I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people comment that certain foods tasted better when they were younger. It’s been said that the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder doesn’t hold a flame to the (now extinct) McFeast and that Pizza Hut somehow tasted great in the mid-1970s. Perhaps.
Though many of those fond memories are nothing more than history rewritten, there are some menu items out there that have truly changed for the worse.
A couple of caveats before I go into McDonald’s most famous offering. First, kids like anything that’s over-salted or extra sweet. Back in the day, I’d kill for a Shasta Orange Soda or a frozen dinner of chicken and fake mashed potatoes. Second, there are some secrets that are very well kept — the President Kennedy assassination, most things that happen in North Korea and … the ingredients in McDonald’s fries.
It’s been about 20 years since a group of vegetarians sued McDonald’s because its fries were billed as vegetarian, yet contained beef. Yep. It’s true. (And the ingredients list still seems to confirms that much.) My information comes from what I’ve read in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic, USA Today and McDonald’s Corp. itself. (Who knows the real story?)
McDonald’s owns its potato processing facilities and even uses a specific variety of potatoes. That’s pretty cool. But somewhere along the line, beef flavor is infused in the frozen product that’s sent to local stores. Back in the day, franchise restaurants fried the little strips of goodness in a mixture of vegetable oil and tallow (beef fat). That was after the whole potato factory process of slicing the potatoes, drying them somewhat and giving them a bath in a beef broth concoction. Boy, were they good! Then came the vegetarian battle cries.
These days? McDonald’s claims that its fries are vegetarian, despite that ‘natural’ beef flavor is still listed as an ingredient. The frying oil is now mostly canola, with no tallow to speak of. And not only have microwave ovens become major players in the fast food industry, Mickey D’s has an official seven minute holding time on its fries — locally, anyway.
I grew up eating fried pork chops. They had bones and plenty of marbling. Heck, a lot of people served applesauce with pork to help ‘cut the fat.’ That was then.
Breeding techniques and practices have brought pork to its current state — about 80 percent ultra lean. And that’s way overboard. There’s so little marbling these days that the National Pork Board has hung its almost entirely on ‘The Other White Meat’ campaign since the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, I’m not inspired by the skinnier swine.
They can tell me it’s the original recipe or call it ‘classic,’ but the version I was raised drinking was made with sugar. — not high fructose corn syrup. Sure, the calories are the same and so on, but it’s akin to telling me that pizza crust made with whole wheat flour is the same as the white stuff.
Fortunately, I can still buy the stuff that’s made with cane sugar in Mexico. But even the south of the border version isn’t the same as the 1970s drink, if for no other reason than the recipe has undergone adjustments in the way that the company makes the caramel coloring.
Most commercially produced salsas seem to have suffered the ‘Pizza Hut effect,’ in that manufacturers have begun tailoring them for the masses. A true Mexican or Tex-Mex salsa has only a few elements: tomatoes, onion, jalapeno peppers and fresh cilantro. I think it all began to change when New Jersey-based Campbell’s Soups acquired Pace (the San Antonio picante sauce company) in the mid-1990s. Salsa had just moved past ketchup as the top-selling US condiment. Interestingly though, that’s about the same time Pace started taking on a ketchup-like flavor. Or possibly V8. Either way, salsa purveyors far and wide jumped on Pace’s $200 million annual bandwagon and began to emulate it.
Twenty years later, it’s next to impossible to find a jar of the classically-made salsa at your local market — no matter where you are. Even many Tex-Mex restaurants right here in Texas these days add cumin to the table salsa. It’s downright sad.
Sure, those rectangular slices were institutional. But they had everything that we’re no longer allowed to sell our children in school cafeterias: white flour, cheese and pork sausage. That ‘feel good’ factor is long gone.
These days, thanks mostly to pandering politicians and special interest groups, our children are being served whole wheat crusts topped with low-fat cheese and soy-laden ‘meat.’ It’s not even close to the same thing.
If you miss it too, pick up a box of Ellio’s (only available in the Tri-State area) or make friends with a restaurant buyer. In my own search — after learning that Ellio’s wouldn’t ship to Texas — I came across Nosh, a blog written by Liv Jones. She did some research of her own and learned that Tony’s (the frozen pizza company) offers a line of the old-school rectangle pizza slices. Once you’ve made friends with someone who can order from foodservice companies, ask them to order the ‘commodity pizza’ — #63495 (pepperoni), #78456 (sausage) or #63572 (cheese).
I am occasionally hesitant to post certain recipes because they are super easy and extremely flexible. Following is one of those, but it’s too good to not bring to the table. Instead of following the recipe exactly, please consider the many listed options. Food is art and this recipe is merely a canvas (albeit pretty damn good on its own).
Tex-Mex Shepherd’s Pie
Preheat oven to 350F.
1 lb. – Ground beef, browned and drained
1/2 cup – Canned black beans, drained & rinsed
1/2 cup – Frozen corn
1 packet (about 1 oz.) – Taco seasoning
2 cups – Mashed potatoes
1 cup – Sharp cheddar, shredded
Combine beef, beans, corn and taco seasoning and place in a 2 qt. casserole. Spread mashed potatoes evenly over meat mixture. Top with cheese. Bake uncovered until mixture is warmed through and cheese is bubbly and lightly browned.
Lower calorie options
- Use 96/4 ground beef or ground white chicken/turkey.
- Replace corn with equal amount of peas and carrots.
- Replace mashed potatoes with your favorite mashed cauliflower recipe or a half-recipe (minus the corn) of Cauliflower-infused Chipotle Garlic Mashers.
Some optional add-ins
- 3 TB – Fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1/4 cup – Chopped onion
- 1/4 cup – Sliced black olives
- 1/2 cup – Diced avocado
- 2-3 TB – Salsa -or- 1/4 cup canned tomatoes & green chiles
- 1 – Canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (for some extra bite)
- Queso Asadero or Mozzarella (instead of Cheddar)
- Sour cream, as a topper at the table
Tastes great with a simple side salad. Serves 5.