Why does fancy fast food make us so mad?
It feels like awkward timing for Burger King to have unleashed an ostentatious new calorie bomb into the American dining marketplace. Mayor Bloomberg just announced his proposal to ban large soda drinks in New York City; the First Lady has been on tour promoting her book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America,” the latest push in her campaign against childhood obesity; the California foie-gras ban is about to take effect. The cultural mood seems to be drifting away from cheap and widely available ice cream topped with chocolate, caramel, and pork product. Accordingly, Burger King’s new bacon sundae, which launched last week and clocks in at five hundred and ten calories, eighteen grams of fat and sixty-one grams of sugar, has thus far been met with a range of skeptical reactions, from disappointment to mocking bemusement to scathing satire.
At first glance, the bacon sundae seems like a proudly low-brow fast-food novelty item in the tradition of K.F.C.’s Double Down “sandwich” or Taco Bell’s recent hit, the Doritos Locos taco, which features a giant nacho-cheese-flavored chip in lieu of a traditional shell. But capitalizing on shock value is only part of the story behind Burger King’s new menu item. After all, as Adam Martin points out in a bizarrely indignant post on The Atlantic’s Wire blog, the idea of accessorizing desserts with bacon isn’t so much a novelty as a tapped-out culinary trend that was made popular several years ago by high-end chefs. Martin finds Burger King’s latecomer stab at foodie credibility “insulting” and “manipulative,” as if the burger chain were a trendy Brooklyn restaurant that had somehow missed an insider memo.
If it seems strange to hold a fast-food company to such highfalutin standards, it may also be just what Burger King is going for with its new “thick, hardwood-smoked bacon”-garnished creation. The bacon on the sundae I tasted, from a location in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, did add an oddly fancy visual element to an otherwise very ordinary-looking sundae. The cup of vanilla soft serve, at twelve ounces, is no Big Gulp, but it’s still sizable—much bigger than the promo images would have you believe—with a pleasingly messy pool of hot fudge and caramel sauce sloshing around the sides and bottom. The bacon, sliced on a bias in relatively elegant strips that taste fine enough considering they’re cold, resides on top—incongruously and a bit smugly I thought, as if it feels superior and a little out of place among its more mundane and unruly co-ingredients. Such is the elevated status of breakfast meat these days, even if the height of the fad has passed.
This belatedly hip new offering is just one effort by Burger King’s struggling company, which was acquired by private equity firm 3G Capital in 2010 and will soon return to public markets, to rebrand itself in a more upscale light. In the past year, the company has scrapped its familiar king mascot, changed its motto from “Have it Your Way” to “Taste is King,” and, in its biggest menu expansion to date, added new, lighter items like wraps and salads to its menu. This summer’s new barbecue menu, of which the sundae is a part, plays up regional specialties (there are sandwiches from Memphis, Carolina, and Texas) and has downright dainty offerings, like frozen lemonade and sweet-potato fries.
Other major fast-food companies are attempting similar rebranding. McDonald’s, in an aggressive push-back against negative coverage in the media and criticism from health-care professionals, has undergone an image makeover, which includes TV commercials emphasizing the company’s connection to farmers (rather than kids partying with Ronald McDonald); “linger zones” with couches and free Wi-Fi à la Starbucks in some locations, and a series of menu additions like smoothies, espresso drinks, and sliced apples in Happy Meals. Despite the success of its bawdy Doritos Locos (which gave the company a big financial boost last quarter) Taco Bell is also retooling its image, changing its motto from the hamburger-oriented “Think Outside the Bun” to the vaguely ethnic “Live Más.” In July, the Mexican chain will release its upscale Cantina Bell menu, which includes items like “fire-roasted” corn salsa and cilantro rice. Such items have clearly taken cues from the popular burrito chain Chipotle, a company that, along with the rapidly expanding made-to-order burger chain Five Guys and the ubiquitous Subway, is successfully walking the line between fast-food convenience and middle-class respectability.
In the context of such changes, Burger King’s bacon sundae represents, somewhat paradoxically, part of the company’s attempt to break free from the fast-food stigma and reach out to a larger audience of more savvy, health-conscious eaters. The fact that the sundae is being received less as a charming upscale menu flourish and more as a vulgar symbol of fast-food decadence is a testament to how deep that stigma runs (I’m curious to know how people would react if Chipotle released a similar dish). It also points to the ways that our judgments about food—and efforts to reform it—are intertwined with judgments about class. Bloomberg’s soda ban has rightfully been criticized for reflecting the mayor’s particular upper class food sensibilities. Writing in the Guardian, Michael Wolff called the mayor’s proposed legislation “a statement about aesthetics as much as health” and argued that there’s an undercurrent of paternalistic snobbery running through the mayor’s attempts at top-down dietary regulation.
At a recent press event in Cleveland, Daniel Coudreaut, McDonald’s senior director of culinary innovation defended his employer’s approach to food by saying “I’m sure I could eat a two-thousand-calorie meal at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.” He also said, rather incredibly, that he didn’t “see anything on the [McDonald’s] menu that’s unhealthy.” But Coudreaut is right to point out the biases that color some people’s perceptions of which kinds of foods are reasonable and which aren’t. What you think about Burger King’s bacon sundae probably depends a lot on where you come from, and where you usually eat. And the sundae’s failure to woo most critics with its gourmet pretensions reveals just how much setting matters when writers or policymakers attempt to differentiate between the decadent and the disgusting.