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Hidden in Plain Sight is a column by Yvonne Maxwell focusing on the stories, foodways, customs and traditions of the Black communities across the UK, as well as the global Black diaspora; ones that have been here for years and decades, in plain sight, yet are rarely written about.
Meet Me in Brixton McD’s, by Yvonne Maxwell
For most children, McDonald’s means magic. There is a certain association with McDonald’s – any McDonald’s – of the magic of Ronald and his friends, having that Happy Meal in your happy place, the instant gratification of non-home-cooked food. It is a place of joy, indulgence and intense anticipation; opening up that paper box to reveal golden fries, the grease-stained wrapping of your burger where just a hint of cheese is visible and, of course, that week’s toy (in my case, one of 1999’s Snoopy World Tour figurines.)
For me though, McDonald’s was survival. My mum worked there for more than 30 years of her life, with a large proportion of that time spent at the Brixton McDonald’s. She was one of the original crew members when the restaurant opened on 5th October 1992. As a child, I was able to see behind the curtain of the magic because I knew how much labour it took to do fast food. I saw the energy and hours this work required first-hand. It wasn't this abstract place where the people who worked there ceased to exist the moment I left; they featured constantly in my everyday life. They were my extended family – Godwin, Tony, Derek and the rest of the crew – who attended my birthday parties and gave life advice based on whatever childhood conundrum I would share during my visits. In our household, McDonald’s business was family business. We would stay up with my mum as she revised for food safety exams, as she prepared for inspections and visits from regional management, and helped prepare for seasonal promotions. She would come home with stories about rude customers and the heartwarming achievements of her fellow colleagues. We listened to her tales of preventing crimes, assisting in the birth of a baby and witnessing Muhammad Ali flip a burger in front of her very eyes – these were the stories of superheroes.
It has been said that in every city there is a uniquely chaotic and memorable McDonald’s. For London, this is Brixton McDonald’s. Everyone I know has a story because it is truly one of the most entertainingly dysfunctional spaces in London. When you go through the doors it feels like anything can happen at any given time, and it is almost a certainty that something will.
The Brixton McD’s has become a nexus of chaos due to a conglomeration of different factors: geographical, political, architectural and sociological. It owes its fame in some part to the building, which is central to Brixton, sitting at the intersection of Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Acre Lane (before the days of smartphones and Google Maps, “meet me outside Brixton McD’s” was the common instruction). It is also a reflection of Brixton itself: here, with its nightlife, markets and transport links, you are within close proximity to a wide spectrum of life experiences and encounters – teenagers at gigs, Home Counties pub crawlers, Pentecostal preachers, artists wearing parachute trousers. You will encounter mental health crises, extreme poverty, unexpected human connections, extraordinary kindness, abundant choices and a lack thereof. Brixton McDonald’s is essentially a condensed version of society where everything happens simultaneously.
As Brixton has been the central hub of Black liberation and social justice movements in London from the 1940s to the present day, its McDonald’s also rests at the epicentre of working-class Black culture within the UK. While Brixton may usually be segregated by race and class (think Pop Brixton, Brixton Village and even the two halves of Station Road) its McDonald’s is where the area’s contested history coalesces: Essex revellers having screaming matches over who pulled which bird, Black kids from different schools settling in separate corners of the restaurant, blazers knotted around their waists and those visiting the area for the first time clutching their pearls, clearly very discomfited by the ‘grittiness’ of their fellow diners. In my time spent in Brixton McDonald’s, I’ve witnessed drunken brawls where drinks were thrown across the restaurant and tips left from grateful strangers, rough sleepers given free hot drinks to thaw the traumas of the cold outside, angered customers attempting to jump over the raised counter, and light-skinned bum cheeks spilled out of pum-pum shorts onto the cold plastic chairs in the lobby.
Unlike the Peckham McDonald’s, which is located in an equally charged area, Brixton McDonald’s has managed to retain its unpredictable charm and dynamic. Even with the offensive graffiti-inspired decor scheme, added tech in the form of self-checkouts and reduced human-to-human contact, there is still that feeling of whimsy. Peckham, in comparison, now serves as a smooth pick-up point for food orders, while the countertop till service has been scrapped for an automated Fort Knox-style setup, no doubt a cost-saving measure following Covid-19 restrictions. This would never be allowed in Brixton.
There’s something about McDonald’s particularly that inspires this pandemonium. Perhaps there’s an energy born out of childhood wonder and nostalgia that makes grown adults act this way. Recently, I asked my mum again about the Ali visit. It was part of his tour of the area in February 1999 in support of Jubilee 2000, a movement to cancel Third World debt. My mum was doing her usual rounds through the restaurant when she saw Ali himself standing at the entranceway with his security detail. He greeted her and asked if he could have a tour – she obviously said yes and walked him around the lobby, through the restricted doors onto the shop floor and into the kitchen, where he apparently said he had always wanted to make a McDonald’s burger. One of the grillers handed him their meat spatula. Ali then went on to place an order for a Filet-O-Fish with no sauce, built the burger and then added lettuce, tomato and cheese. My mum claims that this soon became a trend and was unofficially added to the Brixton menu for an extra charge, due to several customers placing similar orders upon overhearing Ali’s modifications.
Maybe it’s this role as a beacon – for famous boxers on tour, for drunken revellers, or for children relaxing after school – that makes it so important, that offers a feeling of safety despite the chaos. Once, when I was 12, I fell asleep on the P13 bus on the way home from my Aunty Sandra’s house in Dulwich and woke up lost and in a state of confusion having realised that I was now in Streatham. I made my way down Streatham High Road, sobbing dramatically, and was eventually stopped by a kind stranger who put me on a bus headed towards Brixton once I had told him that my mum worked at the McDonald’s.
There was a crowd at the entrance way that I had to push my way through, and what I saw next was a phantasmagoria: to my left was a group of Black women dressed as if they were paying homage to Neeta, Sweeta and Nastie from Babymother. One of the women sported large gold bamboo earrings and a long, braided ponytail with her edges laid for the gods; another was rocking a classic beehive hairstyle with blonde and electric blue streaks and a fishnet jumpsuit; while the last had a pixie cut with finger waves, long acrylic nails and gold sovereigns rings on each finger. They were Brixton Fabulous! I could see a man in my periphery who had a mouth full of gold teeth and shaved slits in his eyebrows. Meanwhile, someone ran past me singing REM’s Everybody Hurts and I heard the faint beeping sound of the fry machine going off in the background. I signalled to my mum who was in the kitchen area salting the beef patties and she lifted the fry basket as she walked towards me.
After explaining my ordeal on the bus, she called out my order to Godwin. He slammed a quarter-pounder patty down onto the hot grill and the meat began to sizzle and hiss as it seared under the heat. I watched as Godwin flipped and salted the beef patty, toasted the sesame seed bun and began to assemble the burger so carefully. He placed the top of the bun upside down in the clamshell box and added generous swirls of ketchup, mustard and mayo to the bun, followed by slivered onions, pickles, leaf lettuce and tomato, and two slices of American cheese, which were gently fused to the burger. It was pure artistry, a cinematic performance of gastronomical brilliance!
My mum brought me my burger, to which she added a small fries, a strawberry milkshake and an apple pie, and she sat with me making up Happy Meal boxes while I demolished the food and cheered up immediately. For me the rhythm and magic of Brixton McDonald’s has never been about the place or the food – it is in the people.
Thank you for sharing your story. I hit McDonalds 2-3x max per year, but I'll make sure the Brixton one slips in to my annual allotment.