Thursday, May 22, 2014

I'd Like a McTerrifying, and a Diet Coke to go, please

McDonald’s has a new mascot for its Happy Meals. You know the Happy Meal, a hamburger/French fry/soda/toy combo that used to come with a cookie (cheapskates), that’s now a hamburger/cheeseburger/McNugget/French fry/apple slices/soda/milk/toy combo (although no child would order apple slices and milk on purpose).
That mascot is Happy. We’ll talk about Happy soon enough.
The McDonald’s corporation has always mystified and somewhat frightened me.
Mystified in the sense that I know what I’m eating is bad for me, and I know what I’m eating is probably taking years off my life, so why I’m I still eating it? And why am I making “nom nom nom” noises?
Frightened in the sense that McDonald’s is so good at selling these addictive, fatty hamburgers it has 35,000 locations worldwide, nearly half of those in the United States. Urp.
Oh, and there’s the clown. Clowns scare the hell out of me.
The first McDonald’s mascot was Speedee, an overweight little man in a chef’s uniform, who had a hamburger for a face. This wasn’t an advertising gimmick; it’s just what McDonald’s employees looked like in the 1950s.
In 1962, McDonald’s replaced Speedee, who was at least friendly and didn’t want to swallow your soul, with Ronald McDonald, who did. What the McDonald’s corporation didn’t take into consideration with Ronald is that 15 percent of the population suffers from coulrophobia, a fear of clowns. The percentage of the population that is left-handed is only 13 percent. This means absolutely nothing, except for the fact that there are roughly 6.28 million more Americans terrified by the McDonald’s mascot than are left handed.
That’s a lot. I’m just saying.
However, the terror didn’t stop there. In the 1970s, McDonald’s unveiled McDonaldland, an entire world of terrifying mascots; hamburger-headed politicians and police officers, a purple shake-gulping blob, French Fry Goblins, and dancing McNuggets. There’s a rule on the farm, “Don’t give livestock names. Nobody wants to eat a hamburger named Suzie.” Or, in this case, Mayor McCheese.
Now there’s Happy. An animated Happy Meal box with blue eyes (although only eight percent of the world’s population has blue eyes. Hmm), cartoon appendages and a mouth STRAIGHT OUT OF A NIGHTMARE.
This thing’s gaping black maw has a tongue the size of a human foot and more teeth than a dinosaur.
Little Johnny: “Why’s it smiling like that, Dad?”
Dad:Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes …”
Little Johnny: “This is McDonald’s, Dad. Not Jaws.”
Dad: “Don’t be so sure, son.”
You’d think a $97 billion corporation could afford to hire someone to, oh, I don’t know, keep their main Happy Meal demographic from wetting themselves in terror.
A good mascot makes people say, “Awe. How cute. I want one, too.” Like Gidget, the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
A good mascot does not make people cover their eyes screaming, “Oh, for all that is holy. Kill it. Kill it with fire.”
Thanks, McDonald’s. I may not sleep tonight.

Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at

Monday, May 12, 2014

The recipe calls for Neufchâtel. What’s a Neufchâtel?

My mom was a great cook. I inherited her full freezer when she died, so I got to enjoy her meals a little bit longer (don’t tell my sisters). I also inherited from her the love of cooking, except my interest was mainly driven by a love of eating.
It went something like this: raw food + gnawing hunger = casserole. Simple.
Although I could prepare meals in high school, my first real foray into the culinary arts didn’t occur until college. Sitting in my kitchen/living room area of my trailer with $10 in my wallet, I thought hungry thoughts. It’s not good to budget on an empty stomach.
With that $10 I could buy:
a)    Gas.
b)   A couple of frozen pizzas and ramen noodles.
c)    Beer.
I chose C, of course. Duh. I didn’t need gas; I knew how to walk. But that didn’t alleviate the problem. I was still hungry.
Rifling through my pantry I found random food items my mother had sent me during the semester I hadn’t eaten because, well, look at them: dry lentils, a can of peas, and a jar of bay leaves. I also found a pound of hamburger in the freezer, a lone carrot in the refrigerator, salt and pepper. In an act of desperation, I threw them together in an old Crock-Pot and created something delicious (well, at least edible).
The result; I’m no slouch in the kitchen (Ty Webb to Judge Smails in Caddyshack: “Don't sell yourself short Judge, you're a tremendous slouch”). So I hate it when I find a recipe that treats me like I didn’t learn how to cook by doing eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Case in point, I’m looking at a recipe that calls for Neufchâtel. Nothing screws up a perfectly good recipe like something French.
What the heck is Neufchâtel? I’m trying to make a simple salsa dip, and I get a town Napoleon took from the King of Prussia. What’s that have to do with salsa dip?
OK, OK. Deep slow breaths, Offutt. Deep slow breaths.
Turns out the American version of Neufchâtel is basically cream cheese. Why didn’t the recipe just say so?
This happens to me more than I’d like.
Sweet potato, onion, flour tortillas, cheddar cheese, lemon? Great. I know what all those are. And … a Dollop of crème fraîche? I’d have better luck making this dish if the recipe told me to cut off my own fingers.
And it doesn’t end with crème fraîche. Oh, no. There’s Demerara sugar. What is Demerara Sugar? Sounds like a stripper name. Oh, wait, it’s brown sugar.
Same thing with passata. Did my recipe just curse at me in Klingon? No, it’s a kind of tomato sauce. Farfalle pasta is apparently bow-tie pasta. Emmental cheese is often called by its redneck name, Swiss.
Ugh. I think I’ll stick with ingredients I can pronounce.

Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at