Visiting McDonald’s With My Grandmother

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As a kid, I was in awe of my grandmother’s ability to stretch a dollar when it came to food. She always knew the price differentials at the local Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern and white American markets. And she strategized for trips to McDonald’s.

For instance, she realized that the two of us — a child and a senior, both petite females — added up to one extra-large appetite, so ordering a Big Breakfast to share made better sense than ordering separate, smaller meals. We shared quite a few of these over the years. There was a McDonald’s on the way to my elementary school, where she would walk me some mornings. She’d sit with her coffee (the best in America, she always said), and me with my juice. And we’d attack the Big Breakfast from either side.

The eggs in one corner, the sausage in another, and the biscuit, hash brown and condiments all in their own place: It’s not surprising that the compartmentalization of the different food items should have appealed to her sense of food order. She was Korean, and the assortment of separate little dishes known as banchan is central to Korean food.

Grandma had moved to the United States from her native South Korea in midlife, to be closer to her two daughters in Southern California. She needed to figure out both a new language and a new social landscape.

These were more complicated than she’d anticipated, because she ended up living in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. So the move wasn’t just about adapting to a majority white and majority English-speaking culture. She needed the basics of both English and Spanish, for one thing.

She might have been disoriented by racial distinctions, but class differences she understood. She’d been married to a destined-to-be-successful man when she was young, and over the decades of their marriage had gotten used to an ascending level of luxury: cars, servants, status.

Wealth insulated her from certain kinds of discomfort but didn’t guard against her husband’s steady stream of infidelities. It bought her luxuries like breast implants, at a time when this was a bizarre purchase for a middle-aged Korean woman.

I was almost morbidly fascinated by those implants later on. I knew her as an old woman, and there was a sharp contrast between the rocks on her chest and the softness and slackness of the rest of her body.

When she moved to the United States post-divorce, she suddenly had to work for a living. As she had no practical skills, she found work deboning chickens by hand. She tore apart chickens during the day, and went to her cramped apartment at night.

And yet, improbably, she was happy. She smoked with abandon. She ate whatever she wanted. She had female friends at the factory, as well as male Korean friends she gathered with to play the Korean card game hwatu. Gambling with men would have been unthinkable in her previous life. She’d traded opulence for independence, and she was better off.

But her earnings put her under the poverty line, making her eligible for government-subsidized housing. While her daughters helped her out where they could, she had to scrimp. Her bedroom became a kind of monument to her earlier life, packed with artworks, jewelry and expensive clothing — things to gradually sell off.

It is astonishing that my grandmother had any appetite for fast food after working on a chicken disassembly line. She may have had a greater appreciation for mass-processed food after spending her days among its raw ingredients. Or maybe it’s telling that she generally avoided chicken at McDonald’s.

Grandma kept a mental calendar of McDonald’s promotions. When hamburgers were on sale for 29 cents each, she bought 10 at a time and kept a supply in the freezer. As a treat, she sometimes splurged on the 39-cent cheeseburger.

My grandmother also looked forward to each McDonald’s Monopoly period, that marvel of synergistic marketing that turned every McDonald’s purchase into a scratch-off prize opportunity. This allowed her to scratch the gambling itch in a socially accepted way. For a brief period I, along with every other person I knew, went temporarily deranged over going to McDonald’s as frequently as our wallets and waistbands would allow.

I don’t know how much money eating at McDonald’s actually saved. Arguably it could have been cheaper to cook at home, but my grandmother never really learned to cook. She’d never had to in Korea, what with the professional cooks in her house. Cooking American food, especially, would have been daunting.

My grandmother loved McDonald’s in a way that only someone who hadn’t grown up with it could. So after she died, as my family was preparing for the Korean grave site ritual of bringing food loved by the deceased, I thought about collecting a burger, fries and America’s best coffee. I was overruled, so we ended up leaving Korean takeaway noodles — jjamppong — on her grave instead. The broth leaked out of the package, leaving a fishy smell and a mess on our hands.

My grandmother is buried in the notoriously over-the-top Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., which strives for faux-Renaissance grandeur in its massive statues and chapels that are reproductions of the European originals.

The grave sites become more elaborate and expensive the higher you go up the hill, suggesting that in Los Angeles, inequality persists even after death.

But Grandma was proud of the spot she’d secured midway up. For decades, she’d saved money for her own grave and two others, for other women in the family to use eventually. Status after death somehow mattered to her, even though she’d given up on it in life.

As I placed the leaky package of noodles on her grave, I wondered, in my very unspiritual way, what would happen to the food. It would be wasted, I imagined. That seemed inappropriate for my grandmother, who held on to frozen fast food for years, and didn’t throw anything away.

I’ve stepped inside a McDonald’s only a few times since Grandma died, and it just isn’t the same. It will never be as special to me as it was to her, as a shining symbol of American culture. But its ubiquity is strangely comforting. Seeing this chain restaurant everywhere is a bit like seeing her everywhere. You don’t need a fancy grave site to honor a relative, after all. A chain restaurant that triggers a flood of memories can be enough.