The Swallow: A Thing I Ate Last Week

Amiel Stanek, Staff Writer

Sometimes I worry about this whole thing that I’ve started doing, this thing where I write about the food that I eat and cast these writings out into the world for other people to read.

I worry because, when I read the sorts of things written by the food writers and gastronomes whom I admire and whose careers I covet, it doesn’t seem as though these people have had an unexceptional meal in their lives — that is to say, they don’t write about them much, if ever. I’m sure they partake in such fare, lackluster home cooking and drive-thru dinners, perhaps even as often as you and I do, but what concerns me is that these individuals, or maybe their editors, don’t seem to think that these sorts of meals are experiences worth having, let alone scrutinizing and relating.

I guess what scares me the most is the possibility that either some food writers, aspiring to cultivate an air of connoisseurship, would feel a need to deny their participation in what might be considered a more workaday gastronomic culture lest it undermine or compromise their credibility, or that such participation would elicit feelings of guilt, remorse or self-betrayal.

I guess I feel that there is something profound about everything that we put into our mouths, and that this sort of self-censorship implicitly invalidates this feeling that I have.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I ate a Big Mac. Last week. From McDonald’s. The McDonald’s drive-thru, to be precise. And it made me feel a lot of things. Things that I would like to share with you.

It happened like this. Monday is what you might call my “bad day.” I resent this, mostly because having a bad day on Monday seems like the cruel fulfillment of a stupid cultural prophecy that I would attribute to such forces as Office Space, a movie that I think is boring, and the comic strip “Garfield,” which I’m embarrassed to have thought, at one point, to be the apex of human comedic achievement. Truly, it has nothing to do with the weekend ending; it just so happens that for the past four years my schedule has been such that Mondays have been more of a bear than any other day of the week.

On this particular Monday, I woke up early for a three-hour class that I think is a waste of time, scarfed down some lunch, washed it down with a grueling hour and a half of power vinyasa yoga for a laughable modicum of college credit, and then went straight to work, where my usually short shift was drawn out to a punishing four and a half hours.

An unfortunate symptom of working around food is that, after touching and smelling the stuff for hours on end, one’s appetite becomes completely disoriented, and it wasn’t until 11 p.m., when I walked across campus to fetch a book before heading back to my house, that I first became aware of the fact that I hadn’t eaten since noon.

I was hungry now — I mean really hungry, and as I walked it became clear to me that I was too tired to have intelligent thoughts about what I might have in my refrigerator, or how I might go about rendering these things palatable.

And then something happened. Walking down South Professor Street, laughing to myself that I should just throw in the towel and get that Big Mac that I had been joking about since the summer, the smell of grilling meat downtown swept up by westerly winds suddenly filled my nostrils, and all of a sudden I was stuck — all I could think about was a Big Mac.

This will pass, I thought to myself, until I realized, to my dismay, I was actually salivating. I went pale. This was real. I was having a Mac Attack.

What ensued can only be described as an out- of-body experience. I watched myself approach my house, turn right, and walk toward my car. I watched myself open the door, sit down, turn the key and pull the vehicle out of the driveway. A block and a half later I finally came to, the Golden Arches looming overhead, a series of yellow arrows on the ground coaxing me to file in behind the trucks and minivans in the drive-thru line.

I rolled down my window and said something to a speaker box. Words popped up on the illuminated screen next to it: “1 Big Mac + 1 Small Fry.”

The car in front of me moved, and so did mine. A woman with a headset leaned out a sliding window, and I handed her a five-dollar bill. Waiting to move forward once again, a bit delirious, I began to think about how funny the concept of the drive-thru is. Instead of thinking of those three windows and the interactions I had at each as causally related, I started to think of them as a series of absurd karmic exchanges.

I made my desire clear to the world at that speaker box. Then I gave a person I have never seen before some money — what a nice thing to do! If the balance of the world is to remain intact, I will probably come to another window and receive something in exchange for my good- ness. A burger, maybe. Fries, perhaps. Ketchup, if I am pure of spirit.

I came to the last window, and a nice older woman informed me that I would have to wait a minute for my food. This was felicitous, as it allowed me to indulge my secret fascination with fast-food kitchens, and I craned my neck to get a better view of the operation through the tiny window.

Green-screened computers and their tangles of wires dangled from the ceiling, steam and loud whistling alarms filled the air, little trays full of meats and buns opening and closing like a hundred greasy drawers, everything organized and filed away. I often wonder if NASA had anything to do with the design of these kitchens, because this is how I imagine the inside of a space shuttle, human stewards to some automated monstrosity scuttling around trying desperately to appease their beeping master.

My reverie was interrupted by the reappearance of the nice older woman, who handed me a warmish bag, thanked me and instructed me to have a nice night.

As I drove the block and a half back home, I found the presence of the bag in the passenger seat very unsettling. I felt like I had picked up a hitchhiker or something, and I gave it shifty, sideways looks, wondering about the smell, considering whether or not I should try to make conversation with this stranger in my car.

After what seemed like an eternity of awkward silence between the bag and me, we arrived home and proceeded to the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of scotch and unpacked the contents of the bag — one clamshell Big Mac box and a tiny paper sleeve of fries.

I took a dinner plate out of the cabinet and arranged my meal upon it, which was a big mistake. Apparently a Big Mac is only actually “big” under two circumstances: when it is in its little box, and when it is being photographed from the perspective of the bottom bun.

It was tiny. I felt like I was visiting the playground of my childhood, remembering all of the fun I had as a kid, only to realize that the slide that seemed so epic when I was 6 was now about as high as my navel.

And then I ate it. It probably took about six minutes in total. This was by far the least remarkable part of the whole experience. It wasn’t eminently satisfying, but it was fine, I guess. An experience worth having, nonetheless. A thing worth doing. At least, I’m inclined to think so.