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Amuse-bouche: The day the flavor died



By Scott Mechura Explore Big Sky Food Columnist

I have always liked historical dates. It’s knowing precisely when, for better or worse, something changed forever.

Food is no exception. It has its own historical happenings and breakthroughs, such as the invention of canning in 1810 by French chef Nicolas Appert. Or Louis Pasteur’s discovery of pasteurization in 1864. In 1911 General Electric introduced the first home refrigerator, and despite decades of debate, the FDA approved the first genetically modified food, the Flavr Savr tomato, on May 18, 1994.

But there is one more date that I believe forever changed how we eat.

July 23, 1990, was supposed to be the dawn of a new era, but instead may have sealed our dietary fate.

This date comes with a name, and that name is Phil Sokolof.

Sokolof was not a nutritionist, chef or scientist. He was an Omaha, Nebraska, business man, and with zealot-like focus, he decided it was his responsibility to rid the world of saturated fat after a near-fatal heart attack at the age of 43.

For years, Sokolof took on anyone who stood in his path—from Congress to the public-school system; from Kellogg to Pillsbury and Purina. He appeared on Phil Donahue and the nightly news with Tom Brokaw. He even funded a commercial during the 2000 Super Bowl, proclaiming the dangers of saturated fat.

Finally, and it was probably inevitable, there was only one giant left. He went after the biggest prize of them all: McDonald’s.

McDonald’s had always cooked their fries in beef tallow. And as Ray Kroc made clear for decades, it wasn’t the hamburgers or the milkshakes that had people coming back—it was the French fries. In the words of Kroc, the preparation of the McDonald’s fry was sacrosanct.

But after ugly public debate and heavily funded campaigns on both sides for years, McDonald’s succumbed to the pressure and relented.

Sokolof had done it. David defeated Goliath, and his rock and sling came in the form of public pressure to serve the public healthy fats and stop poisoning the people. On July 23, 1990, McDonald’s announced they would no longer cook their French fries in animal fat.

What had Sokolof done? Flavor as we knew it changed forever. And so did our health, only not for the better.

The rest of the national fast food chains all followed suit. Some switched to exclusively corn oil, while others, like McDonald’s, experimented for years with a host of oil and fat combinations to no avail. The fries weren’t the same. Even companies like Keebler removed tallow, lard and coconut oil from all products from TV dinners to cookies.

Animal fat, such as tallow, lard or butter, has its downside to health. But it metabolizes far better than many of the oils we cook with today. Due to excessive processing, they wreak havoc on our bodies, and that film in the air that coats everything when frying foods is not unlike the chemicals also found in paint—something you don’t find with animal fat.

But not to worry, as many fast food companies realized flavor had been compromised, they did what they thought all consumers would like: they increased portion size to make up for the flavor shortcomings. Now we are left with bigger portions of food that is even worse for us than those sublime, crispy, pillowy McDonald’s French fries ever were.

Years later, when asked what he thought of McDonald’s fries post animal fat, Sokolof smiled and said they just weren’t as good as the old ones.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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