Chicken McNuggets are a constant in my life.
What? They are. They hit the market in the early 1980s, only a few years after I was born. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve always been there.
I actively dislike 99% of the McDonald’s menu; the McNuggets and the fries being the only exceptions. That, you see, is a value meal. It used to be the number 7. Now it’s the number 10. That threw me for a long time, I’ll tell you. They used to taste one way, and on certain winter days I can remember exactly what that was. Now they taste another way. Still good, but… different. They used to have some of them which were dark meat. I loved those best, even though every once in a while I found… things… in them.
Yes, I know that they’re gross. Oh, I’ve seen that picture. Please don’t show me that picture again! Ew. I don’t care that they’re horrible, I love them anyway.
Because McNuggets have been there for my whole life, I have all kinds of memories surrounding them. So, here you go, a life in McNuggets.
The late 1980s. Avon, Connecticut
For some reason someone made a McDonald’s with dark wood paneling and tasteful pictures on the walls. God knows why, except that they thought maybe the rich people in the Farmington Valley would like to have some McClass in their joint.
I had a horrible sore throat, and I mean it was excruciatingly bad. I got these Death Throats a few times per year without fail when I was younger; they really didn’t go away until a few years as a high school teacher gave me an incredible immune system. As a treat, to make me feel better, my mother took me to this McDonald’s, far from home. We were there for some other reason, maybe to visit the flag shop I loved (I had a flag obsession. I probably bought the flag of Albania).
My sister went through a phase where she really hated McDonald’s, and we didn’t eat there for years. This was the first time I’d had a McNugget in a long while. It was painful to eat, swallowing hurt like crazy, but I loved it, I was so happy. They tasted a little like Styrofoam from the container. Let’s not tell my sister, I said to my mother. Okay, she said back, and we smiled at one another.
1994. Newington, Connecticut
I was a miserable teenager, by and large, but I did the swim team and that made me sort of happy. I was fast with the backstroke, even though I hated the backstroke because I couldn’t see where I was going and got water up my nose. Sure, I could have used nose plugs, but clearly that was not how I rolled. Clearly!
After practice my dad would pick me up, and we’d often swing by McDonald’s. I’d order a 20-piece McNugget, and I would proceed to Eat. It. All.
Teenage boy. If you haven’t been one, you probably won’t understand, but I could eat anything and everything and stay rail thin. In fact, I needed to eat everything. That was how it felt, at least.
At the end of the season I came down with a killer cold and had to miss the final meet. I decided to blame the McNuggets.
1996. Rosenheim, Bavaria, Germany
I was an exchange student, so of course one of the things I did while I was in Germany was find a McDonald’s to eat at. Sometimes, I needed the familiar so desperately it hurt.
There was one in the picturesque city center of Rosenheim. In Germany, the fries are called pommes frites, which is actually French, and beer is on the menu. I didn’t try the beer, but I did notice that the McNuggets tasted different. They were… sweeter, somehow.
1998. New London, Connecticut
I had a routine. I’d walk into town, a couple of miles from the college, and swing by the comic book store. I’d buy whatever was new. It might have been Battle Angel Alita, The Maxx, Strangers in Paradise or just the latest Batman, but I always picked up two or three issues. Then I’d hike over to the McDonald’s on Colman St., on the edge of the city, and sit for a while reading comic books and eating McNuggets.
For a while, all the chaos in my head stilled, and the world was nothing but a plastic seat, Batman, and some greasy food.
That year I wrote a review of all the local McDonald’s for the campus satire magazine. I had walked to every one.
2008. The Ohio Turnpike
My wife and I were taking a trip to Chicago to attend the wedding of some friends, and drove through the pancake-flatness of Ohio. I’d never been to the Midwest before, and found the flatness both enthralling and a little terrifying.
The rest stops in Ohio are amazing, and they all have, unsurprisingly, a McDonald’s in them. I ate my McNuggets and we talked about the trip, and how different it was, here. We were stressed and tired, but I was happy to be on the road with her. We had miles and miles and miles to go.
2010. South Windsor, Connecticut
This, I thought as I ate first the breading then the “meat” inside, is my first time having Chicken McNuggets as a woman.
That is the dumbest milestone ever, I told myself. And yet, there it was. I sipped my soda and glanced around. Was anyone looking at me? I couldn’t quite relax, not the way I had before. That little awareness of where everyone was and whether there was any potential danger had kicked in.
Four pieces only, that was all I could handle. I’d probably pay for it later, sometimes McFood disagrees with me.
Someone had been rude to the people working the register, he wanted his apple pie cold, not hot. There was self-entitled storming around, and he insisted he wasn’t going to pay for it. He was big, looming, threatening. Another woman and I exchanged disbelieving glances, this guy is a jerk. No one said anything. He got his money back.
I ate my food slowly and carefully, trying to enjoy it as much as possible. I was trying to edit a short story with pencil and paper, something I hadn’t done in years. It actually worked, seeing the story on the paper made a difference. Still, I couldn’t concentrate. The food tastes different, I thought to myself. It’s not the same as it was. These things, you think they’re stable and they never change, but that’s never really true, is it?
I polished off the last McNugget and my small fries, finished my Diet Coke, and put the story back into my backpack. My laptop was in there. I’d try more writing when I got to the Starbucks, on the other side of the sprawling commercial area from here.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” someone said as I squeezed past him on the way out. I smiled secretly to myself, feeling not full, but satisfied.