They made the world’s greatest French Fry. Then they threw it away.
United States


00:00:05my parents didn't take us to fast food places when I was little they thought they were an abomination in any case we didn't have a McDonald's back then in out of town so it wasn't like I was confronted by the fact of french fries they were some dimly understood concept something that people out there somewhere did to a potato that somehow implicated the French
00:00:29then one day after track practice 13 years old I went to my first McDonald's
00:00:36have you ever seen a puppy encounter snow for the first time he broke his nose into it would just look up perplexity and Shear Delight because he can't understand where this white thing came from those both fluffy and called
00:00:50it was like that for me a slice of potato crispy on the outside yet somehow pillowy soft on the inside
00:00:58right then and there I gave my heart to McDonald's
00:01:02and then McDonald's broke it
00:01:07my name is Malcolm Gladwell revisionist history Mike podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood
00:01:16this week I'm on a mission to understand why McDonald's betrayed me so many years ago
00:01:29our Story begins in a nondescript Office Park in Foster City California just south of San Francisco a place called Matson maybe the top food research and development house in the country the Los Alamos of Food Science I came here to walk back the cat as they say in the intelligence business to figure out what happened on July 23rd 1990 the day McDonald's changes the recipe of their Fries Forever and turn their backs on everything I once held dear
00:02:06I'll go get another like some more and then I'm just going to take the temperature data that I said to Matson make me some fries the old way let's do a taste test modern fries versus original McDonald's fries so we did we ate them sat there in the Matteson conference room in a blissful food, t-shirt I'm going back to the Philippines price
00:02:33tell me. That's calling some people too young to ever take the deal kind just to make sure we weren't all dreaming but this wasn't some middle-aged fantasy about how everything was better in the good old days by the way
00:02:55we had two batches of fries and identical baskets identified only by number 637 128 and 75 we lined up the Millennials start here go down the line I want to know which one you like the best
00:03:12nail French Fried Chicken Vallejo French-fried eating contest
00:03:18week 3 just for the record we have three Millennials here at the script 2328 25 years of age the food scientist of the future they sample all three options they all reach the same conclusion
00:03:34you like the first okay who's next I think I like my 67 slightly better 630-7637
00:04:00I've had the great opportunity to make a lot of money and do something with it to help people
00:04:09there was a Time in America a generation ago when a man called Phil's sokoloff was a household name
00:04:15my dad was just very intense and who is a lovely person but very intense but I mean the man that bought his business from him okay my dad would talk a lot at this guy would sit with my dad for hours and this was an account and he knew so many people run, and he came to me he said your father is the most intense person I have ever met so which is the metal bracing that you use when you install drywall he noticed that it was really expensive decided he could make it cheaper and he just found this and that you know just make a lot of money and he was very driven and he knew we'd make a lot of money but once he made his money and then he sort of got tired of the business and he knew he wanted to try and do something to help people
00:05:14Dan sokoloff had a heart attack he was 43 years old he didn't eat right and he had a high cholesterol you say he didn't eat well what were what was he like before the bats and high cholesterol. Also is genetic he had heart problems in his family he was really shaken by this by this heart attack never ever expected this to happen and when you're 43 you know you think you're going to live forever and this is really changed his life totally
00:06:00Cyclops doctors tell him his diet and his high cholesterol levels put him at risk for more heart attacks so we decide to do something about it not just for himself but for everyone he starts a crusade he wants to save America from saturated fat the alleged culprit in high cholesterol
00:06:18chocolate paste have cholesterol test for thousands of Nebraskans he goes to Capitol Hill and does the same thing for 10,000 people who work there including 70 Senators he starts campaign to get low fat milk and school lunches he buys full page ads in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times And The Washington Post with huge scary headlines one year he buys a 2.5 million dollar ad during the Super Bowl he takes over a billboard in Times Square to say cut fat intake and live longer
00:06:51this campaign that he was involved in he spent an enormous amount of his own money on this yeah he really did I'm not sure how much were there was 14 15 and I can't remember wow yeah it's 30 years ago is a lot of money he spending all of your inheritance
00:07:18sokolov was on Phil Donahue the Nightly News going after what he thinks are The Fountains of fat in America
00:07:34The Fountains of fat sack love goes to the source you find a way to personally Lobby the CEOs of big food companies Kellogg Ralston Purina Pillsbury powered RC got through no one seems to know when he called up some of these Executives a big food companies what was he saying to them I mean was he Charming them was he browbeating them was the images curious about what kind of conversations were going on yeah I think it was that he was eventually browbeating them
00:08:08I hate to say that I mean I think it was Charming at first but then he got down to business so I can you know you need to take this product out of your cereal or I'm going to you know come forth with a with a big ad you know any did it and he got them to take the product out they were I'm sure very surprised they called him you know David and Goliath he sees a little David taking on these big companies he loved that they said that about him it happens and maybe it was inevitable feel sokoloff goes after McDonald's the biggest prize of the mall newspaper ad that ran in many parts of the country yesterday is giving a new meaning to the term Big Mac attack they've been cooking their fries in beef Tallow animal fat Sucka left decides they have to stop at is headline the poisoning of America and it accuses McDonald's selling burgers and fries that are loaded with that McDonald's denies the charges and they had what you called Reckless
00:09:08misleading and intended to scare rather than inform second life is all over the media the loan guy from Omaha up against the mightiest fast food company in history it's riveting live TV Phil sokoloff is the man who placed the ad is a Nebraska business man of the president of his group when she calls the national heart Savers Association good morning to both of you on the same side we just go about it there are they exactly healthy food America is watching and muddy McDonald's and the Giant Killer from Omaha are going at it tooth and nail sockolov shout that's not true your fries are cooked an animal the McDonald's guy gets flustered tries to say something sokoloff doesn't let him finish they sells vegetable 95% beef tallow
00:10:08but now it's in all of our restaurant chicken skin out of their Chicken McNugget 3 weeks ago tell him about the Egg McMuffins tell them about your of the beef Tallow in your French fries and on it goes McDonald's calls in lawyers they sent threatening letters to newspapers warning them not to run any more of Cyclops ads but that just whines up sokoloff even loves a good fight another round of meds finally McDonald's surrenders July 23rd 1992 quietly announce no more beef tallow
00:10:44just recently I got in contact with dicks Diamond the McDonald's executive we went toe-to-toe with Bill sokoloff on network TV I wanted to know what happened inside McDonald's headquarters after sokolowski did they have a picture of him with a bull's-eye on it how was it to the company making mass-produced milkshakes hamburgers and deep-fry potatoes with some how sensitive to the charge that they were making unhealthy food that kind of thing you don't want to talk maybe it's still a sore point after all these years all we know is McDonald's gate in big folded I want stay folded everyone else did to Wendy's announced they were going with 100% corn oil Burger King said they would switch to cottonseed and soybean powerful man and it was like
00:11:35whenever I was with it was like I knew nothing bad would happen to me he was just like kept me safe you know I think girls tend to think that about their dad's anyway but he was he was powerful because this has consequences for all of us I feel I have to go back to the beginning
00:12:00it all starts with a man named Ray Kroc he made his living selling the five spindle multimixer milkshake machine out of Chicago and in 1954 it began hearing about a hamburger stand in San Bernardino California this particular restaurant he was told had no fewer than 8 of his machines in operation meaning that I could make 40 milkshakes simultaneously couldn't believe that you flew from Chicago to Los Angeles and drove to San Bernardino 60 miles away and sat in his car and just watched one happy customer after another drive up
00:12:36because up to a blonde and a yellow convertible and says how often do you come here and she says anytime I'm in the neighborhood he realizes people are addicted next morning he goes back and sits inside the kitchen watching every move everyone there makes the griddle man the food prepare everything done with military precision and suddenly he had this vision of restaurants just like this all around the world
00:13:06so we asked the two brothers who owned the place if he could buy their franchise rights they said yes their names course dick and Mac McDonald
00:13:16now why is Ray Kroc so smitten with McDonald's not because of the burger the burger is fine but it's not any different from Burgers anywhere else it's because of the fries Rick Ross can't believe how good they are golden brown crispy on the outside light and fluffy on the inside let me quote to you from Crocs autobiography The crucial passage to most people a french fry potato is a pretty uninspiring object its father something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows a milkshake that's your ordinary french fry the McDonald's french fry was in an entirely different League they lavished attention on it I didn't know it then but one day I would to the French fry would become almost sacrosanct to me it's preparation or ritual to be followed religiously
00:14:12the McDonald's Brothers use top quality 8 oz Idaho russet peeled soaked in cold water then deep-fried and something crack would come to call Formula 47 which is a special beef Tallow mix show me the 47 was what's called A Hard fat butter is a hard fat lard which is pork fat is a hard heart thoughts are saturated fats from time immemorial practically every culture in the world has used hard hats for baking and cooking for good reason hard fat is stable they don't undergo strange chemical changes when they're heated and there's thick and creamy not boiling fluid which makes a big difference
00:14:58you put butter on a slice of bread it stays nice and thick on the surface you put vegetable oil on bread and the next thing you know you're nice firm slices turn to mush
00:15:09when the best coach took saturated fat out of the creamy middle of the Oreo cookie the R&D was like the Apollo space program the greatest minds and food engineering had to sit down and try and figure out how to keep the white card from turning into a slippery oily mess
00:15:26when Ray Kroc said that the French fry was sacrosanct to him what he meant was that every element of its preparation was chosen for a reason chosen because it made for the Optima french fry experience
00:15:44truck has a line in his autobiography where he talks about how the McDonald's Brothers taught him never to cook french fries in fat that have been previously used to cook anything else like fried chicken any restaurant will deny that he writes but almost all of them do it but Croc he listened and right from the beginning he put his foot down there would be no cross-contamination of the McDonald's cooking oil that's someone who truly cares about French fries that's the Legacy he created under the golden arches
00:16:13and then all of a sudden this random guy from Omaha puts a gun to McDonald's head and says change or else
00:16:24McDonald's challenge was to find a way to replace a hard fat with a liquid fat and liquid fats are less than ideal in a deep fryer that's problem number one the first replacement oil McDonald's experiments with is a cotton seed in corn oil blend that turns out to be really high and something called trans fat it's not long before everyone realizes that trans fats are way way way worse for you than animal fats it's not even close so in 2002 McDonald's changes the oil again cutting the trans fat in half 6 years later get to switch yet again this time to get rid of all the trans fat then there's a problem the vegetable oils aren't nearly as stable as hard fats all kinds of nasty things happen when you eat them a deep fryer suddenly becomes a kind of witches cauldron spewing dangerous elements cloud of electrons there and it can react with the oxygen that might be present in the oil
00:17:24are above the surface Gerald McNeil he's Global vice president for FATZ oil nutrition for Lotus Crooklyn a big multinational he's part of big cooking oil and I will start degrading the oil pressure rapidly and certainly the breakdown products have a lot of aldehydes as a by-product and aldehyde some bait attack the proteins and DNA you know when our bodies
00:17:52you don't really want to know what the current thinking is on aldehydes trust me but in case you do its aldehydes Google that the word scary
00:18:07so while the big companies that are touting polyunsaturated oils and singer healthy well it seems you put them in a fryer it's the last thing you want to eat crazy stories went around the industry as a fast food chain struggle to figure out how to make these vegetable oil mixes work turns out that after a lot of frying a kind of paint would form in the fryer and what I'm saying it breaks down in the fryer and then you know feelings come out and it goes all around the restaurants that stay in McDonald's and the surface of the furniture is sticky because the stuff that they caught a missed you know comes out because of the breakdown products the Mist gets on everything including the uniforms of the fry station workers which creates a nightmare when the overalls have to be laundered and Wednesday they went into the truck yeah you know to go off to be cleaned sometimes just by piling the coats on top of each other
00:19:04those coats would spontaneously combust and go on fire because of the breakdown products from the oil where highly flammable they would spontaneously combust
00:19:20the point is that this is not some trivial matter it's not if you order a fried egg in a restaurant you don't stipulate the medium in which you would like the egg to be cooked it doesn't matter that much fried egg is a fried egg the stink for a moment about what a french fry is you start with the potato and a potato is basically starch and water maybe 80% water you plunge a potato into a vat of cooking oil and the Heat of the oil turns the water inside the potato into steam that steam is the key to the fry first it makes the heart starts at the potato swell and soften which is why the interior of a fry is so fluffy and light at the same time the steam rising from inside the fry keep the cooking oil on the surface of the fry instead of seeping into the middle that's why I fry is brown and crisp on the outside
00:20:15Elizabeth Rosen once what a great book called The Primal cheeseburger where she calls a french fry the quote near-perfect enactment of the enriching of a starch food with oil or fat and she's absolutely right you can add fat to potatoes without deep frying that's called mashed potatoes but at the end of the day mashed potatoes are just mush they don't have that crucial contrast between the fluffy in the crispy the point is that the oil in which you deep fry the French fry is not incidental to the creation of the French fry a french fry is by definition a potato derivative in which the water has been replaced with fat the fat is as much a constituent of the French fry as the potato
00:21:02so when you change the oil in a french fry from hard to liquid fat from saturated to unsaturated you change the French fry in 1990 McDonald's started serving us a different product
00:21:20that's why I had to go to the food scientist at Matteson so we're here and we are getting ready to fry some french fries and so we have a standard when you walk in to Matteson you think you're at an accounting firm is that a beige carpeting in a big Bland conference room then you go down the corridor and you see lots of people in white coats you turn a corner and start to smell all kinds of strange things all of a sudden you're in a big kitchen but lots of little beakers and weapons grade appliances other day I was there they were testing some plant-based milk prototypes they had them all out on the counter and little cups I got to sample them it was one in particular with enough flavor that was kind of fantastic negrito stage of taste test for me a batch of frozen fries in the same suppliers at the fast food chains use and they would cook them in bed
00:22:20boil just how they cook them in a McDonald's They would also do a pre 1990 french fry cooked in something as close as they can find to Formula 47 so I would get a chance to compare the Contemporary french fry with something no McDonald's customer has tasted in a generation so we have a standard Food Service to Bay fryer you know what temperature for frying at by the way
00:22:47360 350 and what we've done in advance of you coming here is we filled the bins with oil or Tallow I met her years ago when Matson was running a contest to create the world's healthiest cookie suckies short blonde hair high energy if she would have basketball player they would say she's got a mode where did you get your your talent
00:23:14and how did you choose your tablet very good question we're going to taste some cuz we chose it because of the flavor
00:23:22we wanted to kind of go back in time with you so we tried to find the talent we thought had the beefiest flavor
00:23:30which would be probably the closest thing to what McDonald's started with so I said hello to the local Mexican market right up the street and we found a teller there that has a really nice rich BC flavor how low is Pablo Beltran who's going to be one of our shifts along with another medicine specialist Kathy Westfall the fourth person in the room is Justin shimek who runs the company along with Stuckey exactly the plan is to use pre Frozen russet Burbank potatoes they're little lower and water content and other Potato varieties 77 to 80% water which is a defense against sogginess three batches one batch fried twice in vegetable oils just like the fries you get in McDonald's today the second batch I mix tried once and vegetable oil then a second time and beef tallow
00:24:24and the third batch old school fried both times in beef Tallow the fries I tasted 13 the ones that blew my mind the first fry was 3 minutes the first fire was 3 minutes
00:24:38it's hard to describe what the mats nights are like they're Foodies although that word suggest a kind of sybaritic sledding decadent approach to food smacking your lips and tucking into something fantastic and telling you about that time they had barbecue in Kazakhstan that was out of this world that's not how the mats nights talk about food there dispassionate objective oddly specific when stuck and I retreated back to the conference room to wait for the French fry samples to be cooked Stucky started talking about a restaurant should just eaten at so I had a tomato soup last night that had Rosemary in it and the Rosemary was so high it tasted like a Christmas tree soup
00:25:26I couldn't eat it and all I could think was if we were in the lab at the benchtop all of my colleagues would have caught us that the Rosemary's too high did your Wii U who you who you having dinner with tomato soup the Rosemary was so high that it tasted like a Christmas tree like a Christmas tree that's so great
00:25:55we weren't sitting for more than a few minutes when the door to the conference room open lines
00:26:06the mountain Chef had two batches and identical metal mesh baskets each was identified only by number 75 128 637 the taste test was blinded we had no idea which fry was which
00:26:28has a century professional we're not supposed to have a hard time doing this
00:26:37that's him that's right that's amazing
00:26:45how is that not right
00:26:49Baskets at Fry's run the conference table in front of me everyone else is gathered around these are people who make and consume some of the world's most exotic prepared foods for a living you think they would be jaded but they weren't they were on it and me my head was spinning I was in heaven it was all I could do to keep the rigorous objectivity necessary for a valid blind taste test what are you tasting with the first one 6:37
00:27:18Textron 637 is amazing
00:27:24perfect French fry texture french fries
00:27:38I may have a Lula flavor 75 how do you feel it 75 number to nobody was interested in 75 they were oily not crispy almost sodden
00:27:55all right next one
00:28:00the surface is really porous there's a lot of oil squirts out when you bite into it three batches of fries prepared according to the same exacting specifications but to retire Lee forgotten and we didn't have to be told what kind they were they were what the fast food world has been passing off as a french fry for the past quarter-century but the third batch 6:37 to die for that was the old school fry the kind of french fry that doesn't exist anymore
00:28:33we have a big win for Tallow is what we're saying there's so much going on here also look at the color
00:28:43my heart is full of sadness again to think about how many how many millions and millions and millions of people around the world never tasted that
00:28:56that's when we brought in the Millennials as a second opinion but also as an act of Mercy because they had no idea that this is what a french fry could be like and it seemed unbearably cruel to deny them that privilege when a mound of 637 was just sitting there on the table
00:29:16can we agree that those are the best fries we tasted all afternoon
00:29:26now do I hate Bill sokoloff I've thought a lot about this in the intervening years and I've come to realize that I don't hate him for killing Formula 47 he could have bought a yacht and a big house in a gated community in Florida and play golf and you know how I feel about golf
00:29:45instead he took on McDonald's in an attempt to make the world a healthier better place my hat is off to him it's really McDonald's that I blame they were custodians of a french fry Legacy the fry with sacrosanct their own founder said so and what did they do the rolled over sold out their own Heritage is it how a french fry tastes was suddenly a secondary consideration that's crazy the only reason there was an arguing about fries in the first place is it millions of people thought they were delicious so what do we do we made them not delicious wait a minute I'm not done it's worse than that the original fries were sold in just one size 2.4 Oz you don't need any more fries in it but now it is what's the large serving of fries at McDonald's 5.9 Oz more than twice as big as it used to be so we've gone from
00:30:45McDonald's Brothers original product which gave us a modest amount of something Sublime to a large amount of something that tastes like cardboard I remember going to McDonald's and having some french fries and going all these don't taste as good because my dad had them changed the way they were made but I think that's absolutely incredible that he did that it was made to do something huge and you know he did he was amazing at McDonald's to change the way they made fries in the fries and taste as good what did he say when you said that to him did you ever say that to me
00:31:30any last I mean he did have a good sense of humor
00:31:39I'm not surprised Phil sokolof wasn't interested in the essential aspects of the French fry of course not he was a zealot a man shaking by his brush with death he nibbled on vegetables and maybe an occasional turkey sandwich he saw his job is getting all of us to think about the nutritional consequences of what we put in our mouths and for that I think we are in his debt at McDonald's should have stood up and pointed out what is lost when we Define food so narrowly the world's oblique place when there's no room for pleasure you know what one of them that's a millennial said after she had tasted at a low fry for the first time
00:32:20thank you
00:32:22thank you for the delicious prize
00:32:33revisionist history is produced by me La Bella and Jacob Smith with Camille Baptista Stephanie Daniel and siomara Martinez wide are editor is Julia Barton flan Williams is our engineer original music by Luis Guerra special thanks to Andrew Stelzer came with me to Matson and as always to Andy Bowers and Jacob Weisberg at panoply I'm Malcolm Gladwell
00:33:08well I still have you I want to remind you that revisionist history has a website where we provide links to books and articles and videos are Bella buns to the episodes please check it out at revisionist history. Com but this episode though I want to give a special shout out to two people whose work helped me a lot when is Gary Childs who has been writing really provocatively about what we eat and what it does to us for a very long time his most recent book which I loved is the case against Sugar by Schulz who's fantastic book The Big Fat Surprise why butter meat and cheese belong in a healthy diet was of enormous help to me in researching this episode thank you Nina thank you Gary and to all those of you listening I recommend those two authors to you wholeheartedly

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from Pushkin Industries, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.