The Awesome Science of Cheetos

Lots of interesting stuff lately on the internet about food. The first is from the trailing end of a meandering piece on The Awl about a “McWorld” in Times Square. The author is suggesting the eponymous fast-food giant build a Disneyland/Mecca for Big Mac lovers in NYC, with a few notable features. My favorite (and I believe the most valuable piece of this idea is “McDonald’s Lab”:

[The lab] wouldn’t look like the rest of the store, or like a lab. It would probably be like…some insane beyond-Cloud-Atlas-The-Movie meets Gaultier-for-Luc Besson type thing. There are two thoughts behind this part: First, everyone who’s ever worked in any kind of a restaurant that doesn’t do proper family meals gets insanely sick of all the food on the menu, even when it’s awesome, right? I came across this LiveJournal thread about what people who work at McDonald’s cook for themselves for snacks and it is crazy. They’re in a McDonald’s. They only have a few minutes. They can’t really cook, but they can heat stuff up certain ways, and blend it, and they have access to this weird mix of hyper-processed foods. They are so creative! It’s like reading about the stuff people make in prison: “Scramble eggs in a 16oz cold cup with a fork.” “Grill it under the 4:1 clamshell.” Oreo shakes; Barbecue Tortilla Pizza; Chicken Caesar Wraps.

The referenced LiveJournal thread is a must-read for anyone interested in underground corporate culture, fast food, or random human behavior. My favorite bit from it is about making french toast in a McDonald’s, using the middle bun from a Big Mac dipped in egg mixture (which, to my knowledge, no longer exists). The genius bit is what to do with the rest of the bun: toss them into the Quarter Pounder bun supply to reduce your food waste/shrink numbers. Strong.

Continuing on from the same article, the author corroborates a thought I’ve had for some time: that despite its impact on public health, processed food is a magic miracle worth examination and awe on the same level as those crazy not-olive olives at El Bulli.

How much difference really is there between McDonald’s super-processed food and molecular gastronomy? I used to know this guy who was a great chef, like his restaurant was in the Relais & Châteaux association and everything, and he’d always talk about how there were intense flavors in McDonald’s food that he didn’t know how to make. I’ve often thought that a lot of what makes crazy restaurant food taste crazy is the solemn appreciation you lend to it.

Here’s my favorite part:

If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that. I mean even a Coca-Cola is a pretty crazy taste.

So in this Labs area, McD’s would invite like Ferran Adrià’s brother to come cook food out of chicken nuggets sauce and whatnot. AND his staff of prep cooks would be like, the dudes from a regular McDonald’s who invented the best off-menu snacks to eat. And they’d use them as starting points. Plus it would be hilarious to hear all the New Yorkers clamoring for tickets to the limited run of Andrew Carmellini at McDonald’s Labs, it would be like how everyone lines up for Proenza Schouler for Target or whatever.

That’s a good idea.

[NB: I got back to this article via this search: "cheeto chicken nugget ferran." I was proud of that Googling.]

And then there’s this article on the science of junk food in the New York Times Magazine that comes out tomorrow, where the Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative-food-journalist Michael Moss basically puts the tobacco companies and food companies in the same bucket. Lots of really interesting nuggets in there – damn the pagination, full read ahead – but since we’re on the topic of Cheetos:

To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.”

SCIENCE.

Loads of really neat stuff in there, in particular about the guy who gets paid what I can assume is pretty big bank to optimize foods. And the $40,000 chip-breaking machine. Cost is no real object when you can prove you create value.

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