Food by VICE

How the Big Mac Changed the Way We Think About Food

We spoke to chefs, data journalists, YouTube stars, and McDonald’s about the burger that became edible Americana.

by Nick Rose; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
Jul 25 2017, 3:00pm

In 1967, Ronald Reagan became the governor of California, Jimi Hendrix began lighting guitars on fire, and Dr. James H. Bedford became the first person to be cryogenically frozen, as the anti-war counterculture reached a fever pitch and American youth celebrated the "Summer of Love."

Meanwhile, over in sleepy Uniontown, Pennsylvania, McDonald's franchisee Michael "Jim" Delligatti's quietly unleashed a cheeseburger onto America that would become as culturally significant as any of the events mentioned above.

By stacking two beef patties, a slice of "cheddar-blend" cheese, pickles, onions, iceberg lettuce, a magical "special sauce," and a revolutionary third slice of bread, Delligatti would create a pillar of modern fast food. These ingredients, forever immortalized in a jingle, became greater than their sum, and today, the impact of the Big Mac can be felt far beyond the grease and griddle of your local golden arches.

We spoke to chefs, data journalists, YouTube stars, and McDonald's about the past, present, and future of a burger that became edible Americana and, for better or worse, an icon of industrial fast food.

Big Mac Supernova

The Big Mac wasn't always called the Big Mac. Originally, it was named The Aristocrat, presumably because of its deluxe status on the McDonald's menu. Not surprisingly, this elitist name failed to connect with the masses that it was destined to feed, and soon it became the "Blue Ribbon Burger," though "I'll have a Blue Ribbon Burger with fries and a shake" just isn't the catchiest.

Ultimately, it was 21-year-old McDonald's advertising secretary Esther Glickstein Rose who came up with the "Big Mac" handle in 1967. When a stressed-out ad executive asked her to think of a quick name before a meeting, she blurted out the disyllabic moniker that became a branding giant, or so the story goes. Of course, in typical Mad Men fashion, everyone laughed at her, and it took McDonald's 17 years to even recognize her contribution.

Two years after Glickstein Rose's name change, the Big Mac would be on the menu of every McDonald's in the land, and account for 19 percent of total sales.

"It's a legend with an interesting history, but ultimately it comes down to the taste," says McDonald's Executive Chef and Vice President of Culinary Innovation Dan Coudreaut. For Coudreault, whose job it is to oversee the creation of new culinary wonders from the McDonald's test kitchen, the Big Mac remains absolutely vital to the McDonald's brand.

"Without a doubt, it has a timeless taste that people ask for all over the world—the unique combination of ingredients work so well together. For 50 years, we've been serving Big Macs and it remains one of the most popular burgers on our menu. This past March, we served twice as many during our Big Mac promotion and had great feedback from Millennials."

READ MORE: Matty Matheson Came to My Restaurant and Cooked Big Mac Pizza

As to why a burger from the 60s would still taste good in the mouths of young people who grew up on nuclear flavor bombs like Warhead Juniors Extreme Sour, Doritos Locos tacos, and Mountain Dew, Coudreault points to an indisputable harmony of ingredients that stands the test of time.

"No doubt it's the hint of mustard and pickles," Coudreault explains. "It holds the flavor of the sauce together perfectly, and the lettuce gives it a crispy taste when you bite into the juicy burger. The sauce hits all senses—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Absolute perfection. There's no secret about what's in our sauce. You should check out my video on YouTube!"

Sure, Dan, whatever you say.

Bao Down

But Coudreault isn't the only chef who looks to the Mac for inspiration. One of the most staggering and irrefutable facts about the Big Mac is that there is nothing in the world that tastes quite like a Big Mac, and yet it is successfully replicated an estimated 2.4 million times per day around the globe. Needless to say, that eternal popularity and je ne sais quoi factor piques the interest of chefs around the world.

"For years, it reminded me of something, and it had to do with Chinese food," Dai Lo chef and owner Nick Liu recalls. "I couldn't pinpoint it. All of a sudden, the connection came."

Big Mac Bao Bun at Dai Lo in Toronto. Photo by Luis Mora.

For Liu, that connection was between steamed bao buns and the soft, sweet sesame bread of the Big Mac, both of which were staples of his childhood diet. "For me, it was such a nostalgic thing, and it was in such close relation to my grandfather; picking me up, going to McDonald's, me looking forward to having this Big Mac. It makes that a really special thing, and I love McDonald's," Liu recounts.

"Don't tell me now you fucking hate it, because I know you fucking loved it."

This fleeting realization served as a starting point for the Big Mac bao bun he created at Dai Lo, an item that became so popular that he had to take it off the menu for fear that it would come to define Dai Lo. "I know that if I'm feeling this way, other people are feeling this way, too, so if I can create something from my nostalgic point of view, others are gonna feel the same way," Lui says, insisting that while he no longer eats Big Macs, he still respects them.

"I think it's wrong for people to be like 'Ah! McDonald's! Blah blah this and blah blah that!' because everyone ate it! When you were fucking young, you fucking loved it! Don't tell me now you fucking hate it, because I know you fucking loved it."

Burgernomics

In the 1980s, as kids like Nick Liu crushed Big Macs burgers with abandon, the burger became so ubiquitous in North America (and abroad) that its cultural weight began to be felt outside of the usual spheres of fast food.

James Fransham is a data journalist for The Economist. When I ask Fransham what a "data journalist" does, he answers, "I crunch numbers for a living; you crunch food." Fair enough.

Among the numbers crunched by economists and data journalists is purchasing power parity, or PPP. "Purchasing power parity is the notion that whilst currencies are valued against one another, they don't actually present the true cost of living in those countries," Fransham explains. Since Big Macs were pretty much everywhere on the planet by the mid-80s, Economist editor Pam Woodall realized that they could be the great equalizer of purchasing power, and so, Fransham recounts, she would gather her data by calling McDonald's around the world asking for the price of a Big Mac, tabulating all of her research in an annual Big Mac Index.

"The Economist has never taken it seriously, but people have taken it seriously."

So, if the average price of a Big Mac is $5.06 in the US and $2.15 (or 130 rubles) in Russia, the ruble would be undervalued by 57.5 percent, according to the Big Mac Index. The Economist refers to the BMI as a "lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their 'correct' level," and Fransham made sure to specify that "Burgernomics" were never intended to be an empirical economic tool. Still, it remains an important way of making academic notions more palatable to a general audience, precisely because everyone knows what a Big Mac is and roughly how much it should cost.

"The Economist has never taken it seriously, but people have taken it seriously. [The Big Mac] is only one item; it could never capture the complexity of a proper inflation basket of goods," Fransham says. "Still, it's a great way to learn about economic principles, our readers enjoy it, it's a lot of fun, and it's full of puns, which is cool. But you wouldn't want a foreign exchange policy based on the BMI."

Big Math

Another person who has applied mathematical concepts to the Big Mac in the name of education is Joe Beef chef and owner Fred Morin, who dedicated an entire page of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef to the Big Mac Theorem of seasoning.

"I was trying to find a good example of that perfect balance of seasoning so I could learn and teach it to cooks," he says. "The Big Mac was the most transcendent thing I could use to explain: Yuppies on their way to a ski hill or poor students with a bit of money all know it. It's an easy thing to reference."

Morin says that the Big Mac is a perfect illustration of how seasoning is not a pie chart of flavor profiles. "It's not just the act of adding salt, sugar, and acidity; they all interact together. As one moves, so do the others. Seasoning is not just a matter of adding this or that; it's a complex interaction."

"There was a [student] who walked in the restaurant to apply for a job, he was a mathematician or something," Morin recounts. "Math geeks would probably disagree with me on the equation but I think it's more of a Malcolm Gladwell thing than pure economic theory." Morin asked the student to help him crunch the numbers for his theorem.

"It's too much of everything, but in a perfect combination together. It's too good."

Like the BMI, Morin's Big Mac Theorem is hardly the stuff of serious academia, but it provides valuable insight into the complex chemistry of seasoning and the transcendent nature of the Big Mac can help young cooks understand even the most old-school of sauce ratios, according to Morin.

"Paul Bocuse makes a Sauce Choron—a béarnaise with tomatoes—and if you read old interviews with him, he talks about how he puts a lot of cayenne in there also. People assume it's very buttery because it's a French sauce, but because of the ratios of salt, pepper, tomato, and cayenne, it's built-up and more complex."

Big Maki

Escoffier-era sauces aside, the Big Mac is also being embraced by more modern chefs. An unlikely fan of Big Macs is sushi master Hiroyuki Terada at Miami's NoVe Kitchen and Bar. MUNCHIES spoke to Hiro days before he smashed the Guinness World Record for blindfolded carrot chopping on Gordon Ramsay's show The F Word.

In 2015, Terada posted a video to YouTube wherein he turned a run-of-the-mill Big Mac into an ornate maki roll. Some may (and have, in the comments section) accuse a sushi master of bastardizing his craft by engaging in such a lowbrow exploration of sushi ingredients, but Terada doesn't seem to care.

His YouTube channel is more about having fun than, say, knife skills or slow-motion closeups of rinsing rice. Clearly, there's an appetite for this content in a post-Jiro world, as Terada has managed to shed the stereotype of the brutally serious and ascetic sushi chef, garnering more than 770,000 subscribers and 130 million views on YouTube in the process, thanks, in part, to the Big Mac.

Terada says he regularly enjoys Big Macs and has a particular affinity for the sauce, meaning that it was destined to end up on his Will It Sushi? YouTube series. "It's a unique thing. I like McDonald's. I like the Big Mac," Terada says.

"It tasted OK, but the shape was different. I cut the roll into eight pieces. They tasted like sliders," he said of his creation, to which he added French fries, avocado, and microgreens.

Another soigné take on the burger that became an online sensation was chef Jaimie van Heije's deconstructed Big Mac tartare, using only ingredients from McDonald's.

But unlike some of the chefs above, the Big Mac was hardly a source of inspiration; he did it to prove a point. "I wasn't inspired by the Big Mac—someone challenged me to make a good dish with all of the ingredients of a Big Mac, to which I said, 'No, I can't, because I don't like the Big Mac and I had some doubts about the quality,' because all I saw online were videos about pink slime."

But after visiting a McDonald's factory in Germany, van Heije relented, and agreed to riff on the Big Mac, as long as all the ingredients were raw before he prepared them, "I made a tartare to show that the meat was good enough to eat raw." So, Van Heije used regular Big Mac sauce to season the meat, created a sesame emulsion, made a cream with the lettuce, using an egg yolk instead of cheese on top of the beef.

The end result is a visually stunning ode to fast food and to a burger whose biggest flaw might be the fact that it was too successful.

"Growing up, the Big Mac was the burger for adults because you couldn't get it with a Happy Meal," recalls van Heije. "I don't like it anymore. It's too sweet. It's just a little boring, it doesn't surprise me anymore. It's too good."


Correction: A previous version of this story stated that an estimated 2.4 million Big Macs were made around the world every year. The correct figure is that 2.4 million Big Macs are made every day. We regret the error.