The plethora of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s typify the recent change in eating habits. That they are antiseptic, depersonalized, a gastronomic atrocity, as critics have complained, is basically true.
Some critics have declared that the fast-food restaurants have caused changes in eating habits, but it seems more likely that they simply reflect the fundamental changes that have taken place in society as a whole. Traditional social rituals have declined, and the new rituals that are replacing them—rituals based on automobiles, television, technology, and efficiency—cut across previous religious affiliations, ethnic loyalties, and class allegiances.
A meal at McDonald’s can be looked upon as having some of the character of a social or religious ritual. Rituals occur in designated places, marked by distinctive emblems such as the cross above a church, and at prescribed times, such as the sabbath. For a patron of McDonald’s, the eating rituals occur under the Sign of the Double Golden Arch and at the prescribed times of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ritual is also characterized by words and actions that have been prescribed by people other than the current performers of the ritual and that have been codified in some revered text, such as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Bible. The employees of McDonald’s who take the orders and deliver the burgers, fries, and shakes display a behavioral uniformity that is prescribed by the originators of McDonald’s and codified in the 360 pages of its standardized Operations Manual. Those responsible for carrying out the ritual have been trained at the McDonald’s analogue of a seminary, known as Hamburger University, in Elk Grove, Illinois.
Ritual is also repetitive and stereotyped, of a limited range, adhering to a largely invariable sequence. Day after day, year after year, burgers are sold at McDonald’s with virtually the same catechism of requests and replies: “I’ll have a Big Mac.” “Will there be any fries with that?” “Thank you, have a nice day.” The transactions at McDonald’s express values esteemed by the modern North American society: technological efficiency, cleanliness, service, and egalitarianism. At a McDonald’s, people find exactly what they have come to expect. They know the liturgy, and what pecuniary dues they will have to pay; they have found the comfort, the security, and the reassurance there will be no surprises that are among the benefits of any ritual.
—Peter Farb, Consuming Passions