Consider the Chicken McNugget

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to go to McDonald’s. And, on those rare road-trip instances when we did stop in, my brothers and I certainly weren’t allowed a Happy Meal.

So of course we wanted them desperately, with their tasty chicken bits, fun packaging, and — most of all — the cheap plastic toy in the box.

Now, I haven’t had a Chicken McNugget in longer than I can remember, and I want to think for a moment about why that is.

Growing up in the 1990s, there was still a case to be made that the McNugget (or the Happy Meal itself) was the apotheosis of the American promise. “A chicken in every pot” was a radical aspiration when Harry Truman uttered it; by my childhood, you could get chicken tastier than any President Truman had dreamed of, for cheaper than he could have imagined, 27/7. With a toy.

Then came Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a people’s history of everything. And we began to see the McNugget as the apotheosis of America: a weirdly unnatural affront to people and planet, relentlessly marketed at subsidized prices by a rapacious multinational corporation to children and vulnerable populations who’d been systemically priced out of vegetables. And that toy came from China.

These days, our culture is tearing itself apart over which version of that story is true. Of course, the trouble is that both of them are.

The deeper problem is that the promise is still the promise: whatever you want, you can have it faster and cheaper than you or Harry Truman can believe. But like most promises that sound too good to be true, this one is, too. And we’re no longer able to ignore all the costs we’ve hidden so deeply for so long.