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McDonald's Broke My Heart with Malcolm Gladwell | S2/E9: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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The old-school fries. Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images

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McDonald’s Broke My Heart with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 9| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 33 min | Released: 8/9/2017

Malcolm Gladwell: My 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 our little 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. Then one day, after track practice, 13 years old, I went to my first McDonald’s. Have you ever seen a puppy encounter snow for the first time? He burrows his nose into it with this look of perplexity and sheer delight because he can’t understand where this white thing came from that is both fluffy and cold. It was like that for me, a slice of potato — crispy on the outside, yet somehow pillowy soft on the inside. Right then and there, I gave my heart to McDonald’s. And then, McDonald’s broke it.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This week, I’m on a mission to understand why McDonald’s betrayed me so many years ago. Our story begins in a nondescript office park in Foster City, California, just south of San Francisco, a place called Mattson. 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 23, 1990, the day McDonald’s changed the recipe of their fries forever and turned their backs on everything I once held dear.

Unknown: I’ll go get another, like, some more… And then, I’m just gonna take the temperature down…

MG: I said to Mattson, “Make me some fries the old way. Let’s do a taste test, modern fries versus original McDonald’s fries,” so he did. We ate them, sat there in the Mattson conference room in a blissful food coma.

MG: These are… I’m going back to the first one, I just have to have more.

Barb Stuckey: I have to say, these are excellent.

MG: Those are King Fries.

MG: Then, we thought, “Let’s call in some people too young to have ever tasted the old kind,” just to make sure we weren’t all dreaming, that this wasn’t some middle age fantasy about how everything was better in the good old days.

MG: Do we have a millennial we can grab by the way?

BS: Abigail? Maybe Jack?

MG: Quick, before the fries get cold.

Unknown: What about Carol?

MG: We had the batches of fries in identical baskets, identified only by number, 637, 128 and 75. We lined up the millennials.

MG: Start here, go down the line. I want to know which one you like the best.

Millennial 1: Millennial French fry challenge?

MG: Yeah, this is the millennial French fries eating contest.

Millennial 1: Okay.

MG: We have 3, just for the record, we have 3 millennials here, is this correct?

MG: 23, 28, 25 years of age, the food scientists of the future. They sample all 3 options; they all reached the same conclusion.

Millennial 2: I like this one.

MG: You like the first?

Millennial 2: 637, yeah.

MG: Yeah, okay. Who’s next?

Millennial 3: I also choose 637.

Millennial 1: I think I like… I’m kind of torn between 128 and 637. Um, I think I like, uh, 637 slightly better.

MG: 637, 637!

Phil Sokolof: I’ve had the great opportunity to make a lot of money and do something with it to help people.

MG: There was a time in America, a generation ago, when a man called Phil Sokolof was a household name.

Karen Javitch: My dad was just very intense and he, he was a lovely person, but very intense.

MG: That’s Karen Javitch, Phil Sokolof’s daughter.

KJ: It’s hard to explain it, you have to experience it. I mean, the man that bought his business from him, okay? My dad would talk a lot. He, he, this guy would sit with my dad for hours and this was an accountant, he knew so many people around Omaha and he came to me, he said, “Your father is the most intense person I have ever met.”

MG: Sokolof started the business making corner bead, which is the metal bracing that you use when you install dry wall. He noticed that it was really expensive, decided he could make it cheaper.

KJ: And he just found this niche that, you know, just happened to make a lot of money and he was very driven and he knew he’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.

MG: Then Sokolof had a heart attack. He was 43 years old.

KJ: And he was in good shape. The only thing he did wrong was he, uh, didn’t eat right and he had a high cholesterol.

MG: When you say he didn’t eat well, what were, what was he like before the…?

MJ: Yeah, he, he was thin. He always said he ate too much chili, he ate too much meat, uh, too many fats. And the high cholesterol also is genetic; he had heart problems in his family.

MG: He was really shaken by this, by this heart attack?

KJ: Yeah. Oh, this totally devastated him, never ever expected this to happen. And when you’re 43, you know, you think you’re gonna live forever and this really changes life totally.

MG: Sokolof’s doctors tell him his diet and his high cholesterol levels put him at risk for more heart attacks so he decides 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. Sokolof pays to have cholesterol tests 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 campaigns to get low fat milk in 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 $2.5m ad during the Super bowl. He takes over a Billboard in Times Square to say, “Cut fat intake and live longer.”

MG: This campaign that he was involved in, he spent an, an enormous amount of his own money on this.

KJ: Yeah, he really did. I’m not sure how much, whether it was 14, 15 million, I can’t remember.

MG: Wow!

KJ: Yeah.

MG: Which, 30 years ago, was a lot of money.

KJ: A lot of money. It still is. I remember it, my aunt telling me, “He’s spending all of you inheritance!”

MG: Sokolof was on Phil Donahue, the Nightly News.

TV Host: For most of us, cholesterol is a private affair, but an Omaha man has made it a public crusade and he is spending a personal fortune going after what he thinks are the fountains of fat in America.

MG: “The fountains of fat.” Sokolov close to the source. He finds a way to personally lobby the CEOs of big food companies — Kellogg, Ralston Purina, Pillsbury. How on earth he got through, no one seems to know.

MG: When he called up some of these, uh, executives of big food companies, what was he saying to them? I mean, was he charming them, was he brow beating them, was he, I’m just curious about what kind of conversations were going on.

KJ: Yeah, I think it was that he was eventually brow beating them. [laughs] I hate to say that. I mean, I think he was charming at first, but then he got down to business like, you know, “You need to take this product out of your cereal or I’m gonna, you know, come forth with the, with the big ad.” You know, and he 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’s, he’s the little David taking on these big food companies. He loved that, that they said that about him.

MG: Then it happens and maybe it was inevitable. Phil Sokolof goes after McDonald’s, the biggest prize of them all.

TV Host: A full page newspaper ad that ran in many parts of the country yesterday is giving new meaning to the term “Big Mac Attack.”

MG: They’d been cooking their fries in beef tallow, animal fat. Sokolof decides they have to stop.

TV Host: The ad is headlined “The Poisoning of America” and it accuses McDonald’s of selling burgers and fries that are loaded with fat. McDonald’s denies the charges in the ad, which it calls “reckless, misleading and intended to scare rather than inform.”

MG: Sokolof is all over the media; the lone guy from Omaha up against the mightiest fast food company in history. It’s riveting live TV.

TV host: Phil Sokolof is the man who placed the ad. He’s a Nebraska businessman and the president of his group, which he calls the National Heart Savers Association.

MG: Here he is on Good Morning America.

TV host: Also with us is Dick Starman, a senior vice president of McDonald’s. Gentlemen, good morning to both of you.

Dick Starman: Good morning. …and we’re really on the same side; we just go about it differently.

PS: We’re on the same side?

DS: Exactly.

PS: No, no. I don’t want people to eat your hamburgers; they’re too fat. I want people to eat lean roast beef sandwiches and good, healthy foods.

MG: America is watching and mighty McDonald’s and the giant killer from Omaha are going at it tooth and nail. Sokolof shouts, “That’s not true! Your fries are cooked in animal fat.” The McDonald’s guy gets flustered, tries to say something, Sokoloff doesn’t let him finish.

DS: It’s vegetable and they are shortening.

PS: They are 90% to 95% beef tallow.

DS: It’s vegetable and it’s shortening.

PS: That comes from your company.

DS: We do have it now. It’s in all our… It’s in all of our restaurants.

PS: They just took out chicken skin out of their chicken McNugget 3 weeks ago. Tell them about Egg McMuffins, tell them about your beef tallow and the French fries, tell them about your sandwiches…

MG: And on it goes. McDonald’s calls in lawyers. They send threatening letters to newspapers warning them not to run anymore of Sokolof ads, but that just winds up Sokolof even more. He loves a good fight, so he runs another round of ads. And finally, McDonald’s surrenders, July 23, 1990. They quietly announce, “No more beef tallow.”

Just recently, I got in contact with Dick Starman, the McDonald’s executive who went toe to toe with Bill Sokoloff on network TV. I wanted to know what happened inside McDonald’s headquarters after Sokolof came at them. Did they have a picture of him with a bull’s eye on it? How was it that a company making mass produced milkshakes, hamburgers, and deep fried potatoes was somehow sensitive to the charge that they were making unhealthy food? That kind of thing. He didn’t want to talk. Maybe it’s still a sore point after all these years. All we know is McDonald’s gave in, they folded. And once they folded, everyone else did too. Wendy’s announced they were going with 100% corn oil, Burger King said they would switch to cottonseed and soybean.

KJ: I look at my dad as being a powerful man and it was, like, whenever I was with him, 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 dads anyway. But, he was, he was powerful.

MG: Because this has consequences for all of us, I feel I have to go back to the beginning. It all starts with a man named Ray Kroc. He made his living selling the 5 spindle multi mixer milkshake machine out of Chicago and in 1954, he began hearing about a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. This particular restaurant, he was told, “had no fewer than eight of his machines in operation,” meaning that it could make 40 milkshakes simultaneously. He couldn’t believe that. He 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. He goes up to a blonde in 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. The next morning, he goes back and sits inside the kitchen watching every move everyone there makes, the griddle man, the food preparer, everything done with military precision. And suddenly, he has this vision of restaurants just like this all around the world. So he asks the two brothers who own the place if he could buy their franchise rights. They said, “Yes.” Their names, of course, Dick and Mac McDonald.

Now, 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. Ray Kroc 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 Kroc’s autobiography, the crucial passage, “To most people, a French fried potato is a pretty uninspiring object. It’s fodder, something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows of 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 too. The French fry would become almost sacrosanct to me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.” The McDonalds brothers used top quality, 8 ounce Idaho russets, peeled, soaked in cold water, then deep fried in something Kroc would come to call “formula 47”, which was a special beef tallow mix.

Formula 47 was what’s called a hard fat. Butter is a hard fat, lard, which is pork fat, is a hard fat. Hard fats are saturated fats. From time immemorial, practically every culture in the world has used hard fats for baking and cooking for good reason. Hard fats are stable. They don’t undergo strange chemical changes when they’re heated and they’re thick and creamy, not oily and fluid, which makes a big difference. You 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 slice has turn to mush. When Nabisco took saturated fat out of the creamy middle of the Oreo cookie, the R&D was like the Apollo space program. The greatest minds in food engineering had to sit down and try and figure out how to keep the white part from turning into a slippery, oily mess.

When 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 optimal French fry experience. Kroc has a line in his autobiography where he talks about how the McDonalds brothers taught him never to cook French fries in fat that had been previously used to cook anything else like fried chicken. “Any restaurant will deny it” he writes, “but almost all of them do it.” But Kroc, 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. And then, all of a sudden, this random guy from Omaha puts a gun to McDonald’s head and says, “Change or else.”

McDonald’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 and corn oil blend, but that turns out to be really high in something called “trans-fat” and 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 oils again, cutting the trans-fat in half. Six years later, they have to switch yet again, this time to get rid of all the trans-fat. Then, there’s a problem that vegetable oils aren’t nearly as stable as hard fats. All kinds of nasty things happen when you heat them up. The deep fryer suddenly becomes a kind of witches’ cauldron, spewing dangerous elements.

Gerald McNeil: There’s a big cloud of electrons there and it can react with the oxygen that might be present in the oil or above the surface.

MG: Gerald McNeil. He’s global vice president for fats, oil and nutrition for Loders Croklaan, a big multinational. He’s part of big cooking oil.

GM: And that will start degrading the oil very rapidly and, and certainly the breakdown products have a lot of aldehydes as a byproduct and, uh, aldehydes, um, they attack the proteins and DNA, you know, in our bodies.

MG: You don’t really want to know what the current thinking is on aldehydes, trust me. But in case you do, it’s A-L-D-E-H-Y-D-E-S. Google that and the word “scary.”

GM: So while the big companies that are touting partly unsaturated oils and saying they’re healthy, well, it as soon as you put them in a fryer, it’s the last thing you want to eat.

MG: Crazy stories went around the industry as fast food chains struggled 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.

GM: And what happens is , uh, it breaks down in the fryer and then, you know, fumes come out and it goes all around the restaurant, let’s say in McDonald’s, and the surface of the furniture is sticky because this stuff that they call a mist, you know, comes out because of the breakdown products.

MG: The mist gets on everything, including the uniforms of the fry station workers, which creates a nightmare when the overalls have to be laundered.

GM: And when they, they went into the truck, you know, you know, to go off to be cleaned, sometimes just by piling the coats on top of each other, those coats would spontaneously combust and go on fire because the breakdown products from the oil were highly flammable.

MG: They would spontaneously combust! The 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; a fried egg is a fried egg. But think for a moment about what a French fry is. You start with a potato and a potato was basically starch and water, maybe 80% water. You plunge the 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 hard starch of 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 keeps the cooking oil on the surface of the fry instead of seeping into the middle; that’s why a fry is brown and crisp on the outside.

Elizabeth Rosen once wrote a great book called The Primal Cheeseburger where she calls the 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 and 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. So 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. That’s why I had to go to the food scientists at Mattson.

BS: So we’re here in what we call the Mattson food lab and we are getting ready to fry some French fries and so we have a standard food service […]

MG: When you walk into Mattson, you think you’re an accounting firm. There’s a lot of beige carpeting and 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 with lots of little beakers and weapons grade appliances. On the day I was there, they were testing some plant-based milk prototypes. They had them all out on the counter in little cups. I got to sample them. There was one in particular with enough flavor that was kind of fantastic.

Unknown: Hard fried and tallow.

Unknown: And then beef tallow…

MG: Mattson agreed to stage a taste test for me. They would get a batch of frozen fries from the same suppliers that the fast food chains use and they would cook them in vegetable oil 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.

BS: So we have a standard food service two bay fryer.

MG: Do you know what temperature we’re frying at, by the way?

BS: 360, 350. And what we’ve done in advance of you coming here is we filled the bins with oil or tallow.

MG: That’s Barb Stuckey, co-president of Mattson. I met her years ago when Mattson was running a contest to create the world’s healthiest cookie. Stuckey’s short, blonde hair, high energy. If she were a basketball player, they would say she’s got a motor.

MG: Where did you get your, your tallow and how did you choose your tallow?

BS: Very good question. We’re gonna taste some because we chose it because of the flavor. We wanted to kind of go back in time with you, so we tried to find the tallow that we thought had the beefiest flavor, which would be probably the closest thing to what McDonald’s started with. So, um, I sent Paolo to the local Mexican market right up the street and we found a tallow there that has a really nice, rich, beefy flavor.

MG: Paolo is Paolo Beltron, who’s going to be one of our fry chefs along with another Mattson specialist, Kathy Westfall. The fourth person in the room is Justin Shimek, who runs the company along with Stuckey.

MG: We’ve gone old school with our tallow.

BS: Very old school, exactly.

MG: The plan is to use pre-frozen russet Burbank potatoes. They’re a little lower in water content than 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, a mix fried once in vegetable oil then a second time in beef tallow. And the third batch, old school, fried both times in beef tallow, the fries I tasted at 13, the ones that blew my mind.

MG: The first fry was 3 minutes.

Justin Shimek: The first fire up was 3 minutes

MG: Yeah.

MG: It’s hard to describe what the Mattsonites are like. In one sense, they’re foodies although that word suggests a kind of sybaritic, slightly decadent approach to food, smacking their 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 Mattsonites talk about food. They’re dispassionate, objective, oddly specific. When Stuckey, Shimek, and I retreated back to the conference room to wait for the French fry samples to be cooked, Stuckey started talking about a restaurant she had just eaten at.

BS: 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, the soup.

[Laughter]

BS: And it was, I couldn’t eat it and all I could think was, “If we were in the lab at the bench top, all of my colleagues would have caught this. That, that the rosemary’s too high.”

MG: Wait, did you, were you, who you, who were you have dinner with?

BS: Friends.

MG: Oh, friends.

BS: Yeah.

MG: Did any of them have the tomato soup?

BS: Yes.

MG: And didn’t they think the rosemary was too high?

BS: I don’t think so.

MG: “The rosemary was so high that it tasted like a Christmas tree.” Like a Christmas tree, that’s so great. We weren’t sitting for more than a few minutes when the door to the conference room opened.

MG: All right, wow, look at this! Here we are.

Justin Shimek: This is major excitement.

MG: The Mattson chefs had batches in 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.

MG: Okay, all right let’s start with the…

Palo Beltron: So 637.

MG: Ooh.

BS: As a sensory professional, we’re not supposed to give anything away or saying anything. I have a hard time during this.

MG: That’s am- I’m sorry, that’s amazing.

BS: You’re a bad sensory professional!

[Laughter]

MG: How is that not great?

MG: The baskets of fries were on the conference table in front of me. Everyone else had gathered around. These are people who make and consume some of the world’s most exotic prepared foods for a living. You’d 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.

MG: What are you tasting with the first one, 637?

BS: Texture 637 is shatteringly crisp. It’s amazing, perfect French fry texture.

PB: It’s loud. But, as you chew it, it’s crunchy.

JS: Crisp but there is no hole in the middle and it’s, it’s nice and fluffy in the middle.

BS: It, it, like, perfect French fries. I may have a lot of flavor.

MG: All right, 75? How do you feel about 75, number two?

MG: Nobody was interested in 75, they were oily, not crispy, almost sodden.

BS: Bland. Just, meh.

[Laughs]

MG: All right, next one.

JS: The surface is really porous, there is… A lot of oil squirts out when you bite into it.

MG: Three batches of fries prepared according to the same exacting specifications, but two were entirely 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, 637, to die for. That was the old school fry; the kind of French fry that doesn’t exist anymore.

MG: We have a big win for tallow is what we’re saying.

[Laughs]

BS: There’s so much going on here. Also, look at the color of that.

MG: Yeah, those look like fries. My heart is full of sadness again to think about how many, how many millions and millions and millions of people around the world have never tasted that.

MG: That’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.

MG: Can we agree that those are the best fries we tasted all afternoon?

BS: Yeah.

MG: I’m gonna have more.

Now, do I hate Phil Sokolof? 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. Instead, 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 was sacrosanct, their own founder said so. And what did they do? They rolled over, sold out their own heritage as if how a French fry tastes was suddenly a secondary consideration. That’s crazy. The only reason there was an argument about fries in the f