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An Ode to the McDonald’s Happy Meal Cheeseburger

Those Golden Arches look a little bit like a fountain of tears today. Well, if you turned them upside down and ignored the fact that they look like droopy boobs. Either way, news that the fast food behemoth will be phasing out the cheeseburger from the Happy Meal makes me nostalgic for a period of years in my twenties when I lived off those things. It was the nineties. I was dead broke. Waiting tables barely paid my rent while getting through college. I had no family financial assistance plan. So to manage, I pawned the title to my car every six months, skipped buying groceries and lifehacked my way into surviving off one to two fast food meals a day. One of them was the Happy Meal.

This was not, I should note, a step down from my usual cuisine. I did not realize I was actually slumming it. Contrary to what most people assume, poor people don’t actually eat more fast food than the wealthy — it’s the middle class gobbling up all that fat and salt. I ate relatively well growing up for a kid on food stamps from the trailer park with a single mom who made $12k a year. It was, after all, the South, where even the most unskilled cooks learn to make bad cuts of meat and a freshly picked bushel of green beans go a long way thanks to slow cooking and lard. It’s because eating at a fast food place during my childhood was an absolute exception, because we were so poor, that my sisters and I always viewed it as a treat, when in fact the real treat had been eating farm to table most of our lives.

No matter: We thought our Southern food was bullshit, and when my mom’s rich boyfriend treated us all to McDonald’s or Hardee’s breakfasts on Sunday mornings, telling us we could have anything we liked, it was this, we thought, that must be what it felt like to be rich. So we ordered sausage biscuits and Egg McMuffins and gorged until they made us sick, not realizing our mother’s handmade biscuits were our family’s food equivalent of a legit heirloom.

As a newly minted adult at 18, waiting tables still never did anything but barely cover my rent. I graduated to eating fast food for lunch, and solved my poverty by adapting the skills of the inexperienced entry level worker everywhere: work only at fast food joints and restaurants, and scam the most free food possible so I never have to pay for it.

At Wendy’s, that was skimming off bins of salad bar ingredients in the walk-in fridge. At Pizza Hut, that was figuring out when and how to order the discounted personal pizza every employee got for each six hour shift without having to actually pay anything. (Tip: wait for the cool manager’s shift to start, the one that took lots of smoke breaks and didn’t care.) Finally, get in good with the cooks at every chain resto job, and you’d get thrown a slightly overdone prime rib on Friday nights if they liked you.

This worked from the time I was 17 until my first “real” job at 25, but the trouble was, it only covered one meal. The other meal was always a Happy Meal. I’m not exactly sure how I ended up with this perfect solution, but it was clearly a mixture of a few factors: my nostalgia for the breakfast as a kid, they were always open and always a few blocks away, and at the nineties price of $1.99, the full value of the Happy Meal was a complete meal and a steal. I didn’t have $2.79 for the two-cheeseburgers meal, and it was also just too much food so that when I ate it, it almost made me sick.

The Happy Meal, by contrast, was perfect for an underweight twentysomething subsisting off just two meals and a nighttime diet of cheap American draft beer. It came with a single cheeseburger, a smaller French fry, and a small soda. I can’t exactly calculate how many McDonald’s cheeseburgers I’ve consumed in my life, but it easily exceeds a thousand, and I can still conjure the taste of the blandly salty patty mixed with the soft, sweet bun, ketchup, mustard, pickle and the dehydrated onions, somehow managing to be distinct while also taking on the mouthfeel of a single food blob. I still remember the texture of the wax paper, and the final, critical act of peeling off and eating the errant semi-melted cheese product still stuck to it.

I messaged an old boyfriend who shared my affection for McDonald’s cheeseburgers during that era, and asked him why he loved them so. “Because it had so little meat on it that there was no way it could taste bad if you got a bad patty,” he said. Later, married to a vegetarian, he would sometimes drive through McDonald’s after a bar night and order the two cheeseburgers meal the same way it came, only with no meat. “It tasted exactly the same as the one with meat,” he recalled.

And it’s not that I thought it tasted amazing — I’d had a “real” cheeseburger, the homemade kind, and a “fancy” one, like from a real, sit-down restaurant. McDonald’s cheeseburgers weren’t great, but in a way, they were beyond great. So bad they were good, while also perfectly playing the part of food. I can’t remember ever getting one that didn’t taste right. The McDonald’s cheeseburger never let me down.

There’s a reason the McDonald’s cheeseburger still ranks among fast food burgers, even today. It’s not because it’s great; most other burgers far surpass it with minimal effort (looking at you, Five Guys). It’s because it’s a time capsule of some of our first food experiences. No one thinks the sex they had when they lost their virginity was necessarily the greatest. It’s just it was the first, so you never forget it.

Of course, there’s no telling what the net impact of having eaten that many cheeseburgers is going to do to me eventually. McDonald’s is nixing the cheeseburger to make the Happy Meal healthier, an oxymoron of the highest order, because the whole point of the Happy Meal was to turn children into addicts by associating the place with clowns, playgrounds, sugar, fat and salt, and of course, a mass produced, shittily made toy. That McDonald’s has ever tried to be actually healthy is pure folly. They sell bad food by mass consumption, and call that happiness.

While eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers for years never made me “happy,” it did make me feel “comforted.” It killed the hunger pangs, and it felt to my poverty-scarred mind like an indulgence. This was before lobbyists and health officials and parents laid in hard on McDonald’s for peddling poison to children, forcing them to add apple slices and get rid of soda in those same meals.

I don’t really care if children don’t get cheeseburgers in Happy Meal form anymore. If they never taste it, they’ll never associate its warped appeal with the most positive memories of their childhood, and they won’t then carry it into adulthood. That seems to be part of the motivation for taking it off the Happy Meal list of options on the menu; Orders for the cheeseburger Happy Meal specifically have dropped 14 percent, meaning it’s losing its hold on kids today. (It won’t be phased out entirely until 2022, and of course, you can still request it if you want, it just won’t be listed on the menu.)

But that’s a good thing. My 7-year-old kid knows what McDonald’s is, but she’s been there less than a handful of times in her life, and the toys aren’t that good, even to her. When we decide to slum it nutritionally, we can just order pizza or go to Chipotle and get too much guac.

On a whim, I tried a McDonald’s cheeseburger again a few years ago, after easily a decade of eschewing fast food. I was sure I would still love it, but after years of eating less processed food, it tasted like a bag of salt with a sock in it. So I’ll pour one out for you, McDonald’s cheeseburger, but only for the memory.