McDonald’s vs Quinua: Meta-commodities and strategic alliances

Bolivia has become a popular place to mention while critiquing the West/United States.  Don’t like U.S. politics? Consider Bolivian popular protests. Don’t like exploitative capitalism? Bolivia is rejecting neoliberalism. Don’t like U.S. fast food?  Food writer Steve Holt, after watching Fernando Martinez’s 2011 documentary “¿Por qué se quebró McDonalds?“, asks us to consider Bolivia.  After all, they don’t have McDonald’s.

Let me be clear: I haven’t eaten regularly at McDonald’s since my short stint working in one as a teen (and even then, I often packed a lunch). I also don’t eat at Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., In and Out, or other burger fast food establishments unless it’s one of the rare occasions when  a) I’m on a road trip with people who really, really want to eat at such a place,  or b) I’m trapped in an airport and need to eat quickly.  Once every couple of years I eat in this type of restaurant, but these are not places I frequent for all the reasons that western liberal environmentalists would approve of.  (After all, I am one.)

While I have no interest in defending McDonald’s per se, this is not the point. The current discussion about McDonald’s “failing” in Bolivia seems to be uninterested with actually unpacking that event in itself. Instead, it has become emblematic of a discussion about Bolivian foodways on the one hand, and critiques of western foodways on the other.

I obviously think both those things are worth discussing, which is why I am currently conducting ethnographic research on Bolivian food and Bolivian restaurants in Madrid.  I think Holt’s piece brings up a lot of fascinating things that are happening in the Bolivian food scene right now; it is worth reading.  But I also think it is worth thinking about why McDonald’s enters into this conversation at all.  I think suggest three interrelated reasons for that.

This first is that McDonald’s, to cite Daniel Miller (1997; look at his chapter here on Coca-Cola) functions as a meta-commodity.  It stands in for something far larger than itself.  McDonald’s leaving Bolivia in 2002 is thus seen as far more important than the fact that Burger King still operates there.  It’s not just about Big Macs vs Whoppers.  It is about McDonald’s as a symbol of U.S. capitalism and a form of fast food.

“Fast food” is not really about speed, of course.  Bolivians eat a lot of “fast food” in the form of street food, as pointed out by Rebecca Leaphart at The Andean Information Network in her discussion of this topic. This was true before, during, and after McDonald’s stay in Bolivia.  And in Bolivia, McDonald’s food was not always “fast,” as Monica Heinrich points out in her excellent critique of Martinez’s documentary.  But the speed of the food is not really what is at stake. What is really being discussed is a whole complex of practices including agricultural monocropping, subsidized corn, grain-fed beef, and exploited wage-labor (see Schlosser and Pollan).  There is an implicit assumption at work here that the presence of McDonald’s implies acceptance of those things, and the absence of McDonald’s implies a rejection of them. 

The second point I want to make is related theoretically to Conklin and Graham‘s (1995)  discussion about the relationship between western environmentalists and Amazonian indigenous peoples.  Their main point was that the alliance between these two groups might be beneficial to both, but it was strategic.  Strategic alliances may be productive even if they are temporary or based on working misunderstandings, but we should understand what everyone hopes to get out of them rather than assuming consensus.

There is a strategic alliance emerging between western slow-food advocates and those promoting Bolivian food.  The growing interest in quinua is one such example.  Quinua is a healthy grain and a wonderful alternative to both meat and wheat (thus its popularity with both vegetarians and celiacs).  Efforts of the Bolivian government to promote the quinua export market can be strategically allied with a foodie critique of American fast food, but the goals of these groups is not exactly the same.  (One wonders, for example, how these actors would each respond if McDonald’s wanted to market a quinua-based veggie burger.)

This leads me to my third point: the claim that McDonald’s is the same all over the world. This is their corporate philosophy: a Big Mac at a McDonald’s should be the same whether you are in the United States or Bolivia or China.  But we should be cautious of accepting such corporate statements.  Watson’s edited volume Golden Arches East demonstrates how even this supposedly universal meta-commodity takes on very different meanings in distinct cultural, political, and economic contexts in Asia.  We can extrapolate the main point: McDonald’s in Bolivia was never seen locally as representing what U.S. commentators are currently discussing.

I lived in Bolivia in 2002; I was there when McDonald’s left.  I was in the Calacoto McDonald’s the day before it closed (my first, last, and only time there); it was packed with Bolivians.  I saw the half-page ad McDonald’s took out in a La Paz newspaper to thank the Bolivian people for their hospitality. I read the newspaper editorials of Bolivians who – although they seemed unconcerned with loss of access to Big Macs – were very concerned that McDonald’s departure signaled trouble for the Bolivian economy and its capacity to attract foreign investment.  In fact, some of these commentators implied at the time that the “failure” was Bolivia’s – a failure to “keep” even a well-known multinational corporation. It would be a fair critique that newspapers often presented the perspective of elite businesspeople more concerned with attracting foreign investment than promoting healthy eating.  Clearly McDonald’s serves as a meta-commodity in multiple ways.

I was watching all this unfold while living in the rural altiplano with Aymara-speaking agriculturalists who had never set foot in a McDonald’s. For them, not eating at McDonald’s was not a political statement in favor of food sovereignty and self-sufficient agriculture.  They were not making a choice between fat-laden Big Macs and high-protein quispiña (quinua buscuits). They weren’t in a position to make such a choice.  In 2002, a full lunch menu at most lower-end Bolivian restaurants cost about Bs 5-7, and even that was seen as a rare luxury.  The family I lived with almost never ate at any kind of restaurant (although they would buy low-priced street food or snacks).  In comparison, a McDonald’s menu cost Bs 20-25.

This is not just simple economics; this high cost points to McDonald’s perceived market in Bolivia.  The two McDonald’s restaurants in La Paz were located in places where (relatively) wealthy urban people lived or worked. There was one on the Prado and another in the neighborhood of Calacoto.  There were none in rural areas or on highways.  In the United States, McDonald’s is cheap, ubiquitous, and largely associated with shopping malls, urban poverty and car culture. In contrast, Bolivian McDonald’s were represented by individual restaurants emblematic of urban wealth and international cuisine.  Consider the revealing experience of Esther Choque mentioned in the 2002 Associated Press report on the departure of McDonald’s. I wonder if rural indigenous Bolivians would have been welcomed, or felt comfortable, in a Bolivian McDonald’s in 2002 regardless of their ability to pay.

All this is not to say that people in the United States can’t learn something from Bolivian cuisine.  There is a productive public discussion occurring right now about the very real problems with U.S. food consumption habits.  The worst of U.S. collective foodways have led to environmental destruction, loss of culinary variety and biodiversity, worsening labor conditions, and serious health problems.  All this has been promoted by our government, our tax code, our schools, and our agricultural companies.

Rural Bolivian diets are low-fat, nutritious, and delicious. In the rural altiplano, many families produce much of their own food, and value doing so.  But they also consume sugar, pasta, rice, soda, and imported wheat promoted by U.S. food aid programs.  Bolivia cuisine varies widely between different regions and between urban and rural contexts; to even say there is “one” Bolivian cuisine simplifies a very complex set of foodways.  We can learn from Bolivian diets and agriculture, but not if we simply idealize them as eating what we wish we were eating.

Oh, and by the way – that McDonald’s that was in the Calacoto neighborhood of La Paz (at Av. Ballivian esq 19)? It’s now a Burger King.

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