We're lovin' it, comrade: Russia embraces fast food

Fast food has been under attack in America. Urged to make their Happy Meals healthier, McDonald's recently shrank the serving size of the meal's fries and added apple slices. Cajoled by public health advocates and new laws, chain restaurants are posting the fat content and calorie count of their cheeseburgers and gooey pizzas. So far not many people have changed their eating habits after pondering these postings, except perhaps some young males who use the information to try to set records in competitive eating escapades. Still , the nutritional nagging continues. Meanwhile various schemes have been proposed to tax the river that runs through fast food restaurants: sugary soft drinks.

Yet The New York Times reported this week that Russia is embracing fast food. Quicker than you say, " you want fries with that," fast-food joints are popping up in its cities. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Subway and Papa John's, the murderer's row of American fast food chains, are all expanding in Russia. There are now 279 Mickey D's in the land of Lenin. Subway has about 200 sandwich shops, and Wendy's plans on building 180 restaurants, the Times reports . Even the colonel, the one from Kentucky, not the Kremlin, has an increased presence. Yum Brands, the father of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, has about 350 restaurants in Mother Russia. One wonders if even the KGB could have cracked the colonel's "secret recipe" of 11 herbs and spices.

This growth in the country's fast food eateries has been spurred, according to the newspaper, by parallel increase affluent consumers and an increase in malls, food courts and suppliers of frozen food. In other words, Russians are behaving like Americans; they get a little money, they go to the mall for a slice, some wings or a burger. One wonders if this is progress. Pravda ran a story last year blaming a rise in obesity rates on Muscovites choosing "transnational hamburgers" over their traditional cuisine.

Of course, fast food may not be the top public health priority in Russia, which a United Nations study found had the third-highest per capita consumption of liquor in the world. Pravda also reported a few years ago that the World Health Organization had found that average consumption of 8 liters of alcohol per capita in a nation was evidence of a public health crisis. Russians drank 27 liters a year.

Oddly, even though the Russians have less money than Americans — the average American household income is $43,539 versus $7,276 for Russians — their average fast food check is almost $2.50 higher than the one rung up the United States. This occurs because Russian chains have found they can charge higher prices than in America. The same Papa John's large pizza that costs $14 in St. Petersburg, Fla., costs $21.62 in the original St. Petersburg. That is capitalism for you. If Karl Marx were still alive he might have something to say about the price of pizza, probably nothing nice.

A favorite pizza of the new and apparently fatter Russia is a Papa John's pizza topped with blue cheese, chicken, celery and Tabasco sauce. This is not a dish that Tolstoy wrote about in Anna Karenina. But it does sound somewhat appealing . As Tolstoy might say, all fast food pizzas are alike, yet every topping is appealing in its own way.

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