May 15, 2013
There are plenty of examples of structures built from recycled materials—even Buddhist temples have been made from them. In Sima Valley, California, an entire village known as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village was constructed from reused glass. But this is no new concept—back in 1960, executives at the Heineken brewery drew up a plan for a “brick that holds beer,” a rectangular beer bottle that could also be used to build homes.
Gerard Adriaan Heineken acquired the “Haystack” brewery in 1864 in Amsterdam, marking the formal beginning of the eponymous brand that is now one of the most successful international breweries. Since the first beer consignment was delivered to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it has been a top seller in the United States. The distinctive, bright green of a Heineken beer bottle can be found in more than 70 countries today. The founder’s grandson, Alfred Heineken, began his career with the company in 1942 and was later elected Chairman of the Executive Board at Heineken International. Alfred, better known as “Freddy,”oversaw the design of the classic red-starred label released in 1964. He had a good eye for marketing and design.”Had I not been a beer brewer I would have become an advertising man,” he once said. When Freddy’s beer took off in the international market, he made it a point to visit the plants the company had opened as a part of its globalization strategy.
In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer.
The rectangular, Heineken World Bottle or WOBO, designed with the help of architect John Habraken, would serve as a drinking vessel as well as a brick once the contents were consumed. The long side of the bottle would have interlocking grooved surfaces so that the glass bricks, once laid on their side, could be stacked easily with mortar or cement. A 10-foot-by-10-foot shack would take approximately 1,000 bottles (and a lot of beer consumption) to build. Yu Ren Guang explains in Packaging Prototypes 3: Thinking Green:
“On returning to Holland [from Curacao], Alfred set about conceiving the first ever bottle designed specifically for secondary use as a building component, thereby turning the function of packaging on its head. By this philosophy, Alfred Heineken saw his beer as a useful product to fill a brick with while being shipped overseas. It became more a case of redesigning the brick than the bottle.”
A handful of designers have accepted Alfred’s WOBO as one of the first eco-conscious consumer designs out there. Martin Pawley, for example, writes in Garbage Housing, that the bottle was “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
There were many variations of the original prototype—all of which were ultimately rejected as many components were considered unworkable. For example, a usable beer bottle needs a neck from which to pour the beer and a protruding neck makes it harder to stack the product once the beer’s run out—problematic for brick laying. The finalized design came in two sizes—350 and 500 milimeters (35 and 50 centimeters)—the smaller of which acted as half-bricks to even out rows during construction. In 1963, the company made 50,000 WOBOs for commercial use.
Both designs (one of the wooden prototypes is pictured in Nigel Whiteley’s Design for Society), were ultimately rejected by the Heineken company. The first prototype for example, was described by the Heineken marketing team as too “effeminate” as the bottle lacked ‘approprate’ connotations of masculinity. A puzzling description, Cabinet writes, “considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft.”
For the second model, Habraken and Heineken had to thicken the glass because it was meant to be laid horizontally—a costly decision for an already progressive concept. The established cylindrical designs were more cost effective and could be produced faster than the proposed brick design. But what most likely worked against Habraken’s design was that customers simply liked the easy-to-hold, cylindrical bottle.
Though the brick bottles never saw the market, in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Even the plastic shipping pallets intended for the product were reused as sheet roofing. The two buildings still stand at the company’s former brewery-turned-museum, The Heineken Experience.
Where Heineken failed in creating a reusable brick bottle, the company EM1UM succeeded. The bottles, which were easier to manufacture for most automatic bottling machines than Heineken’s design, were made to attach lengthways or sideways by pushing the knobs of one into the depressions of another. EM1UM was mostly successful in Argentina and collected awards for bottle designs including prisms, cubes and cylinders.
In 2008, French design company, Petit Romain, made plans to make its own take on Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design, the Heineken Cube. It’s similar to the original concept in that it’s stackable, packable and altogether better for travel than the usual, clinky, cylindrical bottles. The major difference is that the cube is meant to save space, not to build homes. Like Freddy’s WOBO, the Cube is still in the prototype stage.
Though Freddy’s brick design never took off, it didn’t stop Heineken International from maintaining the lead in the global brew market. By ’68, Heineken merged with its biggest competitor, Amstel. By ’75 Freddy was one of the richest men in Europe.
A fun, slightly-related fact: Alfred Heineken and his chauffeur were kidnapped in 1983 and held at a 10 million dollar ransom in a warehouse for three weeks. Lucky for Freddy, one of the kidnappers gave away their location mistakenly while calling for some Chinese takeout. According to the Guardian, after the incident, Heineken required at least two bodyguards to travel with him at all times.
Alfred played a large role in the company’s expansion, championing a series of successful acquisitions, right up until his death in 2002. While his plans for translucent, green bottle homes never came to fruition commercially, the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple, constructed from a mix of one million bottles from Heineken and the local Chang beer remains proof of the design’s artfulness. For some designers, it seems, there is no such thing as garbage.
May 7, 2013
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.”
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 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.
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.
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.