McMeaning in the Maw of the Masses: Analyzing Fast Food Mash-Ups
Ohio State University
This paper analyzes the foodways of teenagers in the digital age, specifically the construction of “fast food mash-ups.” These practices, unlike typically documented ethnographic foodways, do not involve cookery; rather they involve the reappropriation of readily available fast food items. The results are massive hybrid sandwiches, like the “McGangBang,” a McDonald’s McChicken sandwich inside of a double cheeseburger. Using interviews with past and present members of the folk group that engages in these practices, collected online and in person, I will explore the meaning of these reappropriations to the people who make and consume them. This paper focuses on the social and psychological factors that influence fast food mash-ups, including the rite of passage ritual of consumption in excess, the desire to deviate from cultural and institutional norms, and the struggle to create meaning in the mass-produced food and drink that dominate youth food culture, as well as the function of fast food mash-ups as legends, which are being acted on ostensively whenever the sandwiches are ordered, constructed or consumed.
I was first introduced the concept of fast food mash-ups in November of 2010 when I was interviewing a friend, Mike, for a project focusing on the insider knowledge of teenagers, specifically involving delinquent activity. Mike is a 21-year-old from Berea, OH, a Cleveland suburb, and a self-proclaimed expert on this sort of activity, which he calls “hoodrat stuff.” Among his descriptions of different delinquent activities were several mentions of intentionally excessive consumption, usually of alcohol. However, following instructions on how to “Drink four Four Lokos to become a God,” Mike told me about the McMiracle, a sandwich made from the combination of two Mcdonald’s menu items, which he heard about from a friend who had heard about it in North Carolina.
Mike: So my friends were down in North Carolina playing on tour with Headstart in 2009 (This was the summer after Mike’s first year of college, when he was 19). They’re in like a small little band. They kind of suck, but um they ran into this kid at this commune, and I guess the story is this kid was like, super-amped to tell them about the McMiracle and they’re like “What’s a McMiracle?” and he’s like “You take a McDouble and a McChicken, and I don’t really know like, the special order, but like, he had it down where he interlaced his fingers and like he moved every finger to like represent a different layer. Like, the way they explained the story was great so I’m sure that the way he explained it was even better. But it goes like: bun, patty, lettuce, blah blah blah blah blah blah, bun, something like chicken, patty, you know, and it’s just like…he went through it and like, I don’t know, like the explanation just sounded so great. I’ve never had a McMiracle but those who have said it’s like the best thing on Earth.
Me: Can you order it at McDonalds?
Mike: No, you can’t. If you went to McDonalds and ordered a McMiracle, they’d think you’re dumb. You order the things and it’s like a DIYi, yeah.
When I started working on this project, I set out to analyze the foodways of the group Mike referred to as the practitioners of “hoodrat stuff,” and who I had at the time identified as “American disaffected suburban teenagers.” I determined that the foodways of these teenagers frequently do not involve cookery; rather they involve the reappropriation or the special use of readily available mass-produced items. When I turned to the internet to look for regional variation of the McMiracle, I soon found out that this sandwich is the most popular of a huge tradition of assembling hybrid fast food creations, which have been featured on countless food and humor blogs and forumsii and in nearly a thousand YouTube videos. As a result I discovered that the transmission of this foodway usually occurs online, as YouTube users often view a video involving this foodway and then link the video to an additional audience or respond to the video by making (or ordering, I’ll get to this later) and eating the food themselves and posting a video.
I have adopted the term “Fast Food Mash-Ups” to talk about these hybrid fast food creations, a term used by The Village Voice in an article parodying this cultural phenomenon. A ‘mash-up’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A mixture or fusion of disparate elements”, which describes the hybrid nature of combining two fast food menu items, as well as referencing “a piece of popular music created by merging the elements of two or more existing songs using computer technology and production techniques.” Fast food mash-ups are similar to musical mash-ups not only in their fusion of disparate elements, but also in their most popular medium of transmission, YouTube, and their most frequent creators and followers, the generation of young people that Mark Prensky calls “digital natives” (Prensky 2001). These digital natives are fundamentally different from their parents and past generations because they grew up after the “singularity” of “the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology” (Prensky 2001). Fast food mash-ups therefore behave as viral foodways that reflect the social interests of disaffected teenagers, such as the desire to deviate from cultural and institutional norms and to participate in rite of passage and peer initiation rituals. They also reflect a new set of social interests specific to this generation of teenagers, who are also digital natives, focusing on self-presentation and performance in an online community and the vernacular fame of “going viral.”
The empirical data for this analysis of fast food mash-ups comes from personal interviews, blogs, YouTube videos, the comments and responses to these YouTube videos, the profiles of YouTube users, and an email interview with the creator of one fast food mash-up videos. Both informants who were interviewed personally are friends of mine who identify themselves as disaffected teenagers, even though they were both in their twenties at the time of the interview, implying that though they are no longer technically teenagers, they still feel similarly disaffected. Both of these personal interviews were conducted after the interviewees’ candid mention of a fast food mash-up, which I then asked them to describe while I recorded them. The blogs I consulted serve as user-generated archives of material about these mash-ups. The blog, EatMeDaily documents the online history of one particular fast food mash-up, and a Cracked.com article provides the author’s narrative of his personal experience with several fast food mash-ups. Though I focus on a close reading of the YouTube channel and fast food mash-up video by user LTMayo, I gathered generalized data regarding the age of the participants in this type of video, as well as the settings in which the filming typically occurred by viewing the video thumbnails, user profiles and videos involving fast food mash-ups on YouTube. In addition, I was able to interview the user LTMayo via email.
The fast food mash-up that Mike had called the “McMiracle” turns out to be the most popular and well-documented fast food mash-up, with its entire online history since 2006 chronicled in meticulous detail on a blog called EatMeDaily. However, while Mike called it the “McMiracle,” it is most commonly referred to as “The McGangBang,” by everyone else, that is, by 125,000 search results on Google with the safe search on.
Though countless blogs cover the “McGangBang,” EatMeDaily covers its history in what Cracked.com calls “exhaustive detail,” in the article titled “The McGangBang: a McChicken Sandwich Inside a Double Cheeseburger [a chronicle].” The first documentation of the McGangBang on the Internet, according to EatMeDaily, was by user jenifurr on urbandicitonary.comiii in May 2006, which said that it originated at the Daytona Beach McDonald’s. She claims that at this Florida McDonalds, you can order the sandwich by name and the employees will know what it is and make it for you. Subsequent urban dictionary posts claim things like that it can actually only be ordered at Texas A&M University, and only after 2 am, and the name ‘McGangBang’ comes from the fact that it contains “two macs and a chick” (TAMU2014). EatMeDaily sets up a timeline starting with the urban dictionary posts, tracing discussion about the sandwich from a thread on NIKEtalk forums in November 2008, and through eight or more forums in December 2008, including several Honda forums, the 3GN Media Forum and bodybuilding.com (Brion 2009). The site includes several YouTube videos of people trying to order a McGangBang by name in a McDonalds drive thru, as well as instructional assembly videos and videos of people eating their creations. Finally, the site explains some of the variations on the McGangBang, including the ‘McWhitey’ (two McChicken patties with a Filet-O-Fish in between, with tartar sauce), and the WhopGangBang (two Whoppers and a Tendercrisp).
Social Functions of Fast Food Mash-ups
The ethnographic study of foodways typically focuses on domestic cookery, which is marked by regional variation. Don Yoder writes in Folklore and Folklife: an Introduction that “everyday, domestic family cookery …is obviously the opposite of the commercial, institutional, and scientific-nutritional versions of cookery” (325). He discusses regional variation of domestic cookery and its place in folklife, focusing on food preparation, food storage and the meal system. However, the “commercial, institutional, and scientific versions of cookery” that he mentioned as opposite to domestic cookery are never described as foodways of any sort; they are only described as the antitheses of the foodways he describes. By Yoder’s criteria, the assembly or consumption of the McGangBang is not a foodway at all.
In the article “Food Choice, Symbolism and Identity,” Michael Owen Jones references this exclusion of non-domestic foodways saying “When paid attention to, the symbolic is typically restricted to foodstuffs or ceremonial and celebratory occasions involving consumption as commensality.” However, he says that “symbolic discourse utilizing food is more pervasive and complex, and it involves more processes in a wider variety of circumstances and with more diverse meanings than what is generally discussed” (Jones 2005). In other words, he acknowledges that many different foods have symbolic meaning, even if they are not the domestic foods that are attached to the symbolic connotations of family, home and heritage. In fact, Jones notes that the symbolic meaning of some foods is in direct opposition to these notions of domestic cookery. Referencing the foodways of immigrant youth, he explains that they prefer to eat fast food, junk food, frozen food and convenience store items, because these items “pervade the wider society that the youth feel, or wish to appear to be a part of, rather than apart from” (Jones 2005).
In trying to determine the symbolic meaning of fast food mash-ups like the McGangBang, one can attempt to fit this foodway into the model determined by Don Yoder, which emphasized domestic cookery assuming that these mash-ups were more or less what happens when a folk group does not have the means to actually cook anything. The folk group primarily responsible for fast food mash-ups consists of teenagers, many of whom are equipped with webcams and camera phones, but few of whom with extensive cooking knowledge or private access to a kitchen. Seeking independence from their family homes and lacking personal living spaces, teenagers meet as groups in liminal spaces like cars, parking lots, mall food courts, and fast food restaurants, which are public and do not provide access to kitchens. Therefore domestic cookery is not relevant as a foodway of these teenagers. With the constraint of meeting in a liminal space, one could assume that fast food mash-ups are their way of creating meaning in their food, because knowing about them is esoteric knowledge and because they build the sandwiches themselves. Fast food mash-ups are a rebellion against the homogeneity of fast food, because they involve making something new and exciting and they are a subversion of capitalism, because they involve reclaiming the means of production of the food.
Fast Food Mash-Ups as Legends
However, these reasons do not explain the layers of intentionality that accompany fast food mash-ups’ presence online, or their status as legends. Sandwiches like the McGangBang function as urban legends (though by ‘urban’ I really mean ‘contemporary,’ seeing as much of the transmission of these legends occurs in transgeographical space of the internet) in the narrative surrounding them as “secret” menu items that can be ordered through the fast food drive-thru. For example, one commenter on the online folklore archive Snopes.com forum says:
I’ve heard about this new “off menu” item from McDonalds.
Apparently its called the McGangBang. Supposedly its made from the cheeseburger and chicken sandwich available on McD’s dollar menu. I’ve read that this combination makes a huge sandwich that only costs “$2.19″. Supposedly the sandwich is made from taking the chicken sandwich and putting inside the cheeseburger” (Snopes.com 2009).
These legends are being acted on ostensively whenever a McGangBang is assembled or whenever it is ordered at a restaurant. When EatMeDaily mentions the user tmay from Arlington, Texas who posted pictures on the NikeTalk forum after successfully ordering the McGangBang by name in the drive-thru (Brion 2009), they mark that user’s testimony that the legend that claims the McGangBang is a secret McDonald’s menu item is true. Though assembling the McGangBang functions as a traditional foodway of a group of online peers, oftentimes the goal of participating in this foodway is legend-tripping to a McDonalds is to see if you can order a ‘McGangBang’ and receive a giant sandwich instead of a scolding. In this way the ostensive action of ordering a McGangbang is a rebellious activity, because it involves deviating from the normal menu. As an urban dictionary definition of the McGangbang (by dzinhly), says “it’s sort of a subversive act for people to order it by name, as well as a thrill to confound the McDonald’s employee with an order for a McGangBang” (dzinhly 2009).
Rite of Passage and Performance for Peers Online and IRLiv
Phil Gurzy is the pseudonym of a 19-year-old from Rochester, New York who invented a fast food mash-up, the Burger King Buck Bang and posted a YouTube video of himself ordering the ingredients and constructing the sandwich on his YouTube channel, under the username “LTMayo” The Buck Bang is pretty much the same thing as a McGangBang, only with a Burger King double cheeseburger and a Spicy Tendercrisp sandwich.
In investigating the other videos on LTMayo’s YouTube channel, I found that for the most part the videos consisted of Phil and his friends driving around and smoking cigarettes, and in one instance smoking a ‘cross joint’ (a joint rolled in the shape of a cross). In the “Buck Bang” video, Phil explains how to make the Buck Bang in a way that is obviously supposed to be funny. At one point the video cuts from Phil sitting with his completed sandwich, to him standing and saying “consumption,” then back to him sitting, now with ten or fifteen open RockStar energy drinks in front of him. LTMayo’s ‘About Me’ on the channel’s profile says, perhaps sarcastically, “It’s not easy being a well off group of white kids in the suburbs. We’re just doing what we can to get by.“ (LTMayo 2009).
I was able to interview Phil Gurzy via email in March 2011. Noticing the joke about “consumption,” I asked Phil if he considered himself in any way anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist, and he said “I appreciate the obvious perks like being able to buy whatever I want for a price but I feel like it [capitalism and/or consumerism] is a system that encourages people to live beyond their means and spend money that they don’t have.” I asked him how he felt about fast food corporations like Burger King and McDonald’s and he said “It’s brainwashing. I feel that they put too much energy into making sure their icons recognize with children. I would compare Ronald McDonald to Camel Joe.” These anti-consumerist opinions seem contradictory to the fact that earlier in the interview he said he “had a McGangBang yesterday and a Buck Bang the day before“ and that he and his friends consume the sandwich on a regular basis.
However, his comparison of Ronald McDonald to Camel Joe is telling of the similarities between the indulgent, artery-clogging act of eating fast food mash-ups, and the risky act of smoking. Making enormous fast food mash-up sandwiches is a deviant activity in the same way that smoking cigarettes is a deviant activity, not because they subvert capitalism, but because they go against the cultural and institutional moral standard of health. It is absolutely obvious that fast food mash-ups like the McGangBang are not healthy. I would include the calorie total for a McGangBang, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. I will, however describe the physical and psychological affects described by people who eat these mash-ups.
One mash-up collected from Noah, age 21 from Astoria, NY, is called the ‘Quesa-rrito,’ made from items from Taco Bell. He described the quesa-rrito as “A brilliant taste explosion.” He says: “You get the chicken quesadilla, but you tell them not to cut it. After that you get yourself a Grilled Stuft Burrito. You take the quesadilla and you proceed to wrap it around your Grilled Stuft Burrito and you know, after that there’s not much to do.”
He says a friend of his from Kent Island, Maryland made it up in high school and then “brought it with him” to Ohio State University. Noah tells me:“I ate one towards the end of my freshman year, when I built up the stomach strength to …try one. If there was one word to describe it: it was heavy. Too much cheese, too much meat, just too much of everything. I finished it yes, I finished it, but I felt like shit afterwards. I felt like shit all day.”
In the Cracked.com review of the McGangBang, in an article titled “Fast Food Meals for Failures,” Daniel O’Brien expresses a similar sentiment. He says “Immediately after eating [a McGangBang]:”
You’re mad at yourself, your stomach is rejecting the obviously unholy union swirling around within, and your soul dies a little bit. Basically an all around crisis on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Also, walking around in public afterward is a strange, unsettling adventure. If you lost your virginity in the closet of a crowded party, then the phenomenon will be immediately familiar to you: When you’re out among random people, strangers stare at you sideways, maybe they back away when they see you coming and, even though it’s impossible, you know that, somehow they know what filthy thing you did. They know. (2010)
Now, Cracked.com is a humor site, so we can assume Daniel O’Brien is being melodramatic when calls the feeling “an all around crisis on physical, emotional and spiritual levels.” However, both he and Noah’s descriptions of the after-effects of eating fast food mash-ups show remorse for eating them because they felt physically sick, but also because they felt guilty, as if their activity was shameful. This guilt for eating such an unhealthy, indulgent food is a result of the culturally enforced moral value of health. In “Food Choice, Symbolism and Identity,” Michael Owen Jones refers to this moral value as “healthism,” which he says emphasizes one’s personal responsibility for one’s health, “creating a moral discourse” surrounding health problems like obesity and diabetes, which “blames individuals for their problems, robbing them of self-esteem and a sense of agency” (Jones 2005). He cites an interview with a student at UCLA in the 1970s during a strong counterculture health movement, who chose to eat Spam because it was “the antithesis of perfection and health” (Jones 2005). Consuming fast food mash-ups represents a similar antithesis, and acts a rebellion against the notion that one should not eat something that is so unhealthy or so “bad” for you.
The desire to rebel against the pressures of the moral code of healthy eating affects a wide variety of age groups, because people of all stages of life are held responsible for their health. However, when referencing adolescent foodways, this rebellion has the added factor of rebelling against food morals imposed by parents. Michael Owen Jones points out that the foodways of teenage girls often include “mall foods,” meaning fast food and junk food, because healthy food served at home symbolizes ties to family and “mall foods” symbolize loyalty to a group of peers and independence from home. In this way, teenagers’ eating fast food represents their autonomy as adults who can make their own food choices, and eating fast food mash-ups represents a rite of passage into this autonomy.
Eating a McGangBang is not a ritual rite of passage in the same way as say, a Bar Mitzvah, because while a Bar Mitzvah is culturally and institutionally sanctioned, fast food mash-ups are deviant and performed for a specific peer group. However, in “Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage,”Ronald Grimes claims that in contemporary American society, “initiation into adulthood is a vague and uncertain process, not well-focused by identifiable rites of passage.” He says that parents no longer establish rituals to initiate children into adulthood, and that this task now belongs to their peers (Grimes 2000). For this reason, various peer-sanctioned activities, like eating fast food mash-ups, symbolically represent the transition into adulthood.
In addition to symbolically representing the transition to adulthood, the consumption of fast food mash-ups resembles some conventions of traditional coming of age rituals. Grimes says that initiation rituals “use a dramatic structure with staging and spectacle to facilitate acts of rupture” and that these “acts of rupture represent a mystical death and resurrection”(Grimes 2000). Fast food mash-ups simulate this “death,” when those who consume them do so with an intention of masochism, knowing that they will be sick if they eat the whole thing, and doing it anyway. As Noah says about the Quesa-ritto “I finished it yes, I finished it.” Grimes also mentions a gender difference in initiation into adulthood. He says that boy’s ceremonies are more public and dramatic, and that they “focus on the demonstration of skills and exhibition of prowess.” I mentioned earlier that through my exploration of fast food mash-ups through my interviews and on YouTube, I found almost no girls or women participating. It is important to note the consumption of most fast food mash-ups is essentially a meat-eating contest, which emphasizes adolescent male desires to appear strong and aggressive.
The “dramatic structure with staging” that Grimes uses to describe rite of passage rituals applies even better to the exhibition of the McGangBang in YouTube videos than it does to performing the consumption ritual for a peer group in real life, because in many videos, like LTMayo’s “Buck Bang,” the performance is literally scripted and staged. The performance of ordering, constructing, and eating the McGangBang for an audience of YouTube viewers serves a masculine demonstration of prowess for all the same reasons it does for an IRL peer group, but with the added aspects of appealing to an online peer group. LTMayo’s “Buck Bang” video is a good example of the layers of performance that the makers of these videos add to strive for online popularity. Phil is acting in his video, he is the only person in the video, and he is directly addressing the audience. This serves as evidence that the jokes he is making, like shouting “throw some O’s on that bitch” while putting onion rings on the Buck Bang, are directed to online viewers. I asked Phil why he enjoyed making YouTube videos, and he said “making something people like, like when you’re at a party and someone you don’t usually hang out with tells you it was hilarious or awesome.” In this way, the intention of gaining popularity and acceptance on YouTube is also an attempt to gain popularity and acceptance among an IRL peer group.
By performing the eating of fast food mash-ups for an online audience, the publicity and dramatization of the masculine rite of passage are all the more enhanced, and the popularity of the video, if it goes viral, can gain the maker not only acceptance, but fame. In striving for fame on YouTube, people like Phil Gurzy seize the opportunity to invent their own legend, and to become legendary themselves. In this way, fast food mash-ups represent a subversion of the culturally enforced notion of healthism, a rite of passage ritual for adolescents, and a vehicle for developing a potent and legendary identity online.
Brion, Raphael. 2009. The McGangBang: a McChicken Sandwich Inside a Double Cheeseburger [a Chronicle]. Eat Me Daily : Food Is Culture. March 2. Accessed March 18, 2011. http://www.eatmedaily.com/2009/03/the-mcgangbang-a-mcchicken-sandwich-inside-a-double-cheeseburger/.
The Burger King Buck Bang. 2011. Directed by Mayo LT. Performed by LTMayo. YouTube – LTMayo’s Channel. February 14. Accessed March 1, 2011. http://www.YouTube.com/user/LTMayo#p/u/1/v8y-ZAAfg9A.
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Jones, Michael Owen. 2007. Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity: Bread-and-Butter Issues for Folkloristics and Nutrition Studies. Journal of American Folklore 120(476): 129-77. doi:1231553441 .
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O’Brien, Daniel. 2010. “Fastfood Meals for Failures.” Cracked.com–America’s Only Humor & Video Site Since 1958. April 30, 2010. Accessed March 1, 2011. http://www.Cracked.com/blog/fastfood-meals-for-failures.
“Mash-Up.” 2006. Oxford English Dictionary.Third edition, March; online version September 2011. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/266403>; accessed 12 November 2011.
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Sietsama, Robert. 2009. Fork in the Road Presents: Futuristic Fast Food Mash-Ups – New York Restaurants and Dining – Fork in the Road. The Village Voice. December 22. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/2009/12/fork_in_the_roa_57.php.
Yoder, Don. 1972. “Folk Cookery.” In Folklore and Folklife an Introduction, Edited by Richard M. Dorson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 326-49..
Meagan Winkelman is a student at the Ohio State University studying English with a concentration in Folklore. Her research interests include conspiracy theory, millennialism, adolescent and delinquent folk practices, and folklore and identity creation in digital culture.
i “DIY” stands for “do-it-yourself,” and broadly refers to an anarcho-punk ethic that encourages anti-consumerism and self-reliance.
iii urban dictionary is an online, user-edited dictionary of slang terms.
iv “IRL” is an internet term for “in real life”