Opinion | McDonald’s Sprite and Hamburger Helper Made Me Who I Am

Have you experienced the magic of McDonald’s Sprite? With its electric spice, its zhush, its je ne sais quoi, it is, of course, supreme among all sugary drinks, a star in the great firmament of processed foods.

I grew up loving processed foods: There’s the kind in a can (SpaghettiOs, Chef Boyardee, Vienna Sausage) and the kind in cardboard boxes and plastic containers (the many varieties of Hamburger Helper or instant ramen). There’s the fresh kind (McDonald’s and KFC, Popeyes and Burger King, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars) and there’s the frozen kind (Tyson and Totino’s, Gorton’s, Swanson and Ore-Ida, frozen finger foods and full-on meals). And there’s fancy-ish processed food of the Red Lobster or Olive Garden or LongHorn Steakhouse variety, and there’s less fancy processed food, like chicken wings from 7-Eleven or hot dogs or burritos or insert-your-regional-speciality-here from the convenience store down the street.

For much of my 24 years, I was a processed-food connoisseur. The Tex-Mex dishes characteristic of the Rio Grande Valley, where I grew up, and these processed foods, distinctly American, constituted my diet through to the end of high school. About half of the Rio Grande Valley is a food desert, a phrase that describes a place where it’s hard to obtain healthy, nutritious foods because of factors like cost, distance or time. But even those who can get something other than processed and fast food often still eat it. Almost everybody I knew ate this way, didn’t mind eating this way, enjoyed eating this way, even though they knew it was unhealthy.

Today, I’m embarrassed to admit that I loved these foods, that I ate them without much of a second thought for most of my life. I’m embarrassed because I “know better” now.

I use that phrase only because I have received a social education that has taught me that some foods are “good” and others are “bad,” that what I eat says something meaningful about who I am.

This social education began when I went to Yale, where, as The Times has reported, at one point “more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” Many people I met there couldn’t distinguish among chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, Burger King or Chick-fil-A.

My freshman year, I found myself listening to some classmates chatting about ice cream, homemade with fresh strawberries. They went on about how singular and spectacular it was, about how much they loved it. I’d never eaten ice cream made with fresh strawberries, had never eaten homemade ice cream. My naïveté led me to believe that this shouldn’t stop me from participating in the conversation, so I said that I liked the flavor of artificial strawberry ice cream. There’s just something about that fake flavor, I said, something special about strawberry syrup.

The people around me looked at me as if I was an alien. I understood then that I was an alien, that processed food was the food of the “Other America” — or what most Americans just call America. I already knew that I wasn’t part of the 1 percent, but this moment underscored that where I came from and what I liked were more foreign than I could have imagined.

For a while, I continued to defend this way of eating to other people and to myself. Where critics and skeptics balked at the ease with which processed food could be acquired and produced, I lauded the efficiency of the industrialized food system. Where the foodies squinted at the amalgamating of animal products and preservatives into something palatable, I sang the praises of foods that were, in their mediocrity, paradoxically pretty good. Where the closet processed-food enjoyers (I know you’re out there!) fretted about processed food being unnatural, I wondered who needed nature, anyway, that source of decay and death.

I was embarrassed to find an ally in Donald Trump. His love of Big Macs, Filet-O-Fishes and Diet Coke made people’s heads explode. When he served a feast of fast food at the White House? The scandal!

Still, for me, McDonald’s in the White House sounded like a dream. It was easy to laugh at the contradictions between Donald Trump’s cultural tastes and his class status, but I understood that those very contradictions are what made him a democrat-with-a-lowercase-d, just another American who ate processed food, what he calls “Great American food.”

But the more time I spent in this world of homemade ice cream and duck and kale, the more familiar it became to me and I to it. Further moments of alienation helped accelerate my assimilation: “Oh, you’re from the Rio Grande Valley?” a professor with limited experience of the area once asked me. “That’s where they think Olive Garden is a fancy restaurant, right?” My new peers might have been ignorant of the foods that raised me, but I wasn’t going to return the favor.

I have expanded my culinary horizons. When I moved to New York in 2021, I decided to stock my kitchen with many of the pots, pans and gadgets recommended by the website Serious Eats. I bought and skimmed the cookbook “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” I learned how to brine and roast a chicken. I started buying salads from Trader Joe’s.

I didn’t stop eating processed foods. In fact, I probably ate more of them. In the maelstrom of the last three years, a time filled with loss, uncertainty and change, in which I graduated from college during a pandemic and moved to New York to start a job that was supposed to last only a year, I sought an anchor in the foods of my youth. I wanted to recapture that magic, the excitement at the prospect of satisfaction and pleasure. So I ate McDonald’s and Little Caesars and Hamburger Helper, trying to achieve what the food writer M.F.K. Fisher describes as that “warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.”

The old comfort, however, was nowhere to be found. It felt as if I was sitting at a slot machine, pulling the lever over and over, waiting for this order, this pizza, this French fry to make me feel like I’d hit the jackpot. But the food just made me feel sick. My skin would itch, my stomach would turn. I’d get a headache.

By the latter half of 2022, I’d turned my temporary job into a permanent one, renewed my lease and had begun to ease further into the life of a member of the professional-managerial class. The maelstrom, if not completely calmed, was abating. Around that time, I began to experience odd cravings. One evening, I wanted lettuce. With apples and walnuts. And chicken — cold. I had to Google it to be sure, but I realized I wanted a Waldorf salad.

My culinary tastes have changed along with my socioeconomic position. I have come to accept that the kinds of food we eat and appreciate signal to the world and to ourselves something about who we are, about who we were, about who we have become. I’m fundamentally happy to now live a life where I not only understand references to the madeleine in Proust, but have actually eaten one (and at a writing class in the South of France, no less).

But I am mourning the loss of something I loved — I wish eating a McNugget could still transport me to a time of warmth and love and safety, a time when I didn’t know what a madeleine was, when I didn’t know any better.

Adrian Rivera (@lwaysadrian) is an editorial assistant with Times Opinion.

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