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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December 10, 2012
When Starbucks announced in late November that it was unveiling a new $7-per-grande-cup brew in select stores, reaction was mixed. Seattle Weekly’s food writer, Hanna Raskin wrote about an office taste test, “The consensus was that the coffee’s good, but not appreciably better than Starbucks’ standard drip.” And yet, the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha has been doing okay. The Los Angeles Times reported that the online stock sold out in 24 hours, at $40 a bag.
While the news might elicit a Liz-Lemon worthy eye-roll or shooting pangs of jealousy depending on the person, it might actually be something we just have to get used to. Published just a few weeks before Starbucks unrolled its cup of liquid gold, a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. and the Environment Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia warned that up to 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply could be gone by 2080 due to climate change.
Turns out, the warnings are actually pretty consistent across the board, the World Bank is practically hoarse with all its calls for caution. On November 18, the World Bank released a new study about the effects of climate change over a long period of time, concluding, “The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”
New York University associate professor of food studies and economist Carolyn Dimitri says attention to the vulnerability of the world’s food systems is a step in the right direction but not enough. “These are really big and important groups that are talking about this, but how are they going to gain traction given the way our food system has become so industrialized?”
As someone who’s been studying organic food marketing and access since her days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dimitri says she wasn’t too surprised to hear about the $7 coffee. “Living in Manhattan,” she says, “people would probably pay even more than that for a cup of coffee.” She sees the launch as a way to appeal to a new set of customers who might have seen Starbucks as selling adequate but not speciality coffee, whether it be for taste or for its unique ethical sourcing, which Starbucks is seeking to expand.
Though Starbucks aims to have all of its coffee meet standards for farmer wages and working conditions by 2015, Dimitri says, “My students tend to be a little bit suspicious of the big companies that enter this area,” as when Walmart began carrying organic products. But Dimitri has a hard time criticizing large companies motives if the end result is an improved livelihood for farmers. Ethical sourcing practices, as defined by Conservation International, include provisions for environmental sustainability as well as economic.
But the commitment is hard to measure. Taking Starbucks as an example, Dimitri says, “You can do a good thing but really a better thing would be for no one to buy coffee in a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Does ethically sourcing some of your coffee, is that sufficient to outweigh all of the garbage that’s created?”
The impact of climate change is hard to estimate but the study out of Ethiopia took predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ask what would happen to Arabica bean crops if the temperature increased within a range of 1.8° C to 4° C.
The potential losses would not only mean more expensive coffee for consumers, but fewer jobs and less economic stability for producers. According to the report, “total coffee sector employment [is] estimated at about 26 million people in 52 producing countries.” The study also reports that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
In another alarm-sounding report from the World Bank, the development agency writes that though global food prices have fallen from a peak in July, “prices remain at high levels – 7 percent higher than a year ago.” Some specific crop prices are much higher still, including maize, which is 17 percent more expensive than it was in October, 2011.
In the case of coffee, Colombia recently announced a plan to offer insurance to growers to protect them from losses incurred from severe weather, according to South Africa’s Times Live.
“More people should be thinking about it and talking about it,” says Dimitri. “I don’t think that our policymakers take it as seriously as the researchers do.”
For the consumers who are concerned and have the means and access to purchase sustainably, ethically produced foods, Dimitri says, “they’re willing to make sacrifices in other areas.”
Through a sheer appeal to quality, Starbucks is hoping consumers will find that reason enough to spend on the newest varietal in its Reserve line. Plus, it’s actually not the most expensive cup of coffee ever sold, if you count add-ons. One customer with a veritable blank-check coupon went wild crafting the priciest drink he could, according to Piper Weiss, and topped out at $23.60. His drink–if you can really still call it that–consisted of, “one Java Chip Frappucino ($4.75), plus 16 shots of espresso ($12), a shot of soy milk (.60), a drop of caramel flavoring (.50), a scoop of banana puree ($1), another scoop of strawberry puree (.60), a few vanilla beans(.50), a dash of Matcha powder (.75), some protein powder (.50) and a caramel and mocha drizzle to cap it off (.60).”
Still, for a straight up cup of Joe, it takes the cake. ”It is the highest price we’ve ever had,” a spokesperson told CNBC, adding, “It raises the bar.”
June 28, 2012
Midway up the Maine coast, a tidal estuary known as the Damariscotta River has long been the epicenter of oyster shucking. Shell heaps rise on both its banks—towering middens of flaky, bleached white shells discarded between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago when American oysters (Crassostrea virginica) flourished in the warm, brackish waters.
The early abundance didn’t last, probably due to predatory snails brought on by a rise in sea level, rather than overharvesting, and neither has the subsequent introduction, in 1949, of European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis, or Belons). Today, though, hundreds of thousands of native oysters are once again being cultivated by oyster farmers like Dave Cheney, who recently took me on a tour aboard his boat, the Juliza.
Below the Great Salt Bay, where the river bisects two shell middens, the western bank looks like a white sand beach below a white cliff. Upon closer inspection, the Glidden Midden is an impressive pile of oysters—a large accumulation of small things, hundreds of years’ worth of kitchen waste.
Early 19th century estimates put the sum total of Damariscotta’s middens at somewhere between 1 and 45 million cubic feet, according to David Sanger’s “Boom and Bust on the River,” and the size inspired considerable speculation. In 1886, the Damariscotta Shell and Fertilizer Company began barreling up and selling the shells in Boston for chicken “scratch.” (Eating oyster shells hardens up the birds’ calcium carbonate-rich egg shell.) Two hundred tons sold for 30 cents a pound. After questioning the practice, a reporter for the Lincoln County News observed in “civilized countries, archaeological remains are protected by civil governments and reserved for scientific purposes.”
The sole scientific observer, Abram Tarr Gamage, a local antiquary, watched the mining operation every day for ten hours a day at a day rate of two dollars per day. He too filled barrels with skulls, shells, and antlers once used as oyster knives, and sent them to Harvard’s Peabody Museum in Cambridge. By the year’s end, Gamage reported that he had little to do; the midden had nearly dwindled away. The miners never made it across the river.
Today, horseshoe crabs gather at the river’s edge. Airholes pocket the softshell clam beds and that crumbling white western bank still holds a heap of shells—their age and size at least double those cocktail oysters anyone slurps in Grand Central Terminal. Across the river, the former Whaleback Midden, now a state park, looks much like an overgrown field. While it’s hardly surprising that the Damirascotta remains an epicenter for East Coast oysters, I found it remarkable that, given the demands of poultry farmers, that any of its middens still exist at all.
Top photo: Whaleback Midden/Damariscotta River Association collection. Author photo.
June 15, 2012
One of the greatest treats of summertime is sweet, tender lobster slathered in hot, dripping butter. But fork over the bibs and claw-crackers. Here are ten less traditional but no less taste-bud-enticing recipes for a round-the-clock lobster line-up.
Breakfast: Incorporating lobster into your morning meal brings a whole new meaning to taking advantage of the fresh catch of the day; lobstermen set out well before sunrise to bring home the spoils of their traps by dawn. Try one of these dishes for a fresh spin on breakfast.
Wild Mushroom and Lobster Pancakes: This recipe, created by Nantucket-turned-Connecticut restaurateurs Everett and Linda Reid, pairs lobster meat with garlic, shallots and wild mushrooms in a brown-sugar-based pancake. Top off the fluffy pancakes with salmon roe or caviar sprinkled over a cream garnish.
Cheesy Scallion and Lobster Quiche: Simple and versatile, this recipe may be made with non-fat ingredients for a more heart-healthy hearty breakfast. Swiss cheese and paprika lend additional layers of flavor to the dish. A pre-made nine-inch pie crust will cut your prep time down significantly, leaving most of the work up to your oven.
Baked Lobster and Egg: Serve up this hero in a half shell to make a statement while entertaining guests. The recipe calls for halving lobsters and baking veggies and eggs right alongside the lobster meat. The finished dish creates a bold-looking plate.
Lunch: Match lobster with fresh produce to pull off one of these quick and easy midday meals.
Avocado and Lobster Quesadilla: Creamy goat cheese complements sweet lobster and avocado in this twist on Southwestern cuisine. Turn up the heat by introducing diced jalapeno to all the melted, flaky goodness.
Mango and Lobster Salad: The super easy and super succulent recipe calls for mango and lobster chunks to be tossed in a sweet honey, basil and lemon cream sauce.
Dinner: Retire the worn-out surf and turf routine and opt for one of these dishes which styles lobster into traditional American, Italian or Asian cuisine.
Lemon Aioli Lobster Burger: Tuna and salmon burger lovers, rejoice. Lobster and crab combine to create one seriously scrumptious seafood sandwich. Serve on a traditional burger bun or herbed focaccia bread.
Ricotta Salata and Lobster Pizza: Chef Lydia Shire of Boston’s Scampo restaurant created this recipe, which uses a special salted variety of ricotta cheese. Opt for white, wheat or half-and-half dough. While Shire creates this masterpiece in a wood-fired oven, a conventional oven set to 400 degrees Fahrenheit will do the trick just fine.
Lobster Curry: Bring some color to your cheeks with this hot and tingly supper. Serve lobster and curry over wild rice for a more substantial serving. Spice curry to taste.
Dessert: Land-lubbers beware, sweet lobster meat can find its way into every course of the day. Don’t try this with chicken.
Lobster Cheesecake: Pretzel-crumb crust and hints of zesty lemon and dill balance out the flavor profile of this decadent dessert.
May 22, 2012
The Cajuns are one of Louisiana’s unique subcultures. They are descended from French settlers exiled from Acadia. For a long time, they were met with derision. Holding onto their French heritage, the Cajuns were discriminated against by the English-speaking population, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s that efforts were made to preserve Cajun culture. One major development came in the 1980s, when chef Paul Prudhomme earned Cajun foodways some long-overdue attention and respect. His restaurant, K-Pauls’s Louisiana Kitchen, and a number of cookbooks pushed this unique cuisine to the forefront of the American consciousness. If you’ve yet to have the pleasure, of if you have only had the pleasure of eating a bowl of gumbo, queue up some Beausoleil and crack open your pantry to make the following classic Cajun meals.
Blackened Redfish: This is the dish that put Cajun food on the cultural map in the 1980s and is the thoroughly modern invention of Prudhomme. He aimed to recreate the taste of food cooked over an open fire by using a searing hot cast iron skillet and a mix of herbs and spices that creates a sweet crust on the outside of the filets. Part of his original Louisiana Kitchen cookbook, and later refined in The Prudhomme Family Cookbook, the recipe was often imitated in restaurants at the height of the Cajun craze—although not necessarily well, with some interpreting Cajun cuisine as anything that is ridiculously over-spiced. When done properly, the fish is supposed to taste sweet and smoky.
Boudin: These are specialty Cajun sausages, usually served as a snack food, that blend hog meat with rice, onion, bell pepper and spices. They come in two varieties. Boudin rouge incorporates blood into the mix and, given federal food regulations, is nearly impossible to find due to public health concerns—although you might have some luck if you go directly to a slaughterhouse. Boudin blanc is the widely-available, bloodless variety, recipes for which are available. Recalling my family making homemade Italian sausage, I would count on this being an all-day affair, but the results will surely be worth the effort.
Étouffée: Étouffée is another relatively modern dish that sprang up in Cajun cooking sometime in the 1930s in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. From the French word for “to smother,” étoufées are similar to gumbos and start with a roux—a mix of flour and butter—that classically engulfs a mix of onion, bell pepper, celery and crawfish tails and is served over rice. Lots of variations exist, including one that subs in alligator meat for the crawfish.
Jambalaya: This dish comes in two varieties: if it’s red, you’re noshing on the tomatoey Creole variation, but if it’s brown—of slow-cooked meat drippings—it’s Cajun. One story goes that this stew of vegetables, spicy andouille sausage and seafood originates from Spanish settlers in Louisiana’s French Quarter trying to create a New World approximation of paella. And should you be down in Gonzales, Louisiana, later this month, the Jambalaya Capital of the World will be hosting its annual jambalaya festival, where you can sample a number of variants on the stew from cooks who are all vying for a world champion title. Could there be a better opportunity to introduce yourself to this stew?
Macque Choux: No one seems to be entirely sure about the origins of this corn dish. The name alone is confusing, with “maque” maybe being a Natchez Indian or Creole word for “corn,” and “choux” being French for “cabbage,” even though that veggie isn’t usually used, at least not in modern iterations. Where there is some consensus is that when the French Acadians came down to Louisiana once upon a time, they adapted corn, a distinctively American Indian crop, into their cuisine. Whatever its origins, this spicy corn and tomato stew laced with peppers and onions can include meats such as chicken or crawfish or can be completely vegetarian.
Note: For easier referencing, please use the links below to explore recipes for the above Cajun dishes.
Blackened Redfish: The original version of Paul Prudhomme’s famous recipe
Boudin: The bloodless variety.
Jambalaya: Chicken, sausage, bacon, and a host of spiced veggies make for a decadent stew.