around the house and diving into the egg McMuffin. I LOVE both sausage biscuits and egg McMuffins, by the way. They’re the only reasons I occasionally stop at McDonald’s. And I have fond memories of eating at both Stuckey’s and Cracker Barrel on road trips to Florida as a kid.
This is so heartwarming! btw, I LOVE egg mcmuffins. :)
This was great, and so true for me as well; my brother and I had an emotional connection to McDonald’s. It was a TREAT; more than once my brother asked for it on his birthday.
When I read part of “Fast Food Nation” and later, rented “Supersize Me”, I swore never to eat there again (well, unless forced by finances or threat of starvation). It’s too bad there’s so much awful truth to the food there, because I heard the original McD’s did start out as a family-type place, and it does tug at that heart string quite a bit – “food folks and fun” etc. I can’t say I’ll never take a kid or anyone there ever – but I won’t be getting the fries!
It sounds like your and your mom’s trip was definitely worth it. :)
And I can’t say I blame you for getting the sausage. My mouth watered as I read that~!
Before I retired, I dropped by McDonald’s many a morning for an Egg McMuffin. (Did you know it is “legal” to have a McMuffin when on the Weight Watcher’s diet? At least, it used to be years ago.) When I really wanted to splurge, I would order the Steak and Egg Bagel! Loaded with sodium, but YUM!
I also remember Stuckey’s as my family frequently stopped at them in our cross-country vacations. In fact, I believe I purchased some state spoons from them, setting the goal to have a spoon from every state.
Most of all, however, I’m reminded that my own grandma loved a McDonald’s burger. She seldom ate out and cooked three meals a day almost every day of her adult life. McDonald’s was such a treat to her! Thank you for sharing this poignant moment! It is precious!
hello Susan–what a lovely article! made me want to rush out and eat junk food… And the memories of your childhood and your parents are very moving. Next time you come for tea, don’t be surprised to see some double cheeseburgers and apple pies (CAUTION: FILLING HOT!) in little cardboard containers on the tea-tray!
Stuckey’s! Yes! Thanks for the memories. And Krispy Kreme! We eat lots of fish and miso soup, but we also go to McDonald’s a couple times a month. After reading your essay, I don’t feel so bad about that any more.
Oh, Suz…you made me cry again, honey. It’s been a real education during this last year and a half to realize how many memories are tied up in food, and how powerful they are. You really captured it.
Hmm, I was just reading an article in the NYT about the new Starbucks McMuffin…
Beautiful writing. I’m looking forward to more.
Two things I especially love about this piece, Susan: One is that last line “two longing, one invisible,” which has been echoing in my mind for days. The other is the way you so accurately capture that (kind of Proustian) “honor eating” that we do when we miss somebody — we eat what they loved. We eat what we ate together with them. We eat what reminds us of them. Thank you.
It is no accident that the central act of Anglican/Catholic/Orthodox Christian worship is the Eucharistic meal. Food is both life and love. Our hearts and our taste buds remember and give thanks for goodness and grace.
And I dare say that the styrofoam communion wafers we use in my Episcopal church are no healthier than your sausage biscuit. ;-)
Oh, you really capture how intertwined family/memories/food can be — one of my favorite subjects!
And I LOVE that your dad ate at Stuckey’s so often he bought one!!
Susan, this brought back memories of my first fastfood experience: a hamburger covered with tasty (and sugary) slaw at a local chain called “The Gizmo”. My depressive mother, who had gone through a divorce and was not getting over it, took me to lunch at this place whenever I was on vacation from school and I had to accompany her to work at the public library. I remember liking the burgers, but I remember even more vividly my mother’s delight at eating at “The Gizmo”. It was our thing at the time, as a new twosome. Your story reminded me of something I had forgotten, as good stories like this have a way of doing. Thanks!
My favorite part is that you took your mom to McDonald’s as a gift, and I hope you both go and enjoy it together every Wednesday!
Susan, your last lines are always dynamite. This is no exception.
Thanks so much, everyone, for the wonderful and generous comments. I love reading about your own memories – the Gizmo!, etc. Paige, your comment “food is both life and love” gave me shivers. Ericka, yes, I never thought about it, but the sausage biscuit is my madeleine. (or one of them) And YES, it’s Wednesday morning, so you know where we’re going…!
Darn you! I was just enjoying your lovely article, giggling at the image of your mom in your junk-food free kitchen, and yet by the end of your piece, I had tears in my eyes! You capture how certain sights/smells/tastes take us right back to a memory and a person. I miss my own mom a lot and making the recipes she made or visiting places she liked to eat connects me to her. Thank you for a wonderful post.
gosh susan, I loved this. tuesdays after school my grandma would take me to mcdonalds–I loved the smell of her car. I remember eating a circle of bites around the hamburger until that fabulous last bit– with the pickle in the center. thanks for giving that back to me!
Oh this made me laugh and smile. Thank you!
Susan, great article. I especially related to your comment about your mom falling into depression and not eating well. I’m running into the same thing with my mom. I’ll cross link to my blog at http://www.generationsandwich.blogspot.com.