I finished the hefty burger, its tangy, relish-spiked sauce still coating my tongue, then I dunked the french fries, two, three at a time, into the puddle of rapidly dwindling ketchup. All that remained were a few salty, pale yellow stubs hiding at the bottom of the shiny red box, but I was greedy, shoveling these crispy stragglers into my mouth with resolve. The vanilla soft-serve began to wilt on the far corner of my tray. With sticky hands I reached for it, too. I knew shame should have coursed through me as I swallowed each mouthful, but my state was purely blissful. For the first time in twenty-five years, I loved McDonald’s.
In my native New York City, where I spent nearly fifteen years after college, eating at McDonald’s would have been unfathomable. Sure, I gladly partook in In-N-Out Burger expeditions when in LA, slurped down Wendy’s Frosties on road trips, and was always elated when long flight connections allowed for a Bojangles’ Cajun Filet Biscuit. But I primarily wrote about food and drink for a living, and my mornings, afternoons, and evenings revolved around sophisticated new restaurants and bars with leather banquettes and walls of subway tiles. I sampled strawberry-strewn market greens, arctic char with pickled onions, and chocolate-hazelnut tarts, washing them down with bourbon–egg white cocktails. Relaxing nights in were also glorious: takeout feasts of spicy, basil-laced noodles and sloppy gyros slicked with tzatziki. There was so much delicious, affordable, readily available food in New York, stepping into the artificial, mass-produced world of McDonald’s always seemed crass and unnecessary, a sinister mockery of the chefs who so lovingly toiled away in the hot, urban kitchens I revered.
I thought about this as I unwrapped that Big Mac with sheer delight, how this act would likely elicit scorn among many of the food-obsessed folks I knew back home. But I was in Budapest. I was still anonymous here, the very reason I moved to this stunning city three years ago.
I lived in New York five years too long, leading to a steady buildup of misery and resentment. During my days in Astoria, where I lived, I wrote curled up on the sofa and stopped only to snag a spinach pie from my favorite Greek bakery, or to sign for fancy bottles of hand-delivered whisky. At night, I’d slip into some overpriced dress bought at a Brooklyn boutique, flick on mascara, and take the subway to an hours-long dinner or a party with never-ending flutes of bubbly and myriad hugs from strangers who pretended to be friends. I came home from these soirees each night, and the insincere small talk would leave me feeling more suffocated than the evening before.
When I finally got the courage to leave New York — a city that no longer resembled the bohemian fantasies I conjured as a restless child — I fled to Europe, the only other place I dreamed of calling home since my early fascination with globes. Budapest has graceful courtyards, gritty streets, and no-nonsense denizens who aren’t remotely interested in exchanging faux how-are-yous. I didn’t have friends there and I didn’t understand the language. Invisibility was a scenario far more alluring than any of those over-the-top shindigs I attended — and I embraced it.
Growing up on Long Island, home-cooked meals were the norm. But I was a suburban kid, one who looked forward to the rare visit to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut for Happy Meal toys and personal-pan pizzas accompanied by Debbie Gibson blaring from the jukebox. Those simple meals symbolized an unfussy, promising era (back when it seemed that Santa Claus and Sweet Valley High might just be real), well before I began to care about farmers-market rhubarb pies and getting in on conversations where acquaintances name-dropped Danny Meyer and David Chang.