The first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in January 1990, when the city was still the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This was before the days of locally adapted burgers and Mc-versions of regional dishes; the restaurant sold a Big Mac, fries (made from Soviet-grown potatoes) and a Coke for about five rubles—approximately half a day’s wages for your average comrade.
Bill Keller spoke with company executives ahead of the opening for a New York Times piece about the capitalist burger juggernaut hanging its golden arches on the edge of Pushkin Square. “We’re going to McDonaldize them,” said one exec, “summing up the company’s cultural conquest.”
Twenty-three years later, that promise has been realized in Russia in more ways than one. There was the end of communism and the USSR, of course, a sort of McDonaldization in its own right. And then there’s the directly burger-related influence that first Soviet McDonald’s, then the largest in the world, brought to bear: As of last year, there were 356 locations of the restaurant scattered around the country.
Mikhail Gorbachev may have welcomed the fast-food giant, but Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s Chief Sanitary Inspector, doesn’t feel so warmly about his compatriots eating Big Macs and fries. According to The Moscow Times, Onishchenko is encouraging “Russians to temper their interest in exotic, foreign foods and instead, to stick to a ‘patriotic’ diet of traditional national cuisine.”
His recent comments came during a rambling discussion with reporters (he has some feelings about working hours and men wearing shorts too, apparently), and other outlets quote the inspector saying that many Russians stick to such a patriotic diet, “apart from exotic exceptions such as McDonald's.”
Patriotism may be Onishchenko’s word for eating Russian, but when considered alongside other statements he’s made about imported foods, his culinary attitudes start to sound much more nationalistic. He’s attacked Georgian wine and spring water, Ukrainian cheese, American chicken, and sushi restaurants. As the Washington Post noted in a 2012 story about his politically tinged culinary decrees, “Gas prices have been roiling Ukrainian-Russian relations, and suddenly Ukrainian cheese threatened indigestion and had to be banned.” And remember that war with Georgia?
Defending traditional cooking from fast food may largely be a cause of the Left in the United States, but in Europe, where many countries have far more canonical cooking traditions, defending the national cuisine à la Onishchenko is more often the job of the nationalist Right. For another McDonald’s-related example, look no further than the Serbian ultranationalist who smashed locations in Belgrade in 2008 as part of anti-Western demonstrations.
And in France, the perceived assault of the global palate on the national cuisine is cause for much handwringing on the Right. In a New Yorker article about Le Fooding, a liberal French group that publishes a food guide and holds culinary events around the world, Adam Gopnik finds himself writing as much about the history of Gallic right-wing politics as he does contemporary restaurant culture in France.
“The philosophy of food in France has always bent toward the right, sometimes the extreme right,” Gopnik writes. The authors of the famed Gault-Millau guide (second only to the Michelin bible) are outed as hardliners, and Gopnik notes that the famed French food writer Robert Courtine, “was revealed to have been an active anti-Semitic collaborator with the Vichy regime.”
Another subject in the article who is associated with Le Fooding tells Gopnik he plans to write a comic book “that would expose the history of clandestine right-wing propaganda in French food writing.”
But in regards to Russia, determining what’s appropriately patriotic and what’s exotically, dangerously foreign can be difficult.
When Onishchenko’s comments were reported as a comic aside on NPR this morning, Morning Edition host David Greene mentioned borscht as a dish in line with the inspector’s suggestion. The chilled beet soup may be popular in Russia, but its true place of origin hasn’t been part of the country since 1991—it’s a Ukrainian dish.
As for hamburgers, Keller points out that some were eager to embrace them as Mother Russia’s own back in ’90:
“ ‘The word hamburger spread throughout the world from the swift hands of Hamburg seafarers, who in ancient times carried from Russia the recipe of a popular Tatar dish made of raw meat and hot spices,’ disclosed a Soviet television report in September on the advent of McDonald’s in Moscow. ‘The recipe made it to England, and from there to America and Canada. And now, after centuries of wandering, it has returned home to its motherland.’ ”