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After Pool Snacks

June 29, 2011

Nostalgia will get you every time. When I was a kid, I went to summer camp with ADS in Miami. It was hot, but the pool was cold. In fact, given the heat, the pool now seems impossibly cold. One of the very best parts of camp was getting out of the freezing pool, and shivering our way over to the snack bar window, to eat a steaming hot pile of freshly made fries.

If memory serves me right, they were only fifty cents. Damn, I feel old.

Well, it’s summer and that means it is time for Young Master Fussy to spend some quality time at the town pool learning how to not drown. For his bravery, more than his skill or effort, I want to reward him with the only positive thing that ever came from my own juvenile swim instruction: French fries.

But in doing so, I’ve discovered something unfortunate. A fundamental fact of French fry lore has been turned on its head.

That would be the supremacy of McDonald’s French fries.

If you read Fast Food Nation, you might remember this chapter. It’s the one that explains how McDonald’s French fries are engineered to be delicious by flavorists and designed to be perfect by engineers. So much so that James Beard himself was known to love the McDonald’s fry. Incidentally, the chapter also includes my favorite quotation on natural flavors:

A natural flavor,” says Terry Acree, a professor of food science at Cornell University, “is a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology.

Besides the machinery involved of growing uniform potatoes, processing them, and freezing them for transport, the thing that has long made the McDonald’s French fry memorable is the oil. That would be the oil that at one point was mostly beef tallow.

The story in Fast Food Nation suggests the fries are still super delicious because of the “natural flavor” that replicates their original taste now that the beef tallow is ancient history.

However, there is one thing missing from that equation, and that’s the human factor.

As automated as a multi-thousand-unit restaurant empire dedicated to consistency can be, it still requires human beings to do the work. And that is where it all breaks down. At least locally.

Because I’ve been going to the same McDonald’s after swimming for the past two days, and each time the fries have a faint but distinct bitterness to them. The most likely culprit would be rancid oil. Of lesser concern was the alarming lack of salt on day two.

Now, I’m of a few minds.

Young Master Fussy doesn’t seem to notice the off taste. I mean, he drenches the things with so much ketchup or sweet and sour sauce that they are more of a high fructose corn syrup delivery device than anything else.

So one part of me want to keep going back. That would be the scientist in me, who wants to track the day the fries start tasting like fries again. Over time, I might get a sense of when they change their frying oil, and that would be pretty useful information.

I suppose I could just ask, but where’s the fun in that? And I’ve heard that information like this is considered to be proprietary.

The other part of me wants to abandon McDonald’s entirely except for emergency roadside assistance when traveling the Mass Pike or NY Thruway with kids. We could go to Five Guys instead for their chunkier specimens fried in peanut oil. I mean, who needs the GMO-rific canola and soy blend replete with natural flavors from the benevolent McDonald’s corporation?

Especially when they aren’t being made well.

Luckily, I believe this to be a problem with the store and not the chain. And it’s unlikely that most consumers actually chew the food long enough to taste that something is wrong. Nor is it likely they would suspect old oil is to blame.

But it does seem like this is a major flaw in the system, if local owners and managers can slack off and neglect changing and filtering the fat that is responsible for the trademark flavor of its most profitable product.

However, it’s money in the local owner’s pocket. Because changing out all the oil in the fryers isn’t cheap. It’s also a messy and potentially dangerous job, which I’m sure many managers would prefer to simply avoid for as long as possible. And if nobody notices or complains, what’s the big deal?

Well, I’m not complaining. I’m just going to go elsewhere.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 9:24 am

    I worked at an Arby’s for way too long in high school and college. We would change the oil every 3-4 days, it was filtered on the days that is was not changed. If you are getting french fries in the evening, they have more of a chance to have an off taste than if you had gotten them earlier in the day. The oil may have been fine in the beginning of the day but as the day progresses it starts to break down and the oil level starts to get low and it gets darker and darker. We used to add fresh oil to the fryer when it got too low and dark but if the oil is going to be changed the next morning we would just let it go. I always enjoyed french fries in 1-2 day old oil, by then the oil was seasoned from everything else that had been fried in it, french fries fried in fresh oil don’t taste right either.

  2. June 29, 2011 7:40 pm

    This sounds like a rogue McDonald’s to me. They have very rigid standards on product, whether you are a company owned or franchise store, and saving a few bucks by using rancid oil would not seem to be part of the master plan. I also don’t think they have some scullery person slaving to clean the dirty fryer as at a mom and pop shop; more likely there is some very sophisticated filtration system in place.

  3. northcountryrambler permalink
    July 1, 2011 2:42 pm

    I would be surprised if the oil was used long enough to go “rancid”. It only lasts a few days, with regular filtering. Rancid potatoes maybe, but probably not the oil. More likely you’re tasting something else cooked in the same oil. But remember ~ If not for double-dipping the oil, there would be no catfish flavored hushpuppies, and where would we be then?

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