The latest Real Meals column:
The other afternoon I was cycling up the Mall when the Queen emerged from the gates of Buckingham Palace, so plumply erect in her customised Daimler that she resembled nothing so much as a cerise pouffe propped up in an old-fashioned Silver Cross perambulator. There was only a smattering of tourists about, but even so, they spontaneously formed a guard of honour and laid on a scattering of applause.
Imagine being applauded simply for being. The divine right of kings may be a doctrine as obsolete as the blunderbuss, but that applause alone gunned down any optimism I might’ve been feeling about the levelling of society. I think the only thing that could’ve made me feel any better about this brush with despotism would’ve been to discover that Lizzie W was en route to Burger King.
For Burger King is to McDonald’s as the monarchy is to republicanism; it’s as hard to imagine Betsy 2 noshing on a Big Mac as it is Georges Danton chomping on a Whopper. McDonald’s is the Federation – Burger King is the Klingon Empire; McDonald’s is a postmodern conspiracy to replace the noble and just with hydrolysed corn syrup and styrofoam, while Burger King has the ivied sanctity of a millennium-old Cistercian monastery.
How can it be, this profound contrast between what, on the face of it, are two very similar multinational hamburger chains? It isn’t that either business works so very hard to differentiate itself: the corporate colours are red and yellow; the staff could be wearing uniforms of different ranks in the same army; and as for the menu, well, Burger King may not have embraced the ciabatta of modernity, but let’s face it – a burger is a burger.
And yet, if you ever wanted an object lesson in the Freudian concept of the uncanny, it is Burger King, for while everything is familiar, it is also disturbingly different. Compared with the breezy rationalism of McDonald’s, to patronise BK is to enter the Hall of the Mountain King. Is it the fake-porphyry columns, the dark melamine tables, or the upholstery like dried ox-blood? Or is it perhaps the dreaded Whopper? I took my classic with cheese upstairs, along with a Garden Salad the size of a garden, and a Coke.
I sat there ogling some pigeon-repelling barbs coated with pigeon shit on the ledge outside the window, and tried to get the edge of the Whopper into my mouth. Two things occurred to me while this was going on: first, that it would be useful if I could disarticulate my jaw like an anaconda; second, that perhaps the point of these stacked foodstuffs is to induce a gag reflex in the consumer, convincing her that she’s already overeaten before taking the first bite. Then – and bear in mind that I was still trying to eat the thing – I made the mistake of looking in front of me.
It would be a crass piece of stereotyping to say that the man who was sitting ten paces away with his back to me was a fat American tourist. No, he was a morbidly obese redneck, in regulation plaid shirt and baseball cap, who, as I finally succeeded in plunging my envenomed incisors into the Whopper, clapped a hand to the portion of his buttock that was semi-extruded through the back of his chair, and yelped. I immediately ceased whopping. When I bit down on the burger once more, the man yelped again.
And so it went on, until I finally accepted that there was indeed sympathetic magic in progress, so rose, walked across the chequerboard of grey tiles, and discovered that the poor fellow had voided himself of what looked like about a litre of salad cream.
In our family, Burger King is held to be the healthy option. After all, no one’s made a film called Double Whopper Me. Or if they have, it’s only being screened in porn cinemas in Amsterdam. Yet if this was healthy eating, why did it make me feel so bad? I managed about half my burger and a few fries (which, to be fair, are better than McDonald’s). I broke a tine of my plastic fork trying to pierce the lid of the salad, then almost lost my reason trying to tear open the sachet of ichor-style “dressing”. The taste? Don’t get me started.
I didn’t begin to feel my blood pressure fall until I was half a mile off and pedalling at speed; then came the encounter with Her Maj. Like I said, I would’ve been cheered by the notion she was heading for Burger King, although whether from egalitarian or regicidal motives I would be hard-pressed to say.