October 7, 2013
One of my favorite pastimes is joining the Sunday morning hordes outside San Francisco’s Ton Kiang, a popular dim sum restaurant in the city’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. So when the opportunity recently arose to visit Hong Kong and not only dine on the bite-size delicacies but actually learn how to make them, I jumped at the chance.
Hong Kong is dim sum’s cultural epicenter and here, the cuisine is king. The name dim sum, which means ‘to touch the heart,’ derives from its roots as a simple snack food offered with tea to the weary travelers of Asia’s Silk Road. Even today, dim sum and tea go hand in hand, and going for dim sum in Hong Kong is known as going for yum cha, which translates to ‘drink tea.’
Cantonese immigrants first introduced dim sum to the U.S. during the mid-1800s, and the cuisine’s varied selection and small, convenient portions eventually caught the attention of Westerners. Still, although there have been about 2,000 types of dim sum since its inception, most dim sum eateries in the States stick to several dozen offerings that appeal mostly to westernized palates and incorporate easy-to-find ingredients, such as sui mai (pork dumplings), wah tip (pot stickers), and ha yeung (crispy shrimp balls). In Hong Kong, however, chefs have the advantage of utilizing a larger variety of tropical vegetables from nearby Asian countries, as well as catering to a clientele that’s grown up on dim sum and tend to be more adventurous in their tastes. This means exotic treats like Sun Tung Lok’s baked sea conch shells, or steamed hairy crab roe with pork dumpling at the InterContinental Hong Kong’s Yan Toh Heen.
For over a decade, Peninsula Hong Kong has been offering weekday workshops in dim sum making as part as their larger Peninsula Academy, a series of location-specific workshops that range from paper mache and Chinese puppet mastery to insights into the region’s contemporary art scene. The hour-and-a-half-long course takes participants behind the scenes of the luxury hotel’s 1920s Shanghai-inspired Spring Moon restaurant and into its industrial kitchen to learn the art of crafting both shrimp and vegetable dumplings. Henry Fong, Peninsula’s dedicated dim sum chef, has been working in the culinary world for nearly 20 years. He is also the workshop’s teacher and will be leading our group of six in our efforts to mix, roll and wrap restaurant-style cuisine.
With so many dim sum eateries across Hong Kong, it takes an extra something to stand out. To keep his clientele happy—and his creative juices flowing—Fong hits up local farmers markets and specialty stories like the region’s popular City’s Super on weekends, searching out fresh, new ingredients to incorporate into his menu. He says it’s the endless variety that makes dim sum more interesting to him then other types of cuisine. Though well-versed in creating traditional dim sum favorites like wah tip (pot stickers) and lo mai gai (sticky rice and meats wrapped in lotus leaves), Fong also likes coming up with innovative creations by mixing the conventional with the unusual, such as drumstick-shaped steamed dumplings filled with carrots, spider crab leg and pumpkin; steamed vegetarian dumplings packed with locally grown imperial fungus and topped with gold leaf; and baked crispy buns filled with minced Wagyu beef, onions and black pepper.
As the workshop begins, Fong provides us each with an apron and invites us to gather around a large stainless steel table. He then begins mixing what will be the translucent skin for shrimp dumplings. First, he measures out equal portions of corn starch and high protein powder and pours them into a bowl together, and then adds some boiling water and a small bit of vegetable oil. Next he begins working the mixture with his hands. As he presses, scoops, and turns the mix repetitively it becomes thick and doughy, almost like marzipan. Fong then offers each of us a try.
Once the dough cools, Fong rolls it into a long, thin, rope-like stretch and slices off half-inch pieces, using a blunt stainless steel Chinese cleaver to flatten them each into paper-thin circles. When it’s my turn, Fong shows me how to press down on the flat side of the cleaver with the palm of my hand, turning it as I go. My first attempt at creating a dumpling skin is nearly perfect, though my excitement is short-lived. As it happens, wrapping a shrimp dumpling is not so easy. Fong demonstrates, topping the skin with a teaspoon-size portion of dumpling filler—a blend of finely minced prawn meat, shredded bamboo shoots, and chicken power with some salt, sugar, and vegetable oil—and using two fingers, quickly creates a dozen uniform folds across its top, almost akin to a fan.
“The trick,” he explains through a translator, “is to not let the two sides touch in the middle.” When through my creation looks more like a shrimp-nado than dumpling, though it’s still perfectly edible (and delicious), which I find out soon enough. Someone then asks Fong if there are any natural dim sum makers. “Not too many,” he says, laughing. “If there were I’d be out of a job.”
For the next 45 minutes we continue honing our shrimp dumpling skills, and also give vegetable dumplings (easier to fold because they require less dexterity) a go. Once we’re through, Fong steams them all on a stove top. After five minutes, they’re ready to eat. Along with our own creations, Fong also treats us to plates of roast pork buns, custard balls, and—for the group’s vegetarians—mushroom dumplings. He then offers each of us a cup of jasmine tea.
We are weary travelers, after all.
Where to get delicious dim sum in the States? Fong offers his recommendations for a range of price levels:
Less expensive: “The food is good quality and comparable to dim sum in Asia,” says Fong.
365 Gellert Blvd
Daly City, CA
Moderately expensive: “There is a great variety of dim sum,” says Fong, “and the choices are the same as what we offer in most restaurants in Hong Kong.”
14 Elizabeth Street
New York City, NY
Most expensive: “Every dim sum dish is hand-made with the finest seasonal ingredients and the taste is authentic,” says Fong. “Also, the food presentation is outstanding.”
529 Hudson Street
New York City, NY
May 7, 2013
UPDATE, July 18, 2013: Thanks to feedback from our readers, we found that nachos appeared at Arlington Stadium a bit earlier than Liberto’s cheese sauce debut, as we wrote below.
In 1973, 23-year-old Carey Risinger was the first director of food, beverage and retail at Arlington Stadium when he and a small team of 20-somethings thought to bring the snack to the stadium in its second season.
“The standard concession stand in the ‘70s was simple,” Risinger says. “We sold the basics: hot dogs, soft drinks, peanuts and popcorn. When the Nacho Stand opened, the lines were long.”
Using an old press box by first base, the young team expanded the stadium’s concessions to include a nacho stand, appropriately called the “Nacho Stand.” They melted Cheez Whiz in a hot fudge warmer and ladled the mixture over circular, corn chips. To help with consistency, they added jalapeno juice to the Cheez Whiz mix.
According to Risinger, at the time it was nearly impossible to buy triangular cut tortilla chips—Mexican restaurants made them in-house, but very few sold them commercially. Risinger and his team ultimately decided on silver dollar-sized corn chips distributed by the Frito Lay company and were the first to bring nachos (often pronounced “NAY-chos” by customers new to the concept) to the ballpark industry.
Before Arlington Stadium, Risinger worked at the first Six Flags amusement park in Arlington where he did business with the concessionaire company, Associated Popcorn, which Frank Liberto purchased in 1977. Liberto would then build upon Risinger’s innovation to the extent mentioned in our original post.
“I’m still in awe when I see nachos at concession stands,” Risinger says. “We were the first professional leisure company to sell an order of nachos commercially and we can thank Frank for expanding the idea.”
The smell of freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat, the 30 minutes standing in line at the concession stand. Baseball season is up and running and the experience of going to a game wouldn’t be the same without an expensive beer in one hand and a plastic receptacle of nachos covered in ooey-gooey cheese product in the other. But how did nachos become a stadium standard?
In September 1988, Adriana P. Orr, a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary, was asked to trace the etymology of the word “nachos” and conducted an initial investigation of the nacho story. She followed a paper trail of documents and newspaper articles until she found what she was looking for in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress:
“As I walked down the long corridor leading back to the library’s central core, I heard a voice softly calling my name. There was a young woman I recognized as a staff member of the Hispanic Division…she told me she had been born and raised in Mexico and there, nacho has only one common usage: it is the word used as a diminutive for a little boy who had been baptized Ignacio. His family and friends call him Nacho… Now I was convinced there was a real Nacho somewhere who had dreamed up a combination of tortilla pieces with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers.”
Using this information, Orr tracked down a quote from the elusive 1954 St Anne’s Cookbook printed by The Church of the Redeemer, Eagle Pass, Texas, which includes a recipe for a dish called “Nachos Especiales.”
What Orr would find is that, in 1943 in Piedras Negras, Mexico — just across the border from Eagle Pass, a group of hungry army wives were the first to eat the meal. When the ladies went to a restaurant called the Victory Club, the maitre d’, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya greeted them. Without a chef around, Anaya threw together whatever food he could find in the kitchen that “consisted of near canapes of tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeno peppers.” The cheese of choice was reportedly Wisconsin cheddar. Anaya named the dish Nachos Especiales and it caught on—on both sides of the border—and the orignal title was shortened to “nachos.”
Anaya died in 1975, but a bronze plaque was put up in Piedras, Negras, to honour his memory and October 21 was declared the International Day of the Nacho.
If Anaya is the progenitor of nachos especiales, then how did it happen that Frank Liberto came to be known as “The Father of Nachos”? Nachos were already popular at restaurants in Texas by the time Liberto’s recipe hit the scene, but he’s famous in the industry for bringing his version of the dish to the concession stand in 1976 at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington, Texas. What he did that no one else had done before, was create the pump-able consistency of the orangey-gooey goodness we see today—what the company calls “cheese sauce.” Though some versions are Wisconsin cheddar-based like Anaya’s original, according to the company most of the products are blends. (According to the Food and Drug Administration’s standards, the sauce is technically not “cheese,” but that hasn’t stopped fans from pumping it by the gallons since). Liberto’s innovation didn’t need to be refrigerated and had a longer shelf life. His recipe was top secret—so secret that in 1983 a 29-year-old man was arrested for trying to buy trade secrets into Liberto’s formula.
As a concessionaire, transaction time was key—Frank didn’t want customers to wait more than a minute in line for their snack. To meet this demand, he came up with the idea of warming up a can of cheese sauce, ladling it over the chips and then sprinkling jalapeños on top. Frank’s son and current president of Ricos Products Co., Inc., Anthony ‘Tony’ Liberto, was 13 when Ricos introduced the product in Arlington Stadium. He recalls that the concession operators wouldn’t put the cheesy chips in the stands. They were afraid that the new product launch would cannibalize other popular items like popcorn, hotdogs and sodas.
“We had to build our own nacho carts,” Liberto, now 50, says. “My dad has an old VHS tape where people were lined up 20 people deep behind these concession carts. You’d hear the crack of the bat and you’d think that they’d want to see what play was going on, but they stayed in line to get their nachos.”
It was an immediate success: That season Arlington Stadium sold Ricos’ nachos at the rate of one sale per every two-and-a-half patrons—over $800,000 in sales. Popcorn, which previously had the highest sales, only sold to one in 14 patrons for a total of $85,000. There is one ingredient to thank for that shift, Liberto says: The jalapeño pepper.
“When you put a jalapeño pepper on chips and cheese, of course it’s going to be spicy,” he says. “You’re going to start looking for your beverage—a Coke or Pepsi, whatever—you’re gonna need something to drink.”
Beverage sales spiked and hotdog and popcorn sales thereafter, he says. By 1978, the spicy snack became available at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, where iconic “Monday Night Football” announcer Howard Cosell would put nachos on the map. Cosell, a household name for football fans, sat alongside Frank Gifford and Don Meredith giving viewers the play-by-play, when a plate of nachos was brought to the broadcast room.
“Cosell was trying to take up some dead air and he says ‘They brought us this new snack—what do they call them? knock-o’s or nachos?’” recalls Liberto. “He started using the word ‘nachos’ in the description of plays: ‘Did you see that run? That was a nacho run!’”
Cosell and others used the word for weeks after, allowing nachos to branch out from their Texas birthplace.
“My father first sold a condensed formulation of the product,” Tony says. “You open up the can, add water or milk and pepper juice to the mix.”
Each number ten can contains 107 ounces of the condensed cheese conconction to which 32 ounces of water and 20 ounces of pepper juice are added. Once combined, the cheese blend is put into a dispenser like the pump or button-operated machines you see at concession stands today.
“That’s an added 52 ounces of servable product,” Tony says. “Nearly 50 percent more sauce [than what comes in the can] Plus, the water is free and the pepper juice you get from the jalapenos anyway. You get an additonal 52 0z to serve and it doesn’t cost the company a dime.”
Just to make this profit thing clear—some math: If you have an extra 52 ounces of product and each two-ounce serving of cheese sauce goes for four bucks a pop, that’s 100 dollars directly into the concessionaire’s cash register.
Tony has two children, a daughter (13) and a son (11), who he hopes will take an interest in working for the family business one day as he did. His niece, Megan Petri (fifth generation), currently works for Ricos Products Co., Inc.
“We can’t go to any baseball game without getting an order of nachos,” says Liberto. “[My daughter] says ‘I need my nachos I need my nachos.’ It’s like she needs her fix.”
His daughter is not alone in her affinity for her family’s invention. As millions of people crunch into their plates of chips and cheesiness at baseball games and movie theaters around the world, one question remains: How much cheese is actually in the nacho sauce?
“I will not tell you that,” he laughs. ”We’ve got lots of formulas and that is a a trade secret—you never want to give away how much cheese is in your product.”
April 11, 2013
No one knows exactly when they’ll come out of hiding, but if you live on the East Coast – anywhere form North Carolina to Connecticut, to be precise – you might start thinking about the brood of cicadas scheduled to make an appearance this spring.
Yes they’ll be loud and inconvenient, but they’ll also be a free, plentiful source of protein (and one that’s not generated in a factory farm).
Here’s what you should know about foraging and eating this extremely rare food.
1) First off, don’t pick up or eat dead cicadas. Gathering live ones shouldn’t be very hard, especially if you pick them up “early in the morning when the dew is still on the ground and the cicadas are still drowsy,” says one expert. The easiest way to kill them is by placing them in the freezer.
2) Gather twice as many as you and your family think you can eat. Van Smith, who wrote about his experiments eating cicadas for Baltimore City Paper, explains why: “Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance. When hunting them, though, I found it nearly impossible to tell the difference–until cooking, when the males’ bodies shrivel up. Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys (the vinegar in the sauce slow-cooks them, so they start to collapse) while tenderizing the ladies.”
3) Think of them like “land shellfish.” Like shrimp, lobster and crabs, cicadas are
anthropods arthropods. Gaye L. Williams, an entomologist from the Maryland Department of Agriculture told the Baltimore Sun: “They’re in the same animal group as shrimp and crabs, and people don’t think twice about that.” (If you’re allergic to shellfish, exercise caution when experimenting with cicadas).
4) Like many things, cicadas taste best fried. Here’s a simple recipe that only requires living cicadas, flour, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. If they’re newly hatched, you can fry them as-is, but after they’ve been alive for several hours (or few days), their wings and legs might need to be removed, as this recipe for deep dried cicadas calls for. In Asia it’s not unusual to find the pupa, or young cicadas fried and served on a stick like this.
Kirk Moore, who calls himself the “Cicada Chef” also recommends marinating them overnight in Worcestershire sauce in this YouTube video from 2004.
5) Dry roasting them – on a cookie sheet at a low heat — is another popular approach. If they get too crispy to eat as-is, they can be crumbled to add crunch to a dish or even ground into a high-protein (gluten free!) flour.
6) Young cicadas can also be used in a “low country boil” or a “spice boil” in place of shrimp.
7) Have leftovers, go fishing! Cicadas are rumored to make excellent fish bait.
Editor’s Note, April 15, 2013: Entomologist John Cooley of the University of Connecticut chimes in with a note of caution: “We actually try to discourage eating cicadas. There’s a body of literature showing that periodical cicadas are mercury bioaccumulators and some can have relatively high mercury levels.”
March 27, 2013
In Newfoundland, having a “scoff” (the local word for “big meal”) includes some pretty interesting food items unique to the region: scrunchions (fried pork fat), cod tongues and fishcakes, for example. But perhaps the least appetizing dish, which is traditionally made during the Lenten season—specifically on Good Friday and Easter—is seal flipper pie.
The meal, which originated in the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, tastes as strange as it sounds. The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare (appropriate for America’s favorite Easter mascot, no?). Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.
While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. (Some Antarctic expeditions like Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party suffered from scurvy for lack of vitamins found in seal meat). Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps (at one time, London’s street lights were fueled with seal oil), but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie. As the hunting industry grew, seal meat became a major resource for oil, leather and food for locals after the long, harsh winter in these regions.
Because the seal hunt takes place in the spring when the mammals are found near the edge of the ice floes—lasting from mid-March through April—the meat of the animal is most often eaten during the Easter season. But why does seal meat count as “fish” during Lent? According to The Northern Isles: Orkney And Shetland by Alexander Fenton, the meat was deemed Lent-friendly by the Catholic Church as early as the mid 16th century by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish patriot and influential Catholic ecclesiastic:
The people of Burrafirth in Unst sold the skins of seals they caught, and salted the meat for eating at Lent. Olaus Magnus noted in Sweden in 1555 that seal-flesh was regarded by the church in Sweden, though eventually the eating of seal-meat on fast days was forbidden in Norway. Later in time, the eating of seal-flesh went down in the world, and was confined to poorer people, the flesh being salted and hung in the chimneys to be smoked.
By the 1840s—at the apex of the sealing industry in Newfoundland—546,000 seals were killed annually and seal oil represented 84 percent of the value of seal products sold. Since then, a commercial seal hunt has taken place annually off Canada’s East Coast and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Today, the seal hunting season provides more than 6,000 jobs to fishermen and vastly supplements the region’s economy.
And that’s not to say that the annual seal hunt hasn’t generated some controversy. The practice has been criticized by plenty of animal rights activist groups over the years including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Though, the organization has received its fair share of flack from Newfoundland locals (in 2010, a protester dressed as a seal was “pied” in the face by a man wearing a dog suit).
In 2006, in a live interview with Larry King on CNN, Sir Paul McCartney had a few things to say to Danny Williams, the ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador about the seal hunt: “It isn’t hunky dory, it’s disgraceful.” Williams maintained that seal hunting is a sustainable resource for Newfoundland.
The seals hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador are not officially endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Though the IUCN considers other species of seal including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Mediterranean Monk Seal to be “critically endangered.”) According to the region’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the harp seal population has tripled since 1970 and the total currently stands at 5.6 million animals.
The hunt is closely regulated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) with quotas and specific rules regarding the method of killing the mammals. Last season, The Telegram, a Canadian newspaper, published an article about a fundraiser for a local sealer organization that commemorates those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who lost their lives in the 1914 sealing disasters. Seal meat was the featured item on the menu—something many locals argue is the most sustainable protein in the region. (You can watch one of the staff reporters try flipper pie for the first time here).
Despite arguments against the commercial selling of seal products, a certain nostalgia remains baked into the flaky crust of seal flipper pie. According to Annie Proulx’s best-selling 1993 novel The Shipping News, which takes place in the fishing town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, the dish is quite tasty, but mostly evokes fond memories for the Newfoundlander characters:
“It’s good. From the shoulder joint, you know. Not really the flippers…The pie was heavy with rich, dark meat in savory gravy.”
The book was later made into a movie of the same title in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, which references the dish in the soundtrack with a song aptly called “seal flipper pie.” No news on whether the flipper pie Spacey bit into on set was the real deal, but if you’ve got a hankering for the breaded pie, it’s still served in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador, at eateries like Chucky’s, which offers a different take on the classic dish. If you want to make it at home without the hassle, the meal is also available frozen and canned at local food stores like Bidgood’s.
One tip if you’re brave enough to try the breaded pie this Easter: When you’re done, remember to say in true Newfoundland fashion: “I’m as full as an egg.” Or maybe that was “Easter egg?”
March 1, 2013
For a burger joint like Mickey D’s, the Filet-O-Fish sandwich is surprisingly popular: Pirates would give their arm for one and apparently, whales eat “boatloads” of them. The Atlantic-Pollock based lunch item is consumed at a rate of 300 million a year— 23 percentof them are sold during Lent, and we can thank the Catholics in Ohio and a struggling businessman for the fast food classic.
When Lou Groen opened the first McDonald’s in the Cincinnati area in 1959, business was tough. McDonald’s was new to the area—the McDonald brothers had only just begun to franchise their stores six years prior. Groen’s son, Paul, who worked at his father’s McDonald’s for 20 years straight and later bought a few of his own, remembers how hard his parents worked to keep the business alive in the beginning.
As a child, Paul was paid 10 cents an hour to pick up the parking lot and keep the kitchen clean. “McDonald’s wasn’t the brand it is today back then—people didn’t come to his little McDonald’s, they went to Frisch’s,” Paul says. According to a sales ledger from 1959 (pictured below), he and his wife made a total of $8,716
profit revenue in their first month of business.
“We make that much in one day now!” Paul says.
“Opening day, my father made $307.38 in sales. The restaurant only had two windows, one register at each window. There was no inside seating. How do you run a business on $300 a day? My mom and dad were just struggling to make it. My brother and sister worked for free for two years!”
Though Lou Groen’s restaurant was one of 68 new franchises opened that year by founder Ray Kroc, there was something about Monfort Heights, Ohio, that didn’t bode well for a little-known burger joint during Lent: About 87 percent of the population was Catholic. When Groen was 89, he recalled to the Chicago Tribune News:
I was struggling. The crew was my wife, myself, and a man named George. I did repairs, swept floors, you name it. But that area was 87 percent Catholic. On Fridays we only took in about $75 a day.
Groen was working ungodly hours and had twins to feed at home—$75 was not cutting it. He noticed that a restaurant nearby owned by the Big Boy chain was doing something different—they had a fish sandwich. “My dad told me, ‘If I’m gonna survive, I’ve got to come up with a fish sandwich,’” says Paul. So Groen went to work creating a simple, battered, halibut-based prototype, with a slice of cheese between two buns.
He did his research, investigating what the Big Boys chain was doing right, trying out different cost-effective recipes. He brought the idea to corporate in 1961. “The Filet-O-Fish sandwich was groundbreaking. My father went through a lot to introduce that sandwich,” Paul says. “He made a number of trips to Chicago to present the idea to Ray Kroc.”
In 1959, access to top management was somewhat easier, Paul says. There was only a handful of operators that Kroc dealt with—rather than the thousands of operators that exist today. Owners like Lou received more guidance from upper management. According to an interview with Groen in the Business Courier in 2006, McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, was not all that excited about Groen’s fishy dreams at first:
“You’re always coming up here with a bunch of crap!” he told Groen. “I don’t want my stores stunk up with the smell of fish.”
But Kroc’s initial rejection of the idea may have come from a more selfish place. He had a meat alternative idea of his own, called the “Hula Burger,” a piece of grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun. But Kroc was willing to compromise: On Good Friday in 1962, both the Hula Burger and the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches would appear on the menu in selected locations—whichever sandwich sold the most would win. The final score? Hula Burger: 6, Filet-O-Fish: 350.
By 1965, the Filet-O-Fish, ”the fish that catches people”, became a staple on the McDonald’s menu nationwide among other greats like the Big Mac and the Egg McMuffin. Kroc would later recall the failure of his pineapple creation and the success of the sandwich in his biography Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s noting:
“It [the Hula Burger] was a giant flop when we tried it in our stores. One customer said, ‘I like the hula, but where’s the burger?’”
According to the sales ledger from 1962 (pictured below) the first time Groen’s halibut-based Filet-O-Fish was sold was Tuesday, February 13, 1962. (The whitefish sandwich we see today wasn’t officially put on the menu until 1963). “This sales ledger, or ‘the Bible’ as we used to call it, is an affirmation of the stuff I knew from the stories my father told me,” Paul says.”It really is a piece of family history—I look at these numbers here and I’m just amazed at the contrast.” In the first month of the Filet-O-Fish’s existence, 2,324 total fish sandwiches were sold. The McDonald’s corporation declined to provide current monthly averages.
Next to the total sales for February 13, the words “Predict—Fridays will equal Sat. Busi., maybe Sundays” are scratched into the margins of the record. Though Paul cannot confirm who initially scrawled this note onto the page, the prediction itself wasn’t too far off from what came to fruition: The success of the sandwich during Lent would far surpass Groen’s initial expectations.
The company has gone through plenty of advertisements for the sandwich, but one character in particular, remains somewhat elusive—Paul barely recalls the campaign. A cartoon by the name of Phil A. O’Fish had a brief stint as the face of the marketing campaign for Groen’s invention in 1976. But by ’77, the anthropomorphic sailor fish was nowhere to be seen, replaced by a simple advertisement that offered some “Food For Thought.”
By ’78 the “Deliciously Different” sandwich stood its ground sans smiley mascot.
The fishy, Irish cartoon for the sandwich emerged right when the McDonaldland characters were taking over Mcdonald’s ads and playscapes country-wide. Characters like the Hamburgerlar, Captain Crook, Mayor McCheese and—of course—Ronald McDonald were introduced in ’71 when the chain’s drive-ins were replaced by mansard-roofed restaurants. It was a fictional land that served as the basis for playgrounds attached to McDonald’s restaurants where french fries grew from bushes, burgers popped out of the earth like flowers by “Filet-O-Fish Lake” and was home to Ronald McDonald and all of his friends.
By 1979, the McDonaldland gang became the face of the “Happy Meal Toys” promotion—Phil A. O’Fish was sleeping soundly in Davy Jones’ locker by then. In 2009, a different fishy fellow took the spotlight with the popular “Gimme Back That Filet-O-Fish” commercial featuring a singing, bass wall decoration. It did so well on television and on YouTube, (reaching over one million views in 2009) that the corporation sold the singing fish commercially.
The Filet-O-Fish sandwich has featured real fish since Groen wrote up the recipe in the ’60s (believe it or not). Whether the fish was sustainable, however, was up for debate. In the past, the company as well as other chains like Long John Silver’s have used the New Zealand hoki fish, whose population has diminished significantly in the past few decades due to its wide commercial use.
But in late January, McDonald’s announced the addition of the sustainable blue “ecolabel” from the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies that the Alaskan Pollock used in the sandwiches come from places with sustainable fishing practices. According to the MSC, McDonald’s Corp. now gets all its fish in the U.S. from a single Alaskan Pollock fishery.
To celebrate the sandwich’s 50 plus years of existence, McDonald’s launched a new product just in time for Lent this year: Fishbites. The mini-morsels of battered and fried Atlantic Pollock are available through March 2013 in Philadelphia region restaurants. Though, if you ask the Groen family, Lou always said his orignal halibut-based recipe was better.
Groen passed away in May of 2011 and won’t be able to taste the new variation of his original recipe, but his legacy lives on with Paul, now 62, who took over two McDonald’s in Northgate and Tylersville when his father sold his 42 restaurants back to the company in 1986. Today, Paul owns 12 restaurants in Northern Kentucky along a 27-mile stretch of Interstate 75 and plans to pass the family business to two of his children.
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