Soso Whaley is a feisty not quite fiftysomething animal trainer based in New Hampshire, a champion roller skater (a silver medal for her tango!), the hostess of Camo-Country TV’s Critter Corner and an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. (Oh, did I mention that she’s a filmmaker with plans to make a documentary about camel-racing in Nevada?) When we ate together the day before Tax Day, in a drably functional midtown Manhattan McDonald’s Express filled with surprisingly skinny teens, this is what she chose: six Chicken McNuggets, sweet ‘n sour sauce, and two baked apple pies (one for later).
This April that’s not unusual fare for Soso. She’s eating at McDonald’s a lot this month. In fact, she’s only eating McDonald’s this month. By the 14th, she had dined (I’ve seen the pile of receipts, neatly collected, dated, and filed) on Crispy Chicken; Chicken McNuggets (six-pack and ten); Chicken McGrill; McChicken; for a touch of the exotic, Hot ‘n Spicy McChicken; and, in a welcome break for the nation’s poultry, hamburger, double cheeseburger, Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Big Mac, Big N’ Tasty with Cheese (no, I have no idea what that is), and Filet-O-Fish; Egg McMuffin, a bewildering selection of McGriddles (bacon, egg and cheese; sausage, egg, and cheese; and the ascetic sausage alone), hash browns, hotcakes, the wildly multicultural sausage breakfast burrito, Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait (“I love that,” sighs Soso), hot fudge sundae, a flurry of McFlurries (Butterfinger, M&M, Oreo–the Nestle Crunch is yet to come) and much, much more.
And, she says, she’s feeling “great” (her diary can be viewed on the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s website), and she’s lost weight (around five pounds by the time we met). Poor, sad Morgan Spurlock didn’t do quite so well. Around 20 years younger than Soso, this tall, seemingly robust New Yorker also spent a month eating only at McDonald’s and made Super Size Me, a film about the experience. The movie looks as if it will do well, but Spurlock did badly, very badly.
Neither Soso nor I know exactly what Spurlock ate (Super Size Me comes out on May 7), but, as he has described them in numerous interviews, the results were nastier than a four-day-old Bacon Ranch Salad: headaches, vomiting, depression, a super-sized gut and–sad, sad news for his girlfriend (a vegan chef, conspiracy theorists please note)–a shrunken libido. The numbers tell their own terrible story. Spurlock gained 25 pounds and his cholesterol soared (from a modest 165 to a more challenging 230). His body “basically fell apart over the course of thirty days.” His face–oh the horror, the horror–turned “splotchy,” his knees “started to hurt from the extra weight coming on so quickly,” and as for his liver, well, don’t ask. O.K., you can ask. Spurlock’s liver had, in the less than reassuring words of his doctor, “turned into paté.”
Soso, by contrast, is made of sterner, more stoic stuff, a daughter of Eisenhower’s Kansas, a creation of a sterner, more stoic time, a woman, I can report, whose face is splotch-free. Our lunch together was marred neither by vomiting, nor depression, nor headaches, and the “gas” that had been a rather distressing feature (“all that extra fiber”) of the early days of her McDonald’s diet had, mercifully, disappeared. Questions about her sex drive were met with a wry chuckle. This robust Heartland heroine, “a meat and potatoes gal,” has even survived a few rounds with Hell’s tubers, McDonald’s revolting French fries, themselves. “Oh, they’re OK,” said Soso, smiling over her pile of McNuggets, but she didn’t, I noticed, order any fries.
So what was Spurlock’s problem? Could it have been something he ate? On his movie’s website, Spurlock sets out the ground rules. He was to subsist only on McDonald’s products, he had to eat every item on the menu at least once, but he was not allowed to choose Super-sized portions unless they were offered, in which case he had to accept them. More challenging still, his plate or, as we are talking McDonald’s, his tray, had to be scraped clean. Completely clean.
And when it comes to his movie, many critics have, appropriately enough, lapped it up. Ebert & Roeper gave Super Size Me “two thumbs up”, while Variety found it an “entertaining, gross-out cautionary tale” that “leaves little doubt that eating this stuff on a regular (or even occasional) basis is bad, bad, bad for ya.” To the New York Times it was one of a clutch of “entertaining, moving and historically significant” movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a festival where Spurlock won the award for best director for what The Hollywood Reporter has dubbed his “brilliantly subversive” work.
Subversive? Hardly. Fashionable? Certainly. Blaming “Big Food” for America’s big people is merely the Left’s latest big lie. For real rebellion, try Soso. She’s an autodidact, an individualist, a contrarian, an ornery soul, someone who likes to find stuff out for herself. “I understood I was being misinformed by the media and that made me mad.” It began with animal rights. Soso’s work with our furry friends led her to question the frequently uncritical acceptance of the stories being peddled by the likes of PETA, and from there it was a short jump to doubting the gimcrack orthodoxies of “global warming” and after that, provoked by the hype surrounding Super Size Me, a date with destiny under the golden arches.
Spurlock shot a movie about his time at McDonald’s, and now Soso is shooting a movie about hers. “Spurlock made his film to make his point and I’m making my film to make mine.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute is helping with the publicity, but other than that, Soso has kept her independence. McDonald’s has no involvement in her project (and, I was told, is not a CEI donor). When Soso buys a bacon, egg & cheese McGriddle she does so on her own dime.
Soso’s ground rules were similar to Spurlock’s, but without the compulsory super-sizing, the obligation to finish everything up or, most importantly, the intention of eating, as Soso has put it, “like a troglodyte.” She’s got a point. Condemning McDonald’s on the basis of the kamikaze consumption of Super Size Me makes about as much sense as using Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote as an example of typical restaurant dining. Spurlock’s bizarre breakfasts, lunatic lunches, and demented dinners added up to some 5,000 calories a day, freak-show feasting that proves nothing about McDonald’s. It wasn’t what the greedy slob ate, but how much.
Soso feeds where Spurlock fed, but her more modest meals are amounting to a little less than 2,000 calories a day, a still far-from-frugal discipline that leaves room for cheeseburgers, choice, and Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfait. In some ways, it can be argued that her new diet has been an improvement over the old, not much of a feat given its emphasis (the Portsmouth, N.H., Herald reported, a touch disapprovingly) on “lots of meat and too many on-the-go meals like candy bars and doughnuts,” something that may have contributed to the rather disappointing cholesterol count with which Soso began the month.
Above all, Soso’s long march through Mickey D’s menu is an effective demonstration that maligning McDonald’s as one uniquely lethal food group is ridiculous in an age when its restaurants offer far more variety than in the past. There’s green in those golden arches. Vegetables have been spotted! And by vegetables I don’t mean either the wrecks of a Russet that the burger chain calls “fries” or, for that matter, the people prepared to eat them. McDonald’s sells salads, lots of them. Two weeks into her big adventure, Soso had already chowed down on side salad, and, scourge of the henhouse that she is, Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken, Caesar Salad with Crispy Chicken, and the California Cobb Salad.
But there’s no need to feel guilty about sucking down a few burgers as well. They too can be part of a balanced diet, “it’s food,” adds Soso. “Food is food. Don’t eat too much.” People, she argues, need to think about what they eat, and then take responsibility for the consequences. Some exercise would also help. “It’s just too easy to blame McDonald’s.”
Not any more.