Regardless of one’s level of faith, most Muslims in the West will have some story to tell about the iconic McDonald’s sandwich called Filet-O-Fish. Like the rest of America, some hate it, some love it, but all will acknowledge its place in the repertoire of Muslim nourishment in America. The story of the Filet-O-Fish and the Muslim community has little to do with the sandwich itself. Fried fish isn’t always the preferred option, and for every Muslim in the West who has a tale about the Filet-O-Fish, there is another with a story about securing a coveted Big Mac at a McDonalds in the Dubai airport.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is especially true of food. Bread and butter pickles became an American sandwich staple during the Great Depression; instant ramen was invented in the midst of a hunger crisis in postwar Japan; Nutella traces its roots to a shortage in chocolate in Italy also after the war. Scarcity takes previously unremarkable ingredients and elevates them to a new culinary and cultural level.
Created in 1962 for Roman Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays, the Filet-O-Fish has since found a home in a different religious community in America: the Muslims.
On January 27th 2017, Donald Trump made the short trip from the White House to the Department of Defense to sign Executive Order 13769, better known as the “Muslim ban”. With a stroke of his pen, thousands of people from seven Muslim majority nations were denied entry into the United States and found themselves stuck in airports around the world.
Afterwards, perhaps, Trump sat down for a lunch of his favorite foods; the contents of two Filet-O-Fish and two Big Mac sandwiches (sans bun), smeared with ketchup, a Diet Coke and a large chocolate shake.
I also sat down recently for a meal of two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at Boston’s South Station, as I awaited a train that would take me to Providence. I, however, opted to eat this meal intact, as God meant it to be, steamed buns and all and not dissected, like a sociopath.
The Filet-O-Fish is one of the most divisive fast food items in America. You either love this iconic piece of the McDonald’s gastronomic canon or you hate it. It consists of one fried fish filet patty, a piece of processed cheese and a dollop of tartar sauce, all nestled between two soft steamed buns. Notorious Filet-O-Fish hater The Kid Mero of the Bodega Boys has said, “the Filet-O-Fish is only delicious if you’re ninety,” and also that it is “disrespectful to real fish.” This sandwich is also rumoured to be one of the items employees at McDonald’s swear that you should never order, as the breaded filets are prepared in the morning and sit out under a sad heat lamp all day.
The word “halal” in Arabic means “permissible,” and for Muslims, it refers to everything in life that is part of being a good Muslim. Very commonly “halal” is used in the context of food, specifically meat. For meat to be halal, a few criteria must be met. Before the slaughter, the animal must be comfortable and it must not see another animal die. During the process of slaughter, the animal’s jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe must be cut and all of the blood drained. This is all accompanied by a prayer.
Over the past twenty years, halal food has become more and more available in cities across America. In New York City, it’s become synonymous with street meat, even with founding a successful takeout chain and landing a place in one of Cardi B’s rhymes. But it wasn’t always like this, and depending where you are, it still isn’t.
When my parents arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1993, the only halal meat you could get was chicken, often stale and sometimes a pale green. One night after purchasing the meat shortly before closing time, my parents witnessed the storeowner turning off the meat refrigerator for the night. Needless to say, we didn’t eat chicken all that often.
Fish, however, presents no such problems. Fish is considered halal and therefore there is no need to seek out “halal fish”. Almost every grocery store in America will carry some sort of fish and by extension, most fast food chains have some sort of fish option; the most ubiquitous of these is the Filet-O-Fish. This sandwich is arguably the most available halal food in America. Whether you are grabbing a bite with friends or on a long road trip, whether you are in Dearborn, Michigan or Chadron, Nebraska, there will always be a Filet-O-Fish waiting (and waiting) for you.
The place occupied by the Filet-O-Fish in the collective imagination of Muslims in the West has a lot to do with how the concept of “halal” plays out in real life. The act of eating halal is not just an individual act that occurs in a vacuum; it is a community practice. Everyone observes differently and has their own place on the sliding scale of halal observance; some don’t at all, while others, usually aunties and uncles, meticulously investigate every ingredient, enzyme and industrial food coloring ever made. What is halal is always informed by discussions with others in the community; I’ve had many debates about the permissibility of certain obscure enzymes.
This community practice engenders word-of-mouth networks for learning about trusted places to eat, especially in the last two decades. In the United States, Australia and the UK, the label “halal” has come to represent a proxy for the American right-wing misconception of “sharia law.” In Australia this anti-halal sentiment is especially rabid, to the point that it is nonsensical; anti-halal campaigners once spammed the Facebook page of a wine company after someone posted that they would be labelling their products halal.
Not wanting to lose business, but recognizing the growing power of the halal market, some businesses have quietly adopted halal meat and quietly spread the word.
I saw this on display one night a few years ago in Boston, when I was out with my brother and his friends. After seeing a movie, we passed a Wahlburgers, the burger chain run by the Wahlberg brothers. My brother’s friend wanted to see if they had a halal option, so he approached the counter and asked “is your meat halal?” The cashier responded with a confused look, “Halal? What?”
He then changed the question.
“Is your meat from Creekstone?”
And that’s how Wahlburger’s–the chain bearing the name of a guy who has committed multiple hate crimes–was identified as sharia compliant on that night. Creekstone Farms is a certified halal supplier of meat in New England, and so, through the power of word of mouth, Muslims can identify and eat at establishments beyond what may be publicly advertised. NPR picked up on this, and reported a story earlier this year with a clickbait headline: “You Might Be Eating Halal Meat and Not Even Know It.”
Not every establishment is eager to ride the halal wave, of course; after Muslims eagerly told each other that Shake Shack was halal because it used Creekstone as a supplier, the company explained it had more than one supplier.
Since moving to Providence I have eaten a lot of fish, some of it in the form of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The little meat I have had has come from family care packages, and I miss the availability and selection that I had in Toronto. I don’t necessarily feel anything when I eat a Filet-O-Fish; I do feel warm, but that has more to do with my propensity to eat garbage than it does being Muslim. I’m not reminded of my community or my faith when I choose to devour a sandwich I know has likely been waiting hours for me.
After Anthony Bourdain passed earlier this year, the New Yorker’s food critic, Helen Rosner, a friend of the late chef, wrote on Twitter; “Can we retire the lazy, empty, self-congratulatory trope that “food connects people”? Because it doesn’t. People connect people. It’s not the food, it’s the table.”
When I moved to Providence for grad school, a fellow Muslim student offered to drive me to Cranston, where all the halal shops are, to buy halal meat; others told me where I could find halal restaurants in the area. The Muslim community, like any other community, is complicated and messy, but these little gestures of support, giving me access to knowledge I would not otherwise be privy to, remind me that I have a community to fall back on.
That said, the Bodega Boys’ Desus Nice is right; no matter what the facts say, the sandwich is a flavourful sensation. The Filet-O-Fish may not be sophisticated and it may not be a panacea for Islamophobia or a beacon of representation, but it’s reliable and delicious; and when you don’t have halal alternatives nearby, that’s all it needs to be.