"The Big Mac reflects the hopes and aspirations of America, and to the world it is an attainable and recognizable symbol of the American dream."
Locations everywhere; mcdonalds.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Much maligned but still iconic chain offering the most recognizable hamburger in the world
Want Fries with That? Yes, golden, crisp, and now trans-fat-free, they are superb
Price: Big Mac combo comes with fries and soda for $5.99 as reviewed, though prices vary depending on area
Prior to yesterday the last time I had eaten a Big Mac was on September 29, 2004, the day after Super Size Me came out on DVD. I received the disc from Netflix the day after the film's release and promptly rang up my local McDonald's for delivery. Prior to that point it had been several years since I had eaten at “Mickey D's," but I liked the irony of watching Super Size Me while eating a Big Mac and large fries. I was disappointed that by the time of the DVD’s release McDonald’s had stopped super-sizing orders; they denied that it had anything to do with the film.
When my intercom buzzed a short time later my doorman announced "McDonald's," which was odd because he normally just says “delivery." Was he judging me? There did seem to be a slight hint of condemnation in his voice, maybe even scorn; and this from a chap who routinely eats Domino's pizza, Subway sandwiches, and neon-orange sweet and sour pork from the local Chinese restaurant.
McDonald’s doesn't get much respect, not even from my doorman. And I admit that I have let my foodie snobbism come between me and a sandwich that has played a significant role in my life—and, indeed, in the way that the world looks at the hamburger.
I still remember my first Big Mac. It was just after my 10th birthday at the McDonald's on Kensington High Street in London, and we had to drive halfway through city to get there. We had visited the location several times before I was allowed to graduate from the simple cheeseburger to the Big Mac, but when I finally did I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It was as if I had almost reached manhood, a burger-mitzvah if you will.
My Big Mac consumption was restricted by my parental units until I got my first job—delivering music manuscripts for the Muppet Show—as a young teen. I was now free to indulge my Big Mac urges as I pleased. When my mother despaired at the lack of vegetables in my diet as a result, I countered that there was lettuce on both patties in the Big Mac.
One of my favorite bands at the time was the North London ska outfit Bad Manners, whose singer Doug Trendle (aka Buster Bloodvessel) famously ate 27 Big Macs in one sitting. Bad Manners are still around, although Trendle apparently had his stomach stapled a few years ago—I doubt he could eat 27 White Castles, let alone 27 Big Macs these days.
Curiously my Big Mac consumption declined when I moved to the States in the mid 1980s because I found so many new foods to consume, from junk to gourmet and everything in between. But eventually I became, for lack of a better word, a “foodie” and gave up even sporadic Big Mac consumption on principle alone. However, writing about Bob's Big Boy this week started a stirring in me, a long-forgotten feeling but one that was undeniable—I had a Big Mac Attack.
The Big Mac was conceived as an answer to the Bob’s Big Boy sandwich by early McDonald’s franchisee Jim Delligatti in Pittsburgh. It turned out to be so successful that it was introduced across all McDonald's in 1968 and has remained a staple on the menu ever since. Roughly 550 million Big Macs are sold each year. Expect that number to climb next year; I may have opened Pandora’s box when I cracked the cardboard lid on my Big Mac yesterday. I admit the presentation was not as perfect as it looks on the menu boards, but I like the handmade quality of the patty and bread being slightly askew, like a Milano cookie.
The beef—two perfectly proportioned griddled cooked patties weighing in at 1.6 ounces each—grace the Big Mac. McDonald’s does their best to keep the produce they use as local as possible, so in all likelihood I ate American beef. The patties are frozen, but that is not necessarily a bad thing; it insures consistency and also guards against spoilage. Virtually all crabs legs, for example, are flash frozen on the boat and people are willing to spend up to $40 a pound for those. I don’t really see the difference in doing the same thing with beef.
Both patties are topped with iceberg lettuce, finely chopped onions, pickles, and special sauce, while the bottom one also gets a slice of golden American cheese that wilts delightfully around the lower bun. The special sauce recipe is a closely guarded secret, and it arrives at each location in sealed canisters. The three-stage bun is a thing of wonder and beauty. Regally studded with sesame seeds its golden dome resembles a Byzantine basilica. The bun is squishy and compliant, molding perfectly around the generous innards, with only a little lettuce and special sauce spilling out.
Picking up the sandwich can be difficult because of its height and multiple layers. It really requires two hands, but it's easy enough to consume because it is so easily compressed. Biting into a Big Mac produces a near perfect synthesis of textures and flavors. The bread has just enough chewiness to remain intact around the goopy dressing, snappy pickles, and tender beef, with the sesame seeds adding a pleasing crunch. The tangy, sweetish dressing and tart pickles provide a nice balance to the hearty richness of the beef and creamy cheese. The center bun becomes completely soaked in sauce and beef juice, disintegrating into a delightfully gooey mess. The sandwich inevitably devolves into a bit of a mess and sauce gets everywhere, but what a tasty mess.
The Big Mac is the ascension of the hamburger to its most exulted form. I know I have raved about fresh custom beef blends an awful lot, most recently the $26 hamburger from Minetta Tavern. But the Big Mac offers something far more universal and ultimately more reflective of the culture from which it sprang.
Beyond the triumph of mass production and of vertical market integration that McDonald’s has achieved, the Big Mac stands as far more than just a hamburger, it reflects the hopes and aspirations of America, and to the world it is an attainable and recognizable symbol of the American dream. And it tastes good.
Editor's note: APRIL FOOLS! Nick doesn't really like Big Macs. His real review in two sentences: "It was honestly one of the worst burgers I can remember eating. If it wasn’t for BAMN I would say the worst since I began reviewing for AHT."