Monday, April 12, 2010

Sadly, Russian Children May No Longer Have An Opportunity to Do the "Big Mac, Filet o' Fish, Quarter Pounder" Hand Slap Game

Surprisingly, the busiest McDonalds in the world is not in fact the one off of Hwy 127 in Liberty, Kentucky (where, on many mornings on my way to UK, traffic is stopped to accommodate the drive-thru line. Really, Americans?) To the contrary, an in-depth Good Morning America expose last week proclaimed the most frequented golden arches to be in Moscow, a city where the fast food market is estimated at between $400-700 million/year. Mcgriddle-craved Russians are probably blocking traffic as well.

The point of such impressive investigative journalism, however, was not solely to expose the fact that ingesting crap knows no territorial boundary (and let me say, I can acknowledge it as "crap" and still crave a double cheeseburger and apple turn-over simultaneously). The purpose instead was to raise questions about the Russian economy in wake of post-Cold War politics and the oft-heralded "fall" of communism. The story, for the most part, took a fairly standard pro-democracy, pro-capitalism angle: the McDonaldization of the world represents the triumph of the free market, of individualism and entrepreneurship, of standardization. As one high school student who I observed last week offered, "sharing is for communists."

I must say, however, that despite any snarky comments about GMA's credibility, I did enjoy the direction the story eventually traveled. After acknowledging the fast-food industry's dominance in the Russian capital, ole George Stephanopoulos (I'm sure he is a nice guy, but does anyone like him as the anchor?) highlighted a burgeoning market that could be seen as a direct affront to Western restaurant chains, and perhaps American culture in general. Documenting the rise of national kiosk fast-food chains like Teremok, the video pointed out that while the convenience and price associated with McDonalds have coercive and widespread appeal, a quarter-pounder and supersized fries is not a symbolic fist-pump for American capitalism. When given a choice between a personal pan/chicken snack wrap/big mac or one of several varieties of Teremok's renowned blinis, Russians are increasingly choosing to "buy locally," a reflection of a more universal interest in slow food movement phenomena.

Teremok is thus succeeding, at least in part, because it is promoted as nationalism wrapped in a deliciously thin crepe; succumbing to capitalism's price line does not necessitate the abandonment of tradition. Beyond this specific example, however, the simple fact is that I think most people would choose the more socially-conscious option (speaking in general terms) if that option were also as easy, cheap, and convenient as the alternative. People don't recycle because it requires time and effort, not because they like the idea of overflowing landfills. We shop at Wal-Mart because the same product may cost more at local hardware, general, or grocery stores, not because we want to witness the death of town squares. Most Americans are lazy, selfish to some extent, and more often than not, dreadfully unaware, but most are not without conscience. The question thus arises, how do we hold people accountable while also taking social realities into consideration?

The short answer to this is "I don't know." My long answer:
In an ideal world, we would all choose morality over convenience. And, I hate the idea of continually making things easier for people simply because technology allows it and personal tastes prefer it. As a result, I do think that the push to enhance citizenship and subsequently, the promotion of individual responsibility to community, requires both education and "tough love." We must make people care enough to "go out of their way." We encourage this commitment and concern by connecting issues to everyday realities in language that is relevant to the respective audience. We talk about environmental concerns in relation to Marrowbone Creek, not global warming in the polar ice caps. We educate on the need for local businesses by getting input from Norman Hamilton or Cindy Vibbert or Wyatt Page. This is not to suggest that broad-based literature and/or research is not valuable; for instance, Michael Pollan is a nationally-published journalist and author who has much to contribute to this discussion. The point is simply that, as when teaching history, tangible examples reinforce, rather than "dummy down," theoretical concepts.

With that being said, however, I do think infrastructure has to be enhanced to accommodate changing circumstances. The idea that people want cheap things can't be ignored. The fact that people are more inclined to do things when it is easier is frustrating, but it is nonetheless, part and parcel of human nature. It would be nice if we held ourselves to higher standards and hoped for such in others, but alas, this may not be the case. In such instances, those who are financially capable, charismatic enough to encourage support, and well-versed on the issue, have a responsibility to make socially-conscious decisions possible for a wider base. Maybe this means organizing a recycle drop-off location in an area that does not have curbside pick-up, or organizing a committee of local business leaders to address revitalization efforts, or setting up political debates so voters can at least have the option to familiarize themselves with particular platforms.

Or, maybe we just make blinis.
Russian Pancakes (blinis)
Servings: 20

2 eggs
1 tablespoon white sugar
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and salt. Sift the flour into the bowl, and stir in along with the milk. Mix until smooth and well blended. The batter should be thin.

Heat a griddle or skillet over medium heat. Lightly oil the pan or spray with cooking spray. Pour about 2 tablespoons of the batter, or as much as desired, into the pan. Tilt the pan to spread the batter out evenly. When the edges are crisp looking and the center appears dry, slide a spatula carefully under the blini. Flip, and cook for about 1 minute on the other side, or until lightly browned.
Remove blini to a plate. Put a little butter on top, and continue to stack the blini on top of each other. To serve, spread with desired filling, then fold in half, and in half again to form a triangle.

*On GMA, they showed the blini being served with banana and chocolate, strawberries (infused with vodka) and whip cream, and a hearty beef filling (can be used for sweet or savory dishes). In keeping with the spirit of the post, though, I encourage you to adapt the filling to suit your own local products and tastes. I would love to hear any of your suggestions!*


  1. This has flummoxed me. Why isn't it easier to find healthier, sustainable alternatives? I saw a college student once get assaulted by an old woman for putting recyclables in a trashcan on a train platform in Austria. It's a crazy system they have. Multi-colored cans for different recyclables and trash. Very difficult to impliment and manage. Or, why can't you get a grass-fed lean burger on whole wheat bun with broccoli from McDonalds? Or even just something local from a national chain? Is it really that much more efficient to serve the food they do now? I know I would pay a bit more for that tasty alternative. That being said (that being nothing) me that apple pie.

  2. I love that, after all that, the invitation you pose to your readers is to share their own blini fillings. Okay, so there's that whole local thing, but still...

    I think half of this went over my head, but I get the GMA references! :)

  3. Andy - Valid points and legitimate questions. Would like to see a study of fast-food efficiency and cost effectivesness that compares mass produced/frozen/shipped in items as opposed to local products. The difference can be assumed, but I have no idea the degree to which the former surpasses the latter. I would also be interested to see a case study (from this general area) that examines the clientele when product lines change.
    And no way...why opt for a McDonalds apple pie when Jones' has the most buttery, delicious fried goodness aroung?

    Caroline - See, I knew it. That's what I get for not doing my standard, "so the point is...". The conclusion I had reached was that we should take the standard, the seemingly inevitable (not that a blini is inevitable, but fast, cheap, good food is), the universal and adapt it to or incorporate local conditions. So, I wanted blini fillings based on local products/modifications of readers' own recipes. Just a little international flair to Cumberland Co. traditions:)

    Can't wait to read your entry:)!

  4. Well heck, now I look like the idiot. No no, I actually did get "the point" but just that after all that sophisticated language and analysis and boils down to a recipe. I like that you can make the most complex topics and ideas acutally, quite simple. And the fact that you can often makes me chuckle : )

  5. I feel guilty for shopping at Wal-mart and buying Tucker McDonald's plain hamburgers. I guess I am one of those people who chooses convenience and cheap prices over doing what's best for our community businesses and the environment. Thanks Liza, for helping me see the errors of my ways. I will strive to be a better person. Oh by the way, did you know you can get two apple pies at McDonald's for just a buck?

  6. Caroline - hehe..."quite simple" probably because they're just wrong.

    Mom - hands down, the funniest thing that has ever been written on pillowbook