Junk in the trunk

A fast-food feeding frenzy

Where to begin? Perhaps in that moment last week when I was working with a client, an artist. I had asked her to bring in a clay sculpture of a figure from a recurrent dream. As my client talked, I put my hand on the half-insect-half-reptile. Then, rubbing my hand on my face, I was overpowered by a very unpleasant smell.

"Um," I asked my client, "can you say anything about the smell of this creature?"

She looked at me and, in one of those moments of role reversal, said, "Maybe you'd like to say something about the way it might smell to you?"

"Oh," I said, sniffing my fingers, "well, you know, it looks sort of like a fly and they are attracted to garbage. I thought, you know, it might smell like garbage. Or something."

Soon afterward, I realized my hand smelled like a Big Mac. Yes, it's true. An hour-and-a-half earlier I had eaten one and now I was haunted by the smell, an indelible odor that had appalled me when I brought home my sack of sandwiches from Mickey D's. So dreadful was the smell of the remnants of that meal that I had walked them outside to the Herby Curby rather than put them in the kitchen trash. But my twice-washed hand was marked.

Where else could I begin? With the sense that I've spent the last week feeling as a python must after it swallows a baby goat. Maybe I could tell you about having to sleep propped on my pillows, so bad was the acid reflux. I've eaten at McDonald's, Zesto, Burger King and Wendy's.

Why did I do this? For one thing because I'm so often accused of being a food snob and have a real curiosity as to why people eat this stuff and actually seem to enjoy it. I was most curious about McDonald's, which has been in the news a good bit lately. The company agreed to pay $10 million to vegetarians after lying about the animal fat content in its french fries. It was also reported recently that the company is closing some locations after a steady decline in sales, though it remains No. 1, with Burger King second and Wendy's third. After becoming, with Coca-Cola, the very symbol of American consumerist imperialism, McDonald's fading glory is cause for celebration for many.

I went to the McDonald's on Ponce de Leon near Boulevard — the same area as the other fast-food joints I visited. This was by far the shabbiest I visited. I loved the big sign hanging over the counter that says: "Treat Others as You Would Like to Be Treated." I guess that explains why nobody would take my order. If I worked in a McDonald's, I'd want everyone to become invisible too.

My old buddy Ronald McDonald was on hand in the form of a photo cut-out before which a child stood with his fists over his head, Malcolm X-style, screaming, "Wonal'!" We're all adults here. Maybe you'd like to know one of my erotic claims to fame. Years ago, when I was coming out as a gay man, I awoke after a night of partying in the bed of Ronald McDonald. I had no idea who he was when I met him of course, but the next morning I caught sight of the wig, the shoes. "You're ... you're Ronald McDonald!" I exclaimed. He admitted it and explained that the company holds those who perform his coveted role to complete secrecy. If I ever told a soul he was Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese would have me arrested, he told me.

Last week I ordered a Big Mac, a crispy chicken sandwich, a Filet-O-Fish and some french fries. Seriously, how do you people eat this stuff? Is it the Tonka toys you get with your Happy Meals? The Big Mac (590 calories, 34 grams of fat) featured two all-gray patties, orange Silly Putty-style cheese, lettuce, tomato and some kind of weird slaw. And that smell!

The Filet-O-Fish (470 calories, 26 grams of fat) was, no kidding, the most awful thing I have tasted in memory. Mine came wrapped in blue paper into which had oozed thin tartar sauce. The bun was glued to the "filet" of fish by more of the Silly Putty cheese. I couldn't even pull the thing apart to look at it. Then I tasted it. Oh my god. A giant fish stick redolent of grade-school cafeteria kitchens.

The Crispy Chicken sandwich (500 calories, 26 grams of fat) was acceptable. It was a decent breast, hot and crispy, with some lettuce, tomato and fairly light mayo. The famous french fries, which Julia Child years ago declared "surprisingly good," were so salty my lips burned, probably because they had been chafed during the rapid expulsion of my bite of the fish thing. You get 450 calories and 22 grams of fat with medium fries.

Next I went to Wendy's. "Earn more money. Learn new skills," a poster said, encouraging me to apply for a job there. A man asked me to buy him a hamburger. I did and he gave me some religious literature in return.

Wendy's rated better with me than McDonald's but it still tasted icky. On the way home I dodged a dead possum in the road and wondered how possum really tastes. I took out my hamburger — a single with cheese — and, although its components were similar to the Big Mac's, it lacked the grotesque slaw that I think created the garbage-can odor. It's about 430 calories with 19 grams of fat. My Spicy Chicken Fillet sandwich tasted about like the McDonald's but with some hot pepper in the batter (430 calories, 15 grams of fat). A medium order of french fries was skillfully dumped in the bag to fall out of their container. Not as flesh-searingly salted as McDonald's, they were worth their 390 calories and 15 grams of fat.

The Burger King on North Avenue, once notorious for outrageously bad service, seems to have improved. I only stood in line a few minutes — long enough for me to regale a yawning Georgia State trooper with tales of the year I worked photographing traffic fatalities for a sheriff's department.

Geez! A Whopper with cheese is 795 calories with 53 grams of fat. I liked it better than the Big Mac but still preferred the Wendy's single. I also ordered a chicken sandwich that was almost as inedibly vile as McDonald's Filet-O-Fish. Imagine something like chicken compressed into a patty, then breaded and seasoned like sausage. I gasped when I tasted it and the trooper laughed out loud. Eat this and consume 555 calories and 34 grams of fat.

Finally, I visited Zesto, next to McDonald's on Ponce (for which I could locate no nutritional information). I have been enamored of the soft-serve ice cream treats here for years, my favorite being the toffee coffee arctic swirl. But I haven't eaten the "real" food before. The fried chicken sandwich — an actual boned chicken breast in a very crispy batter — was the best that I tried. It is served naked on a bun with some pickles and no mayo. It's a bit dry but far better than the others I tried. The "gourmet burger" however is a pathetic joke. It's a thicker than average patty, actually pink on the inside, as if it were cooked with some care, but it has the same texture and taste as every other piece of gray meat I ate last week. The french fries — "krinkle cut" — were my faves.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

Where to Eat
Food Events