I recently saw a McDonald’s commercial during a broadcast of an NFL game that advertised its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches: Throw down five bucks at a participating Mickey D’s and you’ll get two hot, creamy, flaky wild-caught Alaskan Pollock sandwiches that will sate the hell out of you. To me, the Filet-O-Fish, while not at all kosher, has always been the most kosher non-kosher food at McDonald’s—a happy medium for Jews who adhere not to the laws of kashrut—and my way of participating in that ubiquitous industrial treyffest without feeling too guilty about it.
Perhaps my first taste of non-kosher food happened when I was about 9, at a Jewish sleepaway camp in the boonies of Massachusetts. Every now and again we’d take a school bus on field trips. Although I can’t quite recall where we visited, I do remember we’d frequently stop at a McDonald’s on the way back as though it were a canteen, which, in retrospect, makes no sense given that it was a Jewish camp complete with praying and blue and white teams for color war…
So this school bus of young Jewish boys would park in the back of this McDonald’s on the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and everybody would give the camp counselors their order and their money and within minutes, the entire bus would be slurping on milkshakes and fries and Big Macs. It all smelled so good, cocooning the bus in a warm, salty lather. Since I kept kosher at the time, I never once participated in this McDonald’s run. So while everybody chomped away, I just sat there, all nine years of me, envying them. How could they eat that stuff? It’s not kosher! I also didn’t think I could afford any of it anyway—my pockets were lined pretty thinly.
One day, we did the same routine: park in the back, take orders, feed. On this day, however, I felt particularly hungry, achy even. But when I reached into my dusty pocket, I extracted only 35 cents.
“What can I get for 35 cents?” I asked a counselor.
“Not much,” he replied. “Probably a hamburger.”
I handed over the change.
When the counselor came back he chucked the sandwich my way. I held it, alone in my hard-backed seat. The wrapper felt sleek but also rough in a way that lets you know it’s being cared for, there in its white wrapper. I opened it: my very own McDonald’s sandwich, a classic hamburger. I took a bite of it, that little 35-cent beef cupcake that was all mine, just mine. In my mouth I mashed around little bits of beef pattie and soft white bread with my teeth, and I also tasted ketchup, which made my mouth water like a sweet, sweet fountain. Guh-huh-huh.
But then I tasted something crunchy, even a bit sour, which startled me and brought my excitement to the upper echelons of food feelings. I opened my half-eaten sandwich. And there it was: a pickle. A pickle! I stared at it, admiring its loose green patina, its deep edges. Then I noticed two more. There were three fucking pickles on my McDonald’s hamburger! It was a sign from someone, somewhere. These pickles, I’m telling you, blew wide open any philosophy a boychik might have about the bounds of food: What genius puts pickles on a hamburger sandwich?
* * *
I used to keep kosher. Don’t get me wrong, I still love eating overpriced kosher foods—the over-salted chicken, the margarine, the Joyva Jelly Rings—but I also love the dirty stuff: cheeseburgers, gelatin-infused gummy anything, swine. (Sorry, Dad.) But I do lean kosher, when the opportunity presents itself, and I think that counts for something.
I often choose to buy kosher foods at supermarkets, although I can’t quite pinpoint why: Does that “U” make me feel better about myself, and what I’m putting into my body? Maybe. Sometimes a voice in my head tells me: “Joooonathan, this food, this food right here? It was blessed by a rabbi.” Other times I couldn’t care less and brush off the kosher label as an archaic gimmick. I imagine I’m not the only Jew who has mixed feelings about food.
But we cope, and we deal, and we do what feels right, or feels shitty, because that’s life. In spots, we find ways to make things balanced, and this is where McDonald’s comes into play.
On American road trips it’s nearly impossible to find a rest stop without a McDonald’s as the featured provider of sustenance. While backpacking on a shoestring budget, McDonald’s can save you in a hungry pinch. But I’ve never felt comfortable buying beef-based sandwiches from McDonald’s simply because it feels like too much of a slap in the face of my Jewish values. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this has taken some trial and error: I’ve had my fair share of Big Macs, and have even delved deep into a Wendy’s Rodeo Burger, and a Burger King Shaq Pack. But where I find my happy medium is the Filet-O-Fish.
On a very basic level of taste discernment, the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish is objectively fantastic: fried fish; white, chewy, round bread; a slice of cheese; tartar sauce. (Tartar sauce! What an invention: mayo and relish, if I’m not mistaken? Who cares!) And here, for the purpose of my highly sensitive Jewish-eating feelings, the Filet-O-Fish is also highly functional: it’s made from pollock, from the cod family of fish, which is kosher.
Yeah, sure, it’s made in the same facility as other non-kosher foods and greases and fats, but it’s works for me, and what’s religion if not that? Besides, it’s pareve, so I wash it down with a McFlurry. Can’t do that after a Big Mac.