I have a guilty secret to admit. I really like Big Macs. I just had one at the new Macdonald’s on Fountain Square in the middle of Baku just half an hour ago along with a small pack of fries and a chocolate shake. Oh, how the ground beef filled my mouth with juicy flavour, set off with that tangy relish. Mmmm! The fries, firm and crispy. The shake smooth and creamy, it went down a treat.
I don’t eat a Big mac every day and realise that if i did so would be putting my health at risk, as amply demonstrated by Moran Spurlock in his 2004 film Supersize Me. Mind you, if I drank a quart of carrot juice every day for a month, my skin would turn orange and I would be running the risk of kidney failure. My personal philosophy on these matters is moderation in all things, including moderation or a Marie Lloyd sang in her famous 1911 song A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good.
I’ve eaten Macdonald’s food in London, New York, Moscow and now in Baku, Azerbaijan. It tastes exactly the same wherever you go and that is part of its selling power. Like any universal brand, it is a guaranteed product the same here as on the other side of the globe.
I first visited Russia in 1985, during the Gorbachev era. The Soviet Union was opening up and I travelled through Moscow on my way to visit Uzbekistan and Kazakstan. It was the first year tourists were allowed into what were previously regarded “closed” countries. The group I travelled with [at that time, the only way to travel] spent a day in Moscow, taking in the atmosphere. It was still a time when there were almost no private cars in the city, huge billboards with images of Marx and Lenin dominated the skyline and GUM, the vast department store on Red Square had almost nothing in it. Fast Food did not exist and shortages of almost everything were evident.
The next time I returned to Moscow was in 1994 and everything had changed. The billboards had gone, smart shops lined the streets of downtown and there, just round the corner from Red Square was Russia’s first Macdonald’s. It had recently opened and was heaving with fashionably dressed Muscovites, who queued around the block to get in. It was an amazing sight. I joined the queue and was eventually served a Big mac, fries and a chocolate shake, all tasting exactly like it did my local restaurant in Cambridge.
I think you could genuinely say at that time, if freedom from the oppression of communism had a taste, it was ground beef in a burger.
In a sense, it didn’t matter what it tasted like, it didn’t matter how many preservatives and flavour enhancements were used in its making, a Big Mac represented everything that the Soviet Union at that period was not. Macdonald’s food was colourful, stylishly presented and fast. It was the food of the future, the food of the consumerist West, capitalism on a plate…
Today, there are 31,000 Macdonald’s restaurants worldwide of which 76 are in Hungary, 60 in the Czech Republic, 57 in Ukraine, 3o in Bulgaria, 17 in Poland, 16 in Slovenia, 10 in Slovakia, 8 in Estonia, 1 in Serbia, 1 in Latvia, 1 in Moldova, 1 in Georgia, and 3 in Azerbaijan. Given that there are something like 31,000 in the United States alone, it cannot be said that the Big Mac is taking over the world butMacdonald’s certainly has established a bridgehead from which to do battle on many post-Soviet countries.
The Cold War may be well and truly over the but battle of the bulge continues…