Saturday, October 15, 2011

McDonald’s vs. the Pantheon (Spoiler Alert: The Pantheon won)

About a month ago I was vacationing in Italy – or more accurately, eating my way across Tuscany. Tuscany is known for amazing food – fresh tomatoes and pasta, cured meats, and cheeses that will leave you wanting once you’ve returned home. The typical dish is simply prepared with great care and fresh, local ingredients. It’s hard to find bad food there. But you can find American fast food.

 European taste buds are slowly becoming somewhat more westernized. Seeing the Golden Arches in Europe is no longer as unusual as it once was. Even Rome, with its ancient historical ruins, is home to several McDonald’s. In fact, when you arrive by train in the Rome termini, a McDonald’s is right there to serve you. The first time I visited Rome several years ago, I went to visit the Pantheon – the ancient temple in the heart of the historic center of Rome.  And across the piazza from the Pantheon there stood a McDonald’s. 

 The juxtaposition of the ancient temple to the gods and the modern temple to processed pressed meat was disturbing. My reaction had nothing to do with nutrition or health and everything to do with the culture of food. After all, the slow food movement, which promotes local, traditional cuisine eaten in a relaxed atmosphere with family and friends, was born in Italy.  It is the antithesis of American food culture. So imagine my glee upon returning to the Pantheon this trip to find no trace of the McDonald’s across the piazza. 

 Was the demise of the McD’s the result of Roman rejection of a food culture that threatens the Italian way of life? A triumph of slow food over fast food? I doubt the Pantheon McD’s was not profitable – too many tourists flock to the area. So what happened? I searched the web looking for the precise reason and found nothing.  So I am left only with the satisfaction that this one time, fast food failed. I doubt that this story will end with the fall of the McDonald’s empire in Europe. Or even signal a slowing of the spread of that empire. But one can hope.

 *Disclaimer: I have to come clean here. On this very same trip, I did eat at the McDonald’s in the Florence train station on my way back to Lucca after a day trip to Venice. It was late. I was hungry. We needed to catch the train. Don’t judge me.

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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