McDonald’s, Hipsters, and the Anti-Culture
This story originally appeared at Crisis Magazine. It has been republished with permission.
A story in Florence, Italy recently caught the attention of many around the world. It was big news when public outcry caused Florentine city officials to backtrack from an agreement to let a McDonald’s open in the historic Piazza del Duomo, not far from Florence’s historic fifteenth-century cathedral.
It would harm the identity of the city, according to Florence’s mayor, to have a vendor like McDonald’s invade a place with such rich cultural history. And it’s easy to understand the sentiment. Florence’s rejection of the golden arches is a necessary stance to protect a valuable patrimony, even if such an act is becoming increasingly uncommon.
But why go after McDonald’s? The company even agreed to locally source half of its food and include table service, so what gives? The answer begins with a conversation I once had with a friend, a college track & field coach.
“Whenever you run—in practice or in a race—you need to be consistent,” I remember him telling his sprinters. “I want you to be a McDonald’s French Fry. They taste the same in Italy or China as they do in Texas.”
It’s good racing advice, but the french fry bit is true too, isn’t it? Florence, quite obviously, doesn’t want something you can get anywhere else in the world. Go to Florence to experience Florence, and leave the perfectly salted fries at home.
One of the hallmarks of the Golden Arches is knowing that no matter where you are on the planet, those exquisite fries will be there to greet you. It’s a convenient reality in a world full of convenient realities.
And yet, the ubiquity and sameness of McDonald’s, handy though it is, leaves a lot to be desired. After all, who wouldn’t rather have pasta in Florence, dumplings in Shanghai, or fall-off-the-bone BBQ in Texas?
How there could ever be such a wrestling match between fast food and authentic cuisine is a question for another day, but that dichotomy nevertheless points to a crucial trait written in our very humanity: the need for authentic culture, as well as the desire to engage in it.