Say what you will about the Big Mac, McDonald's is the Empire that Fries Built. Inevitably -- even gratuitously -- tacked onto every order, miles more profitable than the burgers, the fast food even vegetarians need a fix of: There's a reason they almost called them the Golden Brown Arches. (OK, no, they didn't.) Brand Keys, a consumer loyalty researching firm, gives Ronald a score of 91 on a 100-point scale of how close they come to consumers' Platonic ideal of French fry, the highest rating in all of fastfoodlandia. You can't stop McDonald's French fries, you can only hope to contain them.
But every once in a while, the also-rans try an insurrection. Remember when Burger King embarrassed itself in the '90s with its new, "McDonald's-beating" fries that succeeded mainly in creeping customers out with their "clear coating of potato starch"? (BK didn't even make the top 10 on Brand Keys' list.)
Now, Wendy's (No. 8, with a score of 65) is reloading its fries for the first time in 40 years, rolling out thinner, "natural-cut" skin-on babies, sparkly with sea salt. So not only is it going after McDonald's, it's trying to kill the "Fast Food Nation" bird with the same stone. I mean, it used the word "natural" in its marketing and its salt now comes from the sea. That's got to be worth some food snob points, right?
Rolling deep with a crew from Saveur magazine -- Ben Mims, Helen Rosner and Ganda Suthivarakom -- we set out to test the champion's and the challenger's fries back-to-back.
First, to the insurgents' camp. As soon as the Wendy's fries came, Ben tried to stand the container up on the table and frowned at the toppling result. "I like my fries to be able to stand up," he said, and I nodded thoughtfully at his judging technique. I have no idea what stand-up-ability means, but consider that he responded to my invitation with this e-mail: "French fries are definitely my junk food of choice ... had them three times this weekend. I'd take one batch of fries from Pommes Frites over 100 meals at Per Se." He also coined the word "fry-gasm" in the same e-mail. I have much to learn from his expertise.
I tried one and was delighted by the crunchiness, the bright, lively saltiness, and the clean, earthy flavor of potato skin. The revolution is on!
I had a second. It was a bit softer, the sort of fry you get once in a while at the bottom of the box that's kind of wobbly and greasy and smushy, but that you don't mind as a contrast. Then I had a third, which was like the second. Then a fourth, like the third, only now I also started to taste a growing bitterness in the back of my throat, a lousy-oil kind of taste. Things were not looking good.
Ben said, gently, "Well, it if it weren't for that bad aftertaste it wouldn't be so terrible."
Helen wrote a note: "They are totally ick. Oily and oily and oily and salty. And oily."
Ganda spoke: "I want the crust to repel the grease, not soak in it. But I'm really excited about this Frosty!" she added with a slurp. Ben tried, in classic fashion, dipping some fries into Ganda's Frosty, and came up repulsed. I gave it a shot too, and it tasted like ... fish. WTF?
"Sh ... rimp shells," Ben wailed, with some combination of pity and terror. The bitterness was growing, magnified by the Frosty and the emotional reaction of someone who was led to believe, if even for a moment, this would be a happy day of French fry eating.
"I don't know that Dave Thomas would approve," Ganda said, solemnly. Ben looked moved. "I'm sad because my childhood is gone," he managed in between sobs, and we went over to the Golden Arches.
I have to admit that my feeling is that McDonald's fries aren't what they used to be, either, not like when I was a kid and they were fried in beef fat. I find their texture crisp but a little tough, and their flavor seems like regular TV compared to the HD of good fries made by people and not factories.
Still, I came to the table with the box, standing proud and tall, and Helen brightly noted that they were "Uniform, golden and beautiful as the dawn. With salt!" Then: "The insides are melty! Literally actually melty! But then when they cool, they're kind of styrofoamy. It's all about eat-when-hot. This is the exact flavor of my childhood, except saltier." She seemed pleased.
As we chewed and wrote our notes in silence, a man sitting at the next table gave us a look. I caught his eye and he asked, "Are you guys, like, studying French fries?"
Ganda said yes.
"Get outta here. You're kidding," he said.
"No, really, this is our job," Ganda said, chatting with him about what we do. The man nursed his late-morning coffee and I felt a little embarrassed. What the hell kind of job is this? Most people do real work for a living, and here I am, writing nerdy notes about French fries?
"I don't really like the fries here," the man said. "They're too salty."
Ganda looked up and nodded.
"And they're usually overcooked. You see how on the inside of the fries, lots of them are hollow? That's what happens when they get overcooked. The insides blow out of the fry if they keep cooking after they're done," he said, and I sat up.
"I cook a lot," he said. "It's funny, because I make my fries with almost anything I make. My secret is to fry them just until they're done, but not brown yet. Then I dump out all the oil and put them back on the stove, so they get crisp but without all that grease. My grandmother taught me."
Could it be that we were sitting next to an unorthodox French fry master?
He told us about cooking for his grandfather. "He's 97 now. When he was 75, he was in an accident -- a truck tire exploded in his face. After that, he couldn't taste anything anymore. But when I make my eggs and potatoes ..." He starting making a shoveling motion toward his face. "I'm like, 'I thought you can't taste!' He goes, 'I can't!' but he's just shoveling away. Yeah, I cook a lot, for him. When I had a fiancée, I cooked for her," he said. That last comment hung, for a moment, in the air.
"Do you know how to cook?" he asked us. We nodded. "What's your best dish?"
We murmured and demurred. "Are you married?" he asked Ganda, looking at her hands. "No, OK, so, what would you make tonight if you were on a date?"
"Oh jeez, you're a good one. Third."
"Probably a roasted chicken, with some roasted vegetables," she said. "It's romantic. Classic. Smells good and easy to digest." The man smiled in agreement.
We packed up, pulling on our coats and debating the merits of other chains' French fries. We thanked the man for talking with us, and, on the way out, he gave Ganda one more look. "So, how about that chicken dinner?" he asked, and she laughed.
She handed me her tasting notes. "Clearly I should be eating at McDonald's more," they read.