I do not come from a religious family. My father was brought up Catholic, and even attended a Marist Brothers high school, but after a nun locked him in a closet and left him there overnight in order to punish him for asking an inappropriate question, he lost his faith in God, and never again voluntarily entered a place of Christian worship. My mother was no more religious than my father, but she did have an ironclad rule that “you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion,” a belief that in all questions ideological one should maintain perfect neutrality. Not sending me to church, therefore, would have been to make a statement about her belief in God. It would have in effect been “talking about politics and religion.” I was, therefore, baptized into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and spent many Sunday mornings listening to sermons I don’t remember delivered by a kindly old Swedish American pastor with a puffy red face, and a flat Midwestern accent. After I was confirmed, I “took communion,” went up to the altar to eat a sacramental wafer that always reminded me of a guitar pick, and take a sip of wine far too inconsequential to get me drunk.
I can tell you all about the differences between the Catholic concept of transubstantiation and the Protestant concept of consubstantiation. For Catholics, the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ whether you want them to or not. For Lutherans, the flour guitar pick and sip of Manischewitz or Boone’s Farm or whatever kind of cheap wine my church chose to turn into the type o negative that once ran through the veins of our Lord and Savior wouldn’t make the transformation unless, to quote Saint Paul, you had “faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But for me neither Catholic nor Lutheran services offered access to the body and blood of Christ. While I did enjoy listening to I Know that my Redeemer Lives on the church organ early on Sunday morning as we all took our places before the alter, it wasn’t until the sermon ended and we all filed out of the building to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach that I really started to think about how much Jesus loves me. Every Sunday my parents would take me and my brother out to eat at the McDonald’s on Route 22 down the street from the drive in movie theater in Union, New Jersey. It was there where I would partake in the real Holy Communion. If I had enough faith, I knew that according to the doctrine of transubstantiation that a Big Mac, a larger order of fries covered in 5 packages of catsup and a large coke would turn into the body and blood of than man who had been crucified for my sins 2000 years ago in Palestine.
Ray Kroc is one of history’s greatest villains, right up there with Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold, the board of directors at Phillip Morris, and whoever decided to play “Closer” by the Chain Smokers at Starbucks and my local gym. A first generation Czech American from Oak Park, Illinois, Kroc led an uneventful life as a traveling salesman until 1954 when he walked into a booming hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California run by Richard and Maurice McDonald, two New Englanders who had moved to Hollywood during the Great Depression to look for work. Kroc was immediately smitten, not only by the name, “McDonald,” which represented the true blue WASP American identity that he aspired to, but by the way the McDonald brothers had successfully applied the Taylorist principles of Henry Ford to the food service industry. Where in the typical drive in hamburger stand of the time, your food could take upwards of 30 minutes to arrive, if in fact the car hop got your order right, the McDonald brothers had streamlined the menu, serving only three items, hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks, and had broken the process of cooking a meal down to a series of discrete steps that could be quickly and efficiently carried out by a well-trained crew. More importantly, it made it easy for the McDonald brothers to monitor quality control. For the McDonald brothers, their hamburger stand was a labor of love, not the multinational corporation that robs working class Africans who live in food deserts of their hard earned wages, and contributes to global warming and the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests. The food you got at the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino was not the overpriced trash, the pink slime filled meat byproducts, cardboard lettuce, and under cooked french fries covered in so much salt just looking at them can raise your blood pressure, McDonald’s serves today. It was a cheap, quality meal made according to a simple, elegant, minimalist process.
The best thing about The Founder, the thinly fictionalized docudrama directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, is how it evokes the lost America of the 1940s and 1950s, that one brief shining moment between the end of the Great Depression and the Vietnam War. Hancock not only has a feel for the sleek, well-oiled, neon lit car culture that Henry Ford had made inevitable, he somehow manages to recreate the world of cheap gas, tail fin Cadillacs and wide open highways. At the age of 52, Ray Kroc is a loser, a traveling salesman hawking milk shake mixers to uninterested restaurant owners, but he still lives in a neat little suburban house with his bored but patient wife Ethel, played by Laura Dern, and he can still afford a membership at the local country club. It’s a world where anybody has a chance of getting into the middle class, a world before my time, but which I vaguely remember disapperaing into the rear view mirror of my early childhood, a world millennials can’t even imagine. It’s easy to see how Kroc mistook American capitalism at its height for the kingdom of heaven, an endless series of neat little towns along the highway, each with a church and a cross, and a courthouse and a flag. Kroc, who listens to self-help records on the road, does not want to recreate the the America of the 1950s. He simply wants to belong, to become a successful business, to worship in the church of American capitalism while delivering hamburgers and french fries to the masses.
The tragedy of Ray Kroc is that he did change America, massively. In 1902, when Kroc was born, the United States was a nation of farmers and mechanics, immigrants and native WASPs, already the breadbasket of the world. Food took time and effort, but it was rich, nutritious, free of chemicals and non-GMO. It was the kind of food rich people in Brooklyn and San Francisco pay big money for today. It was the kind of food people become media stars writing books about, and for a brief moment in the 1940s and 1950s you could get it dirt cheap along the highway. As The Founder moves forward, as Ray Kroc becomes wealthy, successful, and popular beyond his wildest dreams, the aesthetic of the film subtle shifts from Route 66 to the inside of a corporate boardroom. Keaton is much older than Kroc was in 1954, but the film makes no attempts to age him. It doesn’t have to. It dramatizes the movement of history, and the transformation of New Deal America into neoliberal America by documenting his career from the inside. Ray Kroc doesn’t realize he’s cheapening American life even as he’s cheapening the American diet. He’s simply worshiping at the high church of the profit motive, doing what he has to do to make money. First comes his suggestion that the McDonald brothers franchise their hamburger stand. When they protest that they’ve already tried, that it made “quality control” impossible, Kroc has no answer, and indeed he never does. Instead he seduces the brothers with the idea that the have a patriotic duty to put a McDonald’s in every town, right next to the church and the cross, the courthouse and the flag. His faith is so pure. His belief in their “speedy system” so strong that against their better judgement he wins them over. From San Bernardino to Des Plaines, Illinois, then onto Minneapolis and Chicago, and finally New York and the rest of the world, Kroc gets what he wants. Fast food becomes a symbol of the United States, french fries as American as apple pie. Eventually, and I remember this well, the opening of a McDonalds in the Soviet Union becomes synonymous with the birth of democracy. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out that no two countries with a McDonalds have ever fought a war.
It can’t last. The reason Ray Kroc and McDonald’s become so successful has nothing to do with the “speedy system” or the quality of their food. It’s all about cutting corners and reducing expectations. The first blow comes when Kroc realizes that as many McDonald’s as he’s opened, he’s still not making any money, that refrigeration costs are erasing his share of the profits. Jean Smith, a younger woman for whom he eventually leaves Ethel, comes up with a brilliant suggestion. Instead of serving real milk shakes, they can serve powdered milk shakes. When Jean, played by Linda Cardanelli from Freaks and Geeks in a blond dye job, serves him his first synthetic milk shake it’s like sex, the grizzled 54-year-old Kroc going weak in the knees at the thought of a better profit motive like a smitten teenager. It’s not enough. When the McDonald brothers refuse, Kroc, who had to take out a second mortgage on his house to fund the first franchise in Des Plaines, is in danger of losing it all. A chance meeting with Harry J. Sonneborn, a former Vice President at Tastee-Freez, provides the solution. Kroc will never be able to turn a profit selling hamburgers, but if he shifts gears and transforms McDonalds from a restaurant company into a real estate holding company, he will be able to generate the capital he needs to buy the McDonald brothers out. The danger, we realize, is not McDonalds losing the original, minimalist concept and adding more items to the menu — a process that for example ruined Starbucks — but of losing the idea that you should care about selling food at all. When the biggest restaurant chain in the world is not in the business of making food but of buying real estate, then one company has effectively removed food from food, has occupied the commercial space where you could once make money actually manufacturing a product and replaced it with paper. It’s really only a matter of time before the United States outsources its manufacturing base to China and replaces Ford and GM with the financial services industry, before Barnes and Nobles becomes more about selling memberships than about selling books, before Best Buy becomes more interested in selling expensive warranties than in selling computers, before Sears stops making tools and starts signing people up for high interest credit cards.
Eventually Ray Kroc, the crafty son of Eastern European immigrants, the cynical outsider who wants to be a part of an America he can never really understand, cheats the innocent McDonald brothers, not only out of their business, but out of their name, that red, white and blue all American WASP heritage that they don’t even know they have, and never realized someone else wanted. They just wanted to run a hamburger stand. Ray Kroc only wanted to run that same hamburger stand in every town in America. He never really wanted to rule the world, but that in the end is what he wound up doing, and that in the end is the tragedy of The Founder. Indeed, after I saw the Founder — it’s available online free — I thought about riding my bike back to Route 22 to the McDonald’s my parents used to take me and my brother to every Sunday after church. The drive in is gone. Route 22 no longer has much neon. The cars are all plastic and made in Japan, not Detroit, and McDonald’s has long since replaced their art deco franchises and their golden arches with a boxy, generic, red and puke colored cement design, but still I wanted to sit and consume the body and blood of Christ one more time, even if it was only in the form of a meat like substance full of pink slime and under cooked french fries smothered in too much salt and dirty grease but I couldn’t. It was closed. The United States, now a failed state, is in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, and most public spaces are off limits. So I road back home and ate some nutritious rice, beans and vegetables instead.