What I learned from McDonald's "Pollock to Pollock" ads.

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

When I first stumbled onto the series of McDonald’s ads — for the Filet-O-Fish sandwich — set in Pollock, South Dakota, I thought; “That’s cool.” But I was also just a little leery that they might veer towards yokel exploitation.

This is not the 1940s. Small town America doesn’t get the Frank Capra treatment much any more. And the Kansas City-based ad agency that produced the spots were looking for a town as far as possible from the sea — a place with small census totals on a roadside sign and maybe not much else. Landlocked, worlds away from coastal culinary trends. Far from almost everything, even a McDonald's. 

So, the ads could have been a chance for a chain that's been so everywhere for so long that it can fade into the foreground to get some yaks at a small town’s expense. Fortunately for Pollock, the ads don’t do that. Bernstein-Rein, the Kansas City-based agency that produced them, targeted the series at local Midwestern markets — specifically people for whom a Filet-O-Fish could aid in observing Lent. The kind of people who might relate to the ad’s star, Davis Hanson, a grain elevator operator, originally from Texas, who fell in love with the walleye fishing of North Central South Dakota. 

The agency scouted the picturesque town on the shores of Lake Oahe and Lake Pocasse, interviewed dozens of Pollock people who (get this) like to fish, before they finally zeroed in on Hanson. “I don’t know if it was my Southern charm…” guesses Hanson. But when they told him they were looking for someone to take on a whirlwind trip to fish for pollock on the Trident Seafood’s Viking Explorer in Gulf of Alaska, he said, “Sign me up. Let’s go.”     

Bernstein-Rein came to Pollock because it was landlocked, about as far as you can get from an ocean, and named after a pioneer lay minister whose surname also belongs to the freezer aisle fish. The idea was to take an avid fishermen from Pollock to Alaska to catch some Pollock. The name connection is tongue-in-cheek. But there is a deeper connection between the towns of Pollock, South Dakota and Kodiak, Alaska, where the team took Davis to board the Viking Explorer.

Pollock is an agricultural town. The biggest local business is a cheese plant owned by DairiConcepts, a national conglomerate that, according to its website, produces “cheese and dairy powders, seasoning blends, concentrated pastes, flavor enhancers and hard Italian cheeses.” The second biggest business is probably the Farmer’s elevator where Davis works, weighing and storing locally-grown staples like wheat and corn.

The Viking Explorer trawls the Gulf of Alaska for huge hauls of pollock that end up as fish n’ chips, in sandwiches like the Filet-O-Fish and in the freezer section of the grocery store.    

Processed cheeses, wheat, corn, processed fish. These are the kind of foods that come out of Kodiak and Pollock. People like Davis Hanson and Elmer Loose, captain of the Viking Explorer, help produce them, lots of them. 

McDonald's needs this stuff, all of it. Pollock might not produce pollock, but every component of a Filet-O-Fish — from the patty (which contains wheat and corn), to the bun (wheat and corn again), to the half slice of pasteurized processed American cheese contains elements that could have been produced in Pollock.

The Filet-O-Fish was born of necessity in 1962 Cincinnati. Franchisee Lou Groen’s overwhelmingly Catholic customers’ Lent observance was killing his sales. So he came up with a processed fish patty. His invention handily beat McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s Lent-inspired beef alternative — a fried pineapple sandwich called the Hula Burger — in a taste test and took off, not in small part because many liturgical Christians consider fish fast-approved.

Maybe as a result of its ritual origins the FoF is deliberately unostentatious. It’s modest 380 calories are cloaked in semi-monastic (McNastic?) austerity. The small, square patty seems adrift in a relative sea of steamed bun. A schmear of tartar sauce and a half slice of American cheese unify the package in a tidy triad of bun, patty, bun. The processed pollock is pleasantly fluffy and light. 

As the demands of the liturgical calendar relent, the more lascivious oral sensations on the menu board will re-seduce many McDonalds regulars, like an Amsterdam sex worker posed beneath the red lights of a brothel window. But forty days of semi-ascetic loaf and fish is livable.

Most times of year, you’ll probably get yours made-to-order, but they still stack up in the HLZ (heated landing zone) during Lent. McDonalds’s racks up about a quarter of its total annual FoF sales in the holy season.

  Clockwise: A Phil A. O'Fish ad from 1976, H.R. Pufnstuf, and a vintage placemat featuring Captain Crook.Clockwise: A Phil A. O'Fish ad from 1976, H.R. Pufnstuf, and a vintage placemat featuring Captain Crook.

If the Filet-O-Fish is like the Mr. Pibb of McDonald’s sammiches, then the characters it inspired to frolic, briefly, in the fantastical world of McDonaldland are even more shrouded in obscurity, like fast food versions of Sesame Street’s Bennett Snerf. There was Phil A. O’Fish and a Captain Crook. Both have long been retired. Captain Crook was voiced by Lennie Weinrib, who also played the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf on the cult-favorite kid’s fantasy show. The Weinrib connection could be the answer to a weird trivia question, but the worlds Captain Crook and Pufnstuf have plenty in common. In McDonaldland, as on Pufnstuf’s Living Island, everything is alive. Sentience isn’t an exclusive deal. A McCheese can dream of being Mayor. 

As a kid growing up near the end of the height of the McDonaldland era, the characters held a mystique for me similar to that of a bit player from the Book of Genesis, like Methusaleh — who I imagined growing long white hair and aging painlessly in an emerald meadow leftover from before the fall. Like the patriarchs begat between the fall and the flood, you don’t know too much about the McDonaldland characters. They live in their hermetic little paradise, unperturbed, unreachable like Methusaleh across the eons. They're safely separate from this world. They have not want.     

In McDonaldland’s emerald meadows, on the azure shores of Filet-O-Fish Lake where burgers and fries grow from the earth, there is no need. Hunger is vanquished. Nature and circumstance have lost their power to deny. Mother earth’s bounty flowers in familiar shapes — fry, patty, nugget, bun, the comforting shapes of satiety. Nothing is irregular. Nothing is bulbous or a has a bad spot like a bruised banana, or shrivels on the vine. 

The hamburger flower fuses the fruits of Cain the farmer’s and Abel the shepherd’s labors in a single organism, obviating the cause of their quarrel, obviating the origins of envy and all it’s wrought. In McDonaldland, Ronald takes care of everything. He is yours and your brother’s keeper. 

The McDonaldland characters, and especially Ronald McDonald, have made easy fodder for cheeky anti-corporate artists like Ron English. I’m aware of this kind of art, and the beef some people have with McDonald's, and the idea that an all-Mcdonald's meal plan may not be advisable when you’re not hiking the Continental Divide. When some people think of McDonald's, or fast food in general (or maybe when some people just think of corn) they might picture somebody like the tattooed guy in the popular S-Town podcast who describes himself like this: “I’m a 6-foot, 350-pound bearded man in a John Deere hat, with ‘Feed Me’ on my belly.” 

Still, there’s an unshakeable two word poem that hovers over the Officer Big Mac-shaped jungle gym in my memories of McDonaldland: Billions Served. Billions. Maybe its trillions now. Whatever, it’s a lot. That’s a supersized caloric distribution program. There’s nothing very exclusive-sounding about it. “Billions served” implies a kind of metastasizing abundance, like the loaves and fish, that leaves no hankering maw un-tartar-sauced. “Billions served” is like a giant middle fishstick shoved right in the face of Big Hunger. 

Those kinds of numbers conjure images of vast fields of burger flowers bowing their bunzy heads to shed their bounties on an intricate maze of conveyor belts that bounds the hills and valleys of McDonaldland, stretching endlessly toward hungerless horizons. Some might imagine each paunchy unit replicated to scale as a human middle. But is that so bad? Some people, rappers for instance, are better off big, and the rest of us are better off having them around.  

Even if you have the time to stay somewhat hip to pop culture dos and don’ts, it’s hard to keep up with whether shaming people who eat stuff, or just the stuff they eat, is in fashion on any given day. But one pretty reliable way to predict what foods will be deemed edible outcasts is to note the price tag.   

So it’s not every day you see grain elevator operators or pollock trawlers on TV. Powdered cheese, fish sticks and corn aren’t fashionable foods. These foods are produced at McDonaldland scale, in places like Pollock and the Gulf of Alaska, for people whose shorties dream McDonaldland dreams. When I see my baby daughter eating a chicken nugget that’s probably half corn, I offer a quick mental shout out to people like Davis Hanson. (Relax, she eats plenty of brown rice and vegetables too).

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I’m from a big city — Chicago — surrounded by corn, but mostly unaware of its existence until the guy with the elote cart comes around. Before I moved to South Dakota, I thought grain elevators were a visual shorthand for small-town nostalgia that you might see on Pinterest. I didn’t know people still actually worked in some of them. Davis Hanson is the first real-life elevator worker I’ve ever met. He doesn’t put on a lot of airs. He was expecting about 30,000 bushels of corn that day, which is a lot. In Alaska, he got to see that kind of action in fish. “Here we catch one or two fish on a pole,” he said. “In the Alaskan boat, we caught 220,000 pounds of pollock in one netcast.”   

If you define a real-life McDonaldland as a land of plenty (not as a municipality with a McDonalds — the closest McDonalds to Pollock is about 86 miles away in Bismarck, ND) then you could say that one thing the “Pollock to Pollock” ads accomplished was to briefly transport a man from a corn McDonaldland called Pollock to a pollock McDonaldland called something else.  

And that’s not a bad thing to have happened. I’m pretty sure nothing I’ll ever do is nearly as essential to humanity as what people like Davis and Captain Elmer Loose do every day in their respective lands of plenty. They might as well have met, if just for a day, and harvested some bounty together.

It’s as if Bernstein-Rein, in its quest for a near-exotic remove from the centers of consumption, found a cornucopial nexus where the relative lack of video cameras is inversely proportionate to the copiousness of foodstuff production — where ubiquity begets ubiquity, unseen. The nets teem with pollock. Truckloads of grain line the highway.     

These places, and the people who work in the grain elevators, the dairy plants, the catch and process fleets, don’t get a lot of screen time. In a better world maybe they would. But they probably need that much less than the rest of us need them. 

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