Though definitely not a classroom-friendly film, anyone who saw the movie Pulp Fiction knows that the Big Mac in France is called the Royal; but what you might not realize is how much local taste and cuisine factor into the menu offerings at American fast-food chains abroad. At first, the French resisted what they felt to be a global-market domination strategy on the part of McDonald's. Get 'em in, get 'em out, and open up more and more locations to get more and more people in and out. But this Americanization campaign wasn't working in France, so the corporation decided that an image makeover was in order. To help change that image, McDonald's revamped its bright red and yellow color palette to one warmer and more muted, offered free WiFi, and endeavored to make the environment more "cozy," one in which the customer would like to linger, rather than rush through. They also offered more locally-desired food choices, like salads, local cheeses, and yogurts. U.K. Guardian reporter Andrew Shanahan refers to this process as "removing the fast" and "changing the food" aspects of fast food (Shanahan 2008).
France has long been known for its haute cuisine, lending to the English language much of the vocabulary used to discuss and deal in fine dining. Gastronomy, the art or science of good eating; gourmet, a connoisseur of fine food and drink; connoisseur, a discerning judge of the best in any field; gourmand, a person who is fond of good eating, soufflé, a light baked dessert requiring such an amplitude of both finesse and time to prepare that it requires pre-ordering when dining out and must be delivered within five minutes of being finished, lest it start to "fall," or deflate, and crack. (2) It only follows that in order to really plant roots in France, McDonald's would have to make some changes to both the food and the dining experience it provided in France. To do that while still maintaining the value, convenience, and uniformity of the fast-food experience is the challenge McDonald's has faced and indeed risen to in order to become successful in France.
When I was growing up, my mother always repeated the popular catch phrase "Flame-broiling beats fried" to explain why she favored Burger King over McDonald's, and why everyone else should too. What's funny is that I grew up about 30 minutes from ANY fast-food chain restaurant (Wendy's) and both Burger King and McDonald's were just under an hour away. These chains didn't seem to play any part in our daily lives, except that they did, as my mother and I spent much of our time together watching television, and thus (since this was before the age of the digital video recorder and forwarding through them) commercials. So when we took the hour-trip to the mall or visited family several hours away, these spots were our weigh station, so to speak. It was a treat to go, to be able to actually order something you had seen discussed in great detail in television commercials, to eat the sesame seed bun and special sauce at McDonald's, to see if Wendy's is really where the beef was located.
These fast-food restaurants were where I first became conscious of consumer choice, that the things a person liked and ate (or owned, wore, used) might mean something about who that person was. It is possible that eating at Burger King was not just a meal for my mother, but an indication that she knew a thing or two about differing levels of quality food, someone able to enjoy the culinary delights of both the filet mignon and the Whopper with cheese. At the time, I was young and so mostly interested in whatever incarnation of a milkshake was offered, and what type of prize I would get. But later, I would become enchanted with the idea of consumer empowerment, of being able to seek, find, and purchase items advertised on television that were not available in my small town. It made me a go-getter in my eyes, an independent person who saw what she wanted and made it happen. Little did I know that I was playing right into the hands of the advertisers, that I was pursuing what they wanted me to pursue, molding myself into a happy little consumer of whatever their advertisements were peddling!
In the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar entitled Interdisciplinary Approaches to Consumer Culture, we learned and discussed many different ways that what people buy affects and relates to who they are. In anthropologist Daniel Miller's The Comfort of Things, we saw how someone's possessions (or lack thereof) communicate something about who they are. The book introduces the reader to thirty people through the unique and personal stories they told when questioned about items they owned, as well as through the author's observations about those belongings in the context of their houses.
If, as the saying goes, my body is my temple, then I think it fair to say that the things I choose to put inside it may tell a story, just as the things in my house can. In the same way that Daniel Miller explores the personal items stored in each person's home, we can consider the body as home, and as such, we can explore the items (foods) that we eat and drink for the stories they tell about us. Why people make healthful or unhealthful choices in their diets is a conversation worth initiating. Inspiring students to begin to consider such things can have long-lasting effects on their health and well-being. This unit can provide the backdrop to begin such questioning, as subtly or explicitly as you see fit within the confines of your language communication goals. (3)
In Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture, ethnographer Elizabeth Chin follows a group of young kids from a struggling neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut as they shop at the local mall, documenting what they buy and who they buy it for. The kids shop with money provided by Chin, that is, money that is not already spoken for by their families; each child gets $20, and it is quite interesting to read as they reason out how to best maximize those dollars, for themselves as well as for their family. Their purchasing choices say something about who these children are, whether one wants to be helpful and buy school supplies to alleviate that need for the parent, or another wants to be thoughtful and buy shoes to replace ones a parent gave to her when she needed a new pair, or another who want to be stylish without being a bother and so uses the opportunity to buy a cute little personal accessory to wear. But all are conscious of the choices they must make, that their purchasing dollar can be used for a variety of purposes above and beyond acquiring items.
So kids make choices every day about either what they consume or what they wish they were consuming, if only they had the money, the permission, the access, the option. While this unit is not intended to completely reveal each child's reasons for every choice, it is hoped that it will lead students to start examining and considering their choices and maybe even to inspire them to change some of those choices occasionally. It is fundamentally a language and communication unit, and that goal of comprehensible, level-appropriate conversation will always be first. But while we are pursuing and participating in that goal, I believe that students will be able to consider their own feelings about not only if they like le Big Mac or if they think they would like le Croque McDo if they tried it, but also how they feel about the choices offered in both places. Do they prefer the French or American menu, and why? Which do they think is the healthier choice of two or three given options, and why?
Students will specifically examine the kid's meals at our three locations to decide what is most important to them in a kid's meal offering. Is it variety? Cost? Healthy options? A toy? Packaging? Quantity of food? Again, we don't expect to knock the kids out with the findings, just to get them to start thinking about these things, while discussing their options in French!