On Special Sauce this week, I had the pleasure of continuing my deep dive into the history of fast food with Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. But before I tell you more about that conversation, we kicked off this episode, as we always do, with another round of "Ask Kenji."
Serious eater Nick Bastow asks Kenji why minced meat has to be cooked before it's added to a sauce, such as a Bolognese or chili. Kenji explains that it's not just about rendering excess fat but also about creating the right texture- which will be different if you're making, for example, his chili sauce for burgers and hot dogs rather than the other recipes named above: "In that recipe, what we actually do is, we take the meat, we don't brown it at all, we add our liquid to it, and we kind of break the meat up in the liquid. And the texture you get from that is completely, completely different.... Like a very chunky paste. So, rather than a chili texture, where you have big chunks of meat that are kind of bound in the sauce, you end up with a much looser- I don't know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it's like a sludge." Though a delicious sludge, to be sure.
And, er, speaking of meat in unusual surroundings, Adam Chandler tells a great story about the real-life Colonel Harland Sanders, who sold fried chicken from a gas station in southeastern Kentucky for 20 years before "KFC" ever became a household name. Apparently, Sanders wasn't necessarily the courtly Southern gentleman the company portrays him as; according to Chandler, "He actually got into a feud over roadway traffic being diverted from a [gas] station and shot a guy." The story, which didn't make it into Chandler's book, just gets stranger from there.
Beyond telling the fascinating origin tales of Sanders and many other fast food chain founders, Chandler's terrific read also connects the evolution of fast food to the overall history of American culture in the 20th century, starting with the spread of motor vehicles and the increased mobility that that afforded some Americans. "[They wanted] food that was quick and easy, to go, which relates to the White Castle phenomenon in the '20s. This is 100 years ago. And wanting familiar experiences, wanting something that seemed safe. We didn't trust meat. We'd all read The Jungle and were afraid of ground beef. And so to have a restaurant, and eventually a chain, produce the exact same experiences over and over again, in stores that look the exact same, was comforting. And now, that could not be less comforting at all. We want personalized- it sounds dystopian to go into a place and say, 'I'm going to have the exact same experience wherever I go. It's going to look the same.' But a hundred years ago, that was a huge relief."
Finally, Stella Parks, the bravest Serious Eater among us, gives us step-by-step instructions for making one of her greatest discoveries, toasted sugar; a kind of dry caramel that's made simply by heating ordinary white sugar in a low oven for several hours. The result is a less sweet form of sugar that can be swapped out for regular white sugar in any dessert. "It's a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes," Stella says.
How often do you get to listen to Kenji wax rhapsodic on browning meat, hear about the wild exploits of Colonel Sanders, and be schooled by BraveTart on the joys of toasted sugar, all in one terrific Special Sauce episode?
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-adam-chandler-part-2.html