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Obsession Junction 

Fishing with Morgan Spurlock, survivor of the 30-day McDonald's diet

Wednesday, May 12 2004
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I liked Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me even more than I thought I would. From its first shot -- a bunch of cute kids singing a campy song with the refrain "I like food/ You like food/ McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut" -- to the acknowledgements in its end crawl (including thanks "to the First Amendment" and to the director's ex-wife's health insurance), I was enthralled, horrified, and continually entertained by Spurlock's documentary about his odyssey through the world of fast food. Inspired by a news report about two overweight girls suing McDonald's for undermining their health, Spurlock decided to eat at McDonald's, and only at McDonald's, three meals a day for an entire month. He had three simple ground rules: He could only ingest what was available there (including water), which eliminated, for example, supplemental vitamins; he couldn't "super size" his meal unless it was offered (but if it was offered, he had to say yes); and he had to eat every item on the menu at least once.

There are 83 McDonald's outlets in Manhattan, where Spurlock lives (including one that delivers -- helpful because Spurlock, a marathon runner, also cut back on his physical activity to mimic the American average), so he could almost have eaten each of his 90 meals on the island alone. Instead he set out on a cross-country Big Mac-and-Egg McMuffin odyssey, during which he interviewed nutrition experts, gym teachers, an ex-surgeon general, the spokesman for the Grocery Marketing Association, and other authorities on why America is now the fattest country on Earth. The pointed commentaries are interlarded with witty graphics (including mesmerizing surreal pop-art paintings by Ron English featuring fast-food icons), bits of found footage, anything and everything Spurlock can use to make us laugh while making his point: Our national diet is killing us.

He began his binge with a breakfast of an Egg McMuffin and a sausage biscuit, coincidentally the same breakfast I treated myself to some six months ago on my last visit to McDonald's. I eat at McDonald's two or three times a year, partly out of curiosity (I've tried, over time, the McLean Deluxe, a burger in which the seaweed-derived gel called carrageenan was supposed to mimic fat; the McDLT, a burger served open-faced so that "the hot [meat] stays hot, the cold [lettuce and tomato] stays cold," solving a problem that had never seemed to be a problem before; and the Big N' Tasty, which wasn't either. I don't remember ever ordering a McRib sandwich -- something about the mold in which the flaked pig was pressed, including fake bones, put me off. But now I regret missing out on it, and partly out of true appetite -- I'm as much a sucker for fat, salt, and sugar as the next geek).

Unlike me, Spurlock followed that meal, which he appeared to anticipate with pleasure and even to savor, with 89 more. (On Day 2, after experiencing what he terms "McStomachache," "McGurgles," "McGas," and "feeling a McBrick," he throws up after a hastily downed lunch -- again begun with apparent enjoyment.) By the end of his experiment (monitored, with mounting horror, by a trilogy of doctors: a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a general practitioner), Spurlock's 185 pounds have become 210 -- he gained nearly 10 pounds in the first week alone -- and his cholesterol has gone from 168 to 230. His 11 percent initial body fat has become 18 percent. It took him five months on a "detox diet" devised by his girlfriend, a vegan chef -- truth still being stranger than fiction -- to lose 20 of the 25 pounds.

It's that regime I ask Spurlock about almost as soon as we're seated side by side for lunch in a plush booth under the enormous sea-urchin chandeliers in the under-the-sea-Disney-on-acid fantasy of Farallon (450 Post, 956-6969). (I figured he deserved a real break today, and my choice of Farallon was predicated both on its proximity to the downtown hotel he was staying in while the San Francisco International Film Festival showed Super Size Me and on a particularly appalling shot of a Filet-O-Fish in the movie.) "I was sad," I say, "not to see the 'Morgan Spurlock Detox Diet' linked on your girlfriend's Web site," after I have endeared myself to him by blurting out that I always thought "vegan chef" was an oxymoron. He says, reasonably enough, that she didn't want to do so because she believes every body is different, and therefore one shouldn't follow a diet created for someone else. (Lucky for Dr. Atkins, or anyway his heirs, that he didn't feel that way.) Healthy chef Alex, no fool she, is across the bay dining at Chez Panisse while we eat. I reflect, briefly, that the last time I ate there I started with a salad topped with crispy pig's feet and went on to savor roasted goat, served with slices of its liver and kidneys. And that the receipt for the meal, reflecting the purchase at our table of a number of guest chef Fergus Henderson's cookbooks, satisfyingly said "Four Whole Beasts." I'm not in danger of going vegan anytime soon. Nor is Spurlock, who cheerfully announces, "I'm a carnetarian!"

While we dine on steamed crab dumplings with spicy cucumber salad and crème fraîche (for Mr. Big Mac) and fresh pea soup (for moi), I tell him of my first McDonald's experience, which came kinda late, as such things go. I was watching a movie in film school, a French Connection knockoff in which some American cops go over to the South of France to bust up a drug ring, and one officer is sickened by his proximity to liver pâté and bouillabaisse. (Spurlock is about to move on to roasted Alaskan halibut with artichoke risotto, niçoise olives, fennel salad, and kumquat vinaigrette -- this for the man who just heartily recommended the McGriddle -- while I've ordered roasted Rhode Island bluefish with Italian butter beans, baby artichokes, and ruby beet vinaigrette.) The cop in the movie can't stop talking about McDonald's, which he misses acutely (today that wouldn't be a problem, with the proliferation of what young Frenchies call McDo, pronounced "mack-dough"). "Right after the movie," I say, "I went directly to the nearest McDonald's, ordered a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, french fries -- they were still cooked in pure raging beef fat then -- and a milk. And it was so good that I ordered the exact same thing all over again."

The fast-food emporium in Spurlock's hometown of Beckley, W.V., was the now-vanished Burger Chef, and he has confessed to a lingering jones for the sloppy, chili-dripping Tommy's Burger as served at the corner of Rampart and Alvarado in L.A., but "My favorite was the Big Mac," he says nostalgically, "though I'll never be able to eat at McDonald's again," because the diet functioned as aversion therapy, not because McDonald's has posted his picture at every one of its 30,000 outlets worldwide. We start our meal, in fact, with a solemn toast to the recent death of McDonald's Chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo of a heart attack at the startling age of 60; Spurlock repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to set up an interview with him, Michael Moore-style, in the movie.

My burger of choice in Southern California, which I've been trying to find an equivalent for up here without much success, was the ineffable juicy delight served at Pie 'n' Burger in Pasadena, conveniently inconvenient to my house (thereby saving me a couple of cholesterol points, no doubt). It was tasty and affordable (when Spurlock tells me that he spent $780 on his McDonald's spree, I say I wish I was interviewing him in New York, where we could have equaled that sum in one meal at Ducasse or, even better, at Masa, in the Time Warner Center, where the omakase meal, largely raw fish, is $300 a person. Our lunch would only cover about four days of his Value Meals, especially since I've gone straight for the $25 prix fixe, with which I'm well pleased).

In fact, I've recently tried two rather far-flung local burger emporiums in the hopes of re-creating the Pie 'n' Burger paradigm. My first foray to Tower Burger, way up near Twin Peaks, was pleasant in almost every regard -- cute neighborhood, simple but clean and comfortable room, plenty of parking -- save the actual $4.75 cheeseburger, whose Niman Ranch meat patty cooked up characterless, soft, and juiceless. I like a crust with some resistance and a still-oozing interior -- it can be done!

My second attempt, a long, curving drive out Mission Street to Joe's Cable Car, initially seemed more promising, since there was plenty of literature around the strenuously decorated place (walls papered with Polaroid pictures of satisfied customers, artificial flowers, screaming neon signs including one saying "JOE'S BURGERS ARE ADDICTIVE" -- just what I wanted to hear) enthusing about the fresh-ground-daily 100 percent USDA Choice rib-eye and chuck steaks "specially selected, trimmed to perfection" for Joe's steakburgers. My 4-ounce burger had much more of a beefy snap to it than the Tower one did, but it still lacked in the crust and juice departments. I could see eating one again, but not making it a habit (especially at a base price of $7.25, with cheese 60 cents extra. There's an $8.50 burger at 500 Jackson that has it beat all hollow, and that place throws fries in for free).

But after a screening of Hair at the Castro (during which I overheard a man beside me telling his horrified companions about some of the statistics he'd learned from Super Size Me: "There are 13 teaspoons of sugar in a can of soda!"), my car knew just where I wanted to go. Within minutes, I was at the drive-through, ordering a Quarter Pounder With Cheese, french fries, and a milk. The taste was instantly familiar. I was shocked by the stinging salt of the fries, and squeezed sugary ketchup on them. Within a few stoplights, nothing remained but a faint greasy smell and a lingering sense of guilt.

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Meredith Brody

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