VINCENT: But you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
VINCENT: I seen ’em do it. And I don’t mean a little bit on the side of the plate, they fuckin’ drown ’em in it.
– Pulp Fiction (1994)
I’ve eaten at KFC in Bali, Johnny Rockets in Tokyo, McDonalds in Glasgow, TGI Fridays in Singapore, and Hard Rock in Acapulco. I’m not particularly proud of this, but many Americans gravitate to these places as a form of comfort. I used to despise them, and myself for patronizing these establishments rather than more actively engaging the culture that surrounded them. Over time, I’ve come to accept fast food.
For a while, I liked to point out that in Japan, one could buy a “moon viewing” hamburger, and that the mixtures for Pepsi differed from place to place (despite claims to the contrary). The Pepsi in Northern England tastes somehow of peppermint. And Coca-cola products — that is, those beyond the eponymous beverage — are designed for local palates. When I wanted to score a case of Aquarius in the US, I was told in no uncertain terms that Coca-cola did not believe Americans could stomach it. But as I sit writing this in a Burger King in Amsterdam, I realize just how tenuous the suggestion that these are meaningful differences is.
Yes, they offer the “traditional” garlic-mayonnaise as an alternative to ketchup. Yes, they serve the French fries with a tiny plastic fry fork, which I have passed over, but the woman across from me is wielding like a HK film star. But these little interesting nods to localization add up to little more than quaint anachronisms in an environment that is otherwise a perfect performance of the BK stage-play: usually performed far more earnestly, at least in the touristy spots, than “back home.”
I won’t get flowery and talk about the hundreds of thousands of youth around the world who can flawlessly mimic “Would you like fries with that?” It is difficult, though, when one thinks about the kinds of notions and ways of relating that are required by these “food experiences,” it becomes clear that corporate America writes today’s scripts. And just as Americans have, for decades, imperfectly mimicked the sort of behaviors seen by polite society to be vaguely European, the new culture of fast food — an authentic product of American culture — has been boiled down to its essential form and exported around the world.
It isn’t all bad. The food tends to be of good and predictable quality. The shops are often clean, cooled, and comfortable. I am concerned, though, how invisible they have become. Like the Japanese junior high students who thought that 7-11 and KFC were only found in Japan, there has come to be an international cultural script that is written in English and always offers fries.