DECEMBER 2005 – NO. 1
"The Tuesday when the dream died probably began like any other high school travesty, but the usual small disasters could not warn me of what was to come."
When I was sixteen, my desire for fast food was insatiable. With the beginning of my junior year, my friends and I were allowed to venture away from the wretched confines of my high school to eat lunch. The preferred destinations for these blissful jaunts into the world were naturally Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, and the like. But I loved McDonald's most of all, because a short time before the school year began, McDonald's had demonstrated a knack for impeccable timing with its addition of Chicken Selects, a new, experimental menu item that exposed chicken nuggets, my previous favorite, as a base and undeserving fraud.
The Selects were a drastic departure from the nugget arena for McDonald's. This chicken was crunchy, delectable all-white meat as opposed to the lumpy, occasionally stringy nuggets. It would be much easier to imagine someone finding a thumb mixed in with the nuggets than with my new babies. Combined with a liberal dose of ranch dressing, another reliable heart exploder, Chicken Selects were the closest thing to decadence I knew. Yes, they still made you feel as if someone had injected Drano into your stomach five minutes after you ingested them, like anything else on the menu, but they had the look of quality and, since they were pricier than anything else on the menu, the aura of class.
During that year, my friends — cigarettes-waving and Sonic Youth-blasting in their early '90s sedans — would graciously drive me to the nearest McDonald's, located in a characterless strip mall. Every time I set foot in the place, I would order the same thing: five-piece Chicken Selects meal, regular-sized fries, and Coke. Eventually, I was such a frequent customer that I didn't have to open my mouth when it was my turn in line; the stern Hispanic woman at the register already knew what I craved, and all I had to do was nod when she asked me the perfunctory question: "Number 8?" This recognition of my obsession made me happy. I had never been a regular at a restaurant before; I had never been able to wander in to anywhere and say "I'll have the usual," and have a maternal waitress smile and respond "Will do, Jack" or something similarly pastoral and romantic. Now, at least someone knew what I wanted; an employee at the most impersonal restaurant in the world, yes, but a human being nonetheless.
The Tuesday when the dream died probably began like any other high school travesty — eight or so minutes late to first class, scribbling the incorrect answers to a Spanish class worksheet as the teacher walked around to collect it, accidentally dropping the elaborate bong I'd been working on all year in chemistry class — but the usual small disasters could not warn me of what was to come. When my friends and I strolled into McDonald's that day, the stern Hispanic woman motioned toward the menu behind her with what I remember as an expression of disbelief, and said, simply, "No more number 8." I looked up, hoping this was just an ultra-specific nightmare, to find that the number 8 value meal — my value meal — had been excised from the menu overnight. No notice, no explanation. Just gone, as if it had never existed at all. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia; Chicken Selects had never occupied the number 8 slot on the McDonald's Value Menu.
Having never lost anyone close to me, I imagined it was something like this. One day you're talking to your grandfather and he's telling you that great story about how he punched Himmler in the face, and the next day — poof, he's gone. One day you're biting into a ranch sauce-covered Chicken Select and then, out of nowhere, McDonald's decides it's not "making money" (whatever that means) and pulls the plug.
After the disaster, I tried to wean myself from my obsession by drowning my sorrows in Burger King's chicken tenders. They were tasty enough with ranch sauce, but they couldn't stop me thinking about the Selects, my soft focus memories like that of a beloved ex-girlfriend. Every time I walked into a McDonald's, I'd gaze hopefully up at the menu, only to see some bland new fish sandwich or "healthy" bacon-covered salad where the Selects used to be.
Years passed, and I grew ornery. There was a false alarm in 2002 — McDonald's called some bastardized chicken strip a "Chicken Select," and I recall standing in the dim twilight of a Rhode Island branch's parking lot and tasting bitter disappointment. Finally, the genuine article was reintroduced last summer. It took McDonald's only five years to realize its mistake. But I'm not 16 anymore, and my passion for fast food is nearly gone. My consumption is now mostly limited to the occasional highway stop on a rare road trip, and even then the act seems more a chore than a pleasure. The Selects are the same, but my heart doesn't yearn for them anymore — possibly because my arteries, once clogged, remain closed forever.
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