In-Flight Refueling

Michael Metzger

Recent surveys show that only one in three families eat meals together on a regular basis, let alone the fact that the idea of family is itself, in some circles anyway, quaint. Among the many victims of modern ideology, the social act of eating is perhaps one of the most badly wounded. We have given up on dining in favor of in-flight refueling.

McDonald’s, the worldwide chain of quick-service restaurants, both symbolizes and embodies what is wrong with modern food culture. It’s not their high-fat, high-salt menu, either. The restaurants themselves might better be called a food delivery system.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was most famous, or infamous, for his time-and-motion studies which reduced any manufacturing job to a series of repetitive movements where inefficiency and waste were ruthlessly eliminated. Along with humanity, and the enjoyment of one’s work.

McDonald’s restaurants are a nearly-perfect rendition of a Taylorian time-and-motion study project. Every detail of McDonald’s system has been engineered to consume a minimum of time and resources. The result is that you can reasonably expect that your Quarter Pounder® will taste nearly exactly the same as the last one you had. That’s the upside.

The downside is that you are not dining, you are refueling. Regardless of whether you patronize McDonald’s as a dine-in, carry-out or drive-through customer, you are expected to acquire a certain quantity of human fuel to be consumed, on premises or off, as quickly as possible so that you can get on with the more important activities of your life.

The main casualty of McDonald’s scientific approach to fuel delivery is not nutrition—that case can better be made by others—but the human experience of eating together. Gathering around a table to celebrate and enjoy God’s wonderful gifts of food, family and friends is a ritual as old as human society. But in our time-poor, car-centered modern Western culture, that ritual has been reduced to an act of in-flight refueling.

McDonald’s is emblematic of what is wrong with the modern program. In its zeal to rationalize, universalize, abstract and conceptualize, the very human function of dining morphs into the very inhuman activity of refueling.

The sacred space around the family table has, in McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, been fragmented to an array of immovable two-tops that function as one-tops, reducing eating to a solitary act where the only enjoyment besides the food is reading the advertising on the tray liner. And that’s the “dining room” experience. The drive-through experience is even worse.

It is at the drive-through where in-flight refueling reaches its apotheosis. The clear meaning of drive-through dining is not dining at all, but refueling. The face-to-face interaction, laughter, and love that ought to characterize the common meal is all but absent, replaced by the rapid consumption of the contents of a paper sack with emphasis on not spilling the soft drinks. Fellowship is reduced to conversations like “Who took my fries?”

This is not all McDonald’s fault. Like so many things in modern life, the fault, dear Brutus, lies not with McDonald’s, but in ourselves.

Sometimes a scarcity of money or time dictates in-flight refueling. What I want to encourage, however, is mindfulness of the social function of eating together as both a necessary and delightful part of our common life in this world. Gifts of food are meant to be shared, whether around a table or a campfire, and it is in sharing that we receive the greatest benefit from our meals. We are truly nourished in every sense of the word.

While obviously not all family or fraternal relations are positive, it is at the common table that relationships can be mended, order restored, and grace extended to people at odds with one another. Certainly to avoid the table to avoid tense encounters is no solution: it is merely finding other ways to refuel without the invigorating friction of life together.

Like many “modern conveniences” (big-box stores come to mind), McDonald’s is more a symptom than a cause of community disintegration. It is the symbol of the dead end of runaway modernism, the belief that all human activity can be rationalized, compartmentalized, and “improved” by careful analysis and empirical research. These analytical tools can get you McDonald’s, but they cannot get you the joy of sharing a meal with family or friends.

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5 thoughts on “In-Flight Refueling”

  1. George Hepburn

    Mike,

    You hit it right. We do the drive through ever so rarely but it is a fact that that concept of refueling robs the family and friends of time together that was meant to be enjoyed as one of God’s special gifts to humanity, for good conversation that more than not, leads to bettering relationships and promoting human flourishing the way it ought to be!

  2. Great essay. At the risk of sounding sacreligious, it seems to me that our modern church communion detours from what Jesus modeled at the Last Supper. He had a true and meaningful meal with his friends. We do a cracker and grape juice. I think he intended the disciples, and us, to remember him (his body and blood) everytime we eat, not just on monthly occasions at church.

  3. Yer killin’ me, Glenn! “A cracker and grape juice”. . . .

    You don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind for “communion”, church-style? Once a month?

    sigh.

    I keep coming back to the “as often as you drink it” bit which, to me, sounds like every day!

  4. While I don’t advocate emulating the Europeans, they do know how to dine and it normally takes more than 15 minutes. Too bad in the name of efficiency and cramming as many activities as possible into our lives that the family meal (dining)has been the looser.

  5. i think it was Walter Brueggemann who said that ‘eating is the most sacred thing we do’.

    Think about all that is involved when we eat and all that/whom God involved God to provide the food that is before us on the table.

    As a native Virginian, I say, “pass the beans and cornbread, please.”

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