Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #32 06.30.2021

“a great taste in a funny shape”

America feels like a series of interconnected freeways. I’ve travelled down a few in the Western region, the same gray pavements flowing in endless lines with the only difference being the sights that flank the lanes: the lush green forests and threatening mountainsides of Washington and Oregon, tiered roads of traffic in Los Angeles that seem to float in the almost pellucid blue skies, the rust red rocks and sands of Nevada, and the hidden waterfalls and bright yellow guava trees along the winding highways of Hawaii. Freeway journeys can be monotonous, and thus deadly, so the roads are often paved intentionally rough to prevent long haul lorry drivers from falling asleep. Our car would be so rattled by these bumps, that my teenage self would constantly ask my Mom to turn up the volume on the pop punk CDs my parents would unfortunately be forced to listen to during our classic USA road trips. For a big part of my youth, our summer vacations took place down the Oregon coast, to beaches and zoos and cheese factories; the backseat pocket of my Dad’s car carried remnants of these trips in the form of clean branded napkins and hotel stationery notepads. During an hours-long freeway ride, bored out of my mind in the backseat, I rummaged for one of these pads and began tallying sightings of the two most common American chains located off the highways and in distant towns visible from exit paths: Home Depot, and McDonald’s.

Summer vacations and long weekend excursions mean McDonald’s breakfast. I cannot count how many mornings we woke up extra early to cross the border and sat bleary-eyed in a McDonald’s in Bellingham, WA before anything else opened–it was here that I ate steak and eggs as a kid, sandwiched between two halves of a plain bagel, for the first and only time in my life. Those instances dwindled as I grew older and unwilling to rise early, but mornings at the hotel are still most often spent watching a perky American AM talk show, Kelly Ripa’s holiday giveaways scored by the crinkling of waxy paper and the pop of coffee cup lids. I leave my pyjamas on until I’m done, so I can revel in the satisfaction of eating the most caloric meal in the most relaxed state, unrestricted and in front of the TV, perched on an armchair in a cramped hotel room like a dream manifested.

I live to break the stigma of eating at McDonald’s (in moderation) because frankly their breakfast is delicious. Along with being tasty, it’s cheap, convenient, and can reliably sustain you for at least 4-5 hours with the combined power of all its carbs, grease, and protein. With such a limited menu – many of the items being a varied combination of a carb, egg, cheese, and pork – the magnitude of abundant joy that is produced is a wonder.

McDonald’s breakfast as we know it was introduced in earnest in 1971, when the now classic Egg McMuffin was developed with the aim to create a handheld, to-go version of eggs benedict. Its components represent the very building blocks of a classic Western breakfast – a well-cooked, perfectly circular fried egg is stacked between a slice of American cheese and a circle of back bacon, all sandwiched between two halves of a toasted English muffin. This is easily replicable at home, but what makes an Egg McMuffin different is the way the bread softens and the cheese slightly melts in its own steam while wrapped in the wax paper. The egg also fits within the borders set by the English muffin, and doesn’t drip with grease the way it might do at home.

In 1977, more menu items were added that covered some of the basic elements of an actual continental breakfast like scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and hotcakes. My early memories of McDonald’s breakfast centre around these hotcakes, uniformly tanned and tender, served in a flat yellow styrofoam tray with a detachable lid. I was always taken by how the domed circle of butter on top would melt against the hotcakes and mix with the sugar-laden, amber butter syrup. The addition of sausage patties led to the Sausage & Egg McMuffin – arguably superior to its original counterpart, as the sweet and slightly spicy sausage acts as a hearty foil to the dense egg and fatty cheese. 

The late ‘70s also saw the launch of the undisputed ruler of McDonald’s breakfast: the hash brown. Outstanding in its nature, a McDonald’s hash brown is a prime example of a simple thing executed perfectly. Old advertisements called it “a great taste in a funny shape”, but one cannot imagine the McD’s hash brown any other way now. Its oval shape is ideal for handheld consumption, tucked away in its little paper sleeve, and while big enough for a snack on-the-go, it’s also small enough to be eaten as a part of a full meal, satisfying you just enough without pushing you over the edge. Full-bodied in its flavour, it achieves a good crispy to fluffy ratio, all while fragrant with the scent of deep fried potato, which is undoubtedly one of the best smells in the world. 

Other notable additions to the menu include the McGriddle, another breakfast sandwich that I was about to deem “a riff on the McMuffin” until I realized they literally have nothing in common except for the inclusion of American cheese. The McGriddle is composed of the aforementioned cheese, a plain omelette folded into a thick square, and crispy bacon rashers cushioned by two warm, perfectly circular pancakes dotted with plump pockets of maple-flavoured syrup. This sandwich has a sausage variant as well, which I feel creates an overall better product in a similar fashion to its addition to the Sausage & Egg McMuffin. Yes, I have eaten this and requested the sausage version. More than once. I carry no shame in enjoying the McGriddle in all its sweet and savoury glory, each morsel perfumed with sticky, syrup-scented, squishy griddle cakes. I use its yellow wax paper to clutch it until I’m done, and pick off the corners of soft cheese that have stuck onto its creases before my hash brown chaser. I ball up my garbage and throw it back into the kraft paper bag it came in, and change out of my pyjamas, completely satisfied and ready for the full day ahead.

McDonald’s breakfasts make notable moments of content solitude, punctuating otherwise banal mornings with this ritual that is both unassuming and indulgent. My parents and I still talk about the Spam and scrambled eggs with rice and soy sauce at McDonald’s in Maui, eaten by a large window overlooking the parking lot occupied by a few pecking wild chickens and a fruit stall that we walked through afterwards. I remember eating a fried chicken McMuffin in Hong Kong, washed down with a tall lemon iced tea; it was just me and my Dad, and when we finished we took the MTR to Vinyl Hero in Sham Shui Po, a residential unit crammed from floor to ceiling with open top boxes of rare vinyl records. 5 kilometre runs on Sundays at 9AM always ended with a stop at a McDonald’s drive-thru for the Sausage & Egg McMuffin that I was unable to shake from my mind. Late nights of working ended similarly as well once 24-hour breakfast was introduced, accented by a small order of fries that brought together the best of both worlds. My last memory of McDonald’s breakfast is from June 2019 – as I finished my final sip of coffee, I scored the last cheap stalls seat for that evening’s performance of Waitress in the West End.

While procrastinating on this text, I assembled a 5 hour long playlist, tentatively titled in the backseat of the car, composed of songs spanning 1994-2001 that would’ve played on the radio when I was a kid. It starts with Paula Cole’s Where Have All the Cowboys Gone. The explosive opening riff evokes in my imagination a fantasy of cruising down a Pacific Northwest highway, surrounded by the shady verdant temperate rainforests that have, for 30 years, infused their mysterious and brooding essence into my DNA. The greenery breaks to reveal the expansive glittering blue of Bellingham Bay on one side and distant Mt. Baker on the other. We pass countless green signs on the road, relaying upcoming exits, attractions, rest stops for truckers and weary travellers, and every so often one will bear the McDonald’s logo. I say, “another one!” and mark it on the tally I’ve started on an old hotel notepad. I roll down the window and let the wind cyclone through the car, whip my hair over my face, and take my breath away.