Egg McNothin'

All-day breakfast undermines the true pleasure of the iconic sandwich: anticipating and then missing out on it.

blu_pineappl3 / Flickr

The greatest luxury is the one we cannot have—or at least, the one we cannot have very often. This is the definition of luxury, really, and not just expensive, unreachable luxuries, but also cheaper, smaller ones. Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, a decadence limited to one day a year. And also, breakfast—real breakfast, with grains and eggs and meat and starch. Even at a place like McDonald’s where, as of this week, a selection of the struggling fast food figurehead’s breakfast menu, including the venerable Egg McMuffin, is available all day.

Let me say something heretical: The Egg McMuffin is not that great, actually. Warm but slightly wet and gooey, sloppily constructed, oozing with quasi-cheese, the slap of Canadian bacon failing to yield to incisors. But what is great is the idea of an egg McMuffin. It’s an improbable domestication of Eggs Benedict, condensing that civil dish of lazy brunches into the harried hand of the commuter or the road-tripper.

For years, more Americans came into contact with the Egg McMuffin as an idea rather than a reality. Only occasionally, when dawn’s rosy fingers intersected with the golden arches: an early Interstate departure, or a next-morning drive-of-shame lamentation, or a pre-planned indulgence before a cross-town optometrist appointment.

Yes, sure, I realize that McDonald’s has breakfast regulars, and that breakfast is a meal whose delights are unfairly sequestered into the brisk, single-digit hours. But equally common is the McDonald’s near-miss breakfast. Hungover, lurching through the drive-thru at 10:25a.m. in search of cheap proteins; or skipping through glass doors with kids in tow, having succumbed to their big eyes; or meandering in to kill some time after arriving early for a client meeting in a strange part of town—only to discover that the lunch menus had cruelly flipped into place already.

Even when you wanted one, McDonald’s breakfast was withheld more often than it was supplied. Perhaps it was meant to be. Perhaps the dream of the Egg McMuffin is its truest payload, rather than its shaped meat and egg between English-muffin halves.

Writing in The Atlantic upon the announcement of McDondald’s all-day breakfast, Adam Chandler lamented the violation of well-established ritual. The 24/7 work world turns “morning” into “that time after whenever you woke up,” and all-day breakfast at McDonald’s only spreads a new layer of oil atop an already greasy period of precarity and overwork. “In demanding eternal breakfast,” Chandler mourns, “America is reverting to its adolescence.”

Perhaps so. But also, America is giving up McDonald’s breakfast as an indulgence meant mostly to be missed rather than savored. The Egg McMuffin and its brethren offered different sustenance—spiritual sustenance. Under the fluorescent lights inside its boxy chapel one discovered and not just endured but enjoyed the sensation of inaccessibility. Light door closing on its pneumatic hinge, coat unzipped, cold hands rubbing together, glasses fogging from the temperature change, accidental early birds enter McDonald’s for the anticipation itself. It might be on the way to or from a long drive or a dead-end job or a screaming child or a fouled-up marriage, but a dip into the quick-serve cathedral affirms that the universe is ultimately indifferent: “I’m sorry, sir, we’ve just stopped serving breakfast.”

But far from initiating nihilistic despair, this moment invokes an invitation to rise above it. No hash browns, but perhaps fries. No McMuffin, but a cheeseburger is good enough. It’s good enough! The world restores its gentle sufficiency. The man who just-misses McDonald’s breakfast is a commoner’s Samuel Beckett, trudging ever forward despite the intrinsic absurdity of a 10:30a.m. breakfast cutoff. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

The great loss in a world of all-day McDonald’s breakfast is not just that of a giant corporation ceding to consumers’ unreasonable whims. That tragedy plays itself out all across commerce and industry, after all. A smaller, more specific misfortune befalls society in this new era of all-day McMuffins: the loss of that 20-minute window around 10:30 when breakfast both might and might not have been available, but it couldn’t be known without looking—Schrödinger's McMuffin. It was sought out to quell not physical but existential hunger.

Of course, McDonald’s can’t sell the feeling of wanting an Egg McMuffin, but only a puck of protein wrapped in wax paper. And even so, all-day breakfast likely won’t help save the foundering fast-food giant anyway. This year, McDonald’s will close more stores than it opens, a first since 1970. But perhaps the problem isn’t that Americans increasingly would prefer more healthy, wholesome, and identifiable meals from competitors such as Chipotle and Shake Shack, but also that McDonald’s has ceased to help staunch our spiritual bleeding. To bandage that we needed the impersonalism and sameness of the faceless McDonald’s, a red-and-glass box atop asphalt, just like every other, where breakfast might or might not be on offer. When anytime is breakfast time, why even bother wanting breakfast? True, McDonald’s always sold fast food. But first, it sold anticipation. Anticipation was and remains a luxury—perhaps the greatest luxury. The surest way to spoil an extravagance is to destroy the suspense that animates it.