Savoring Super Size fries in all their crunchy glory

March 10, 2004|By ROB KASPER

DIARY OF a Super Size eater:

Thursday, March 4, 11:55 a.m. I can smell my lunch before I open the door of the McDonald's. The corner of Baltimore and Light streets has a beckoning aroma that says "now frying."

Today's newspaper told me that McDonald's was changing its menu and that Super Size french fries and beverages are soon to be an endangered species. They are not the best fries in town; that title I would give to the "frites" at the Brewer's Art. But they are symbols of a fading feast, of a "living-large" mentality. I want to enjoy these guilty pleasures before they become extinct.

11:56 a.m. I order a Super Size fries and Super Size Coke. I check over my shoulder to see if any do-gooders were lurking nearby, ready to haul me off to hoe a carrot farm as punishment for my crimes against proper nutrition.

One customer says something in a loud voice but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a regular who regularly talks to himself.

No one in this fryery is upset. No one is judgmental. This is urban democracy in action. Everyone gets along as long as no one messes with your meal.

11:58 a.m. I fork over $3.97 for my 7 ounces of fries and 42 ounces of soda and carry them over to a seat at a counter that looks out on Baltimore Street. It takes two hands to carry the vessel of Coke.

11:59 a.m. First fry. It is light, golden, pencil-thin, crunchy and salty on the outside, pillowy on the inside. The hot, salty fry and a gulp of sweet Coke bring back a flood of french-fry memories.

In one I recall the exceptional fries bought for my younger son that I stumbled upon one evening in 1995 in Lansdowne. On the way home from a kid's baseball tournament, we stopped at a McDonald's on Patapsco Avenue done up like a classic 1960s drive-in restaurant, and I swiped one of my kid's fries. It was amazing. Sizzling, salty potato bliss. But the following year, the restaurant had closed. Those were fleeting fries.

12:02 p.m. By now I have eaten 16 fries. At first I picked them up daintily, one at a time. But soon I begin eating them in bunches, two-fers, three-fers. French fries lend themselves to frenzied eating. You hurry to get them while they are hot.

I measure exactly how hot they are by sticking an instant-read thermometer in the fries. Once again, nobody seems to care that a guy sitting in the corner is probing his lunch with a metal instrument. Once again, I feel lucky to live in America.

12:08 p.m. The fries, which started out at a sizzling 145 degrees, have faded to 115 degrees. I keep a running tally, with pen and paper, of the number of fallen fries. Now I am on fry No. 62, which is a little limp. Up to this point, the fries had displayed remarkably good posture, standing up almost as straight as the golden-yellow lines decorating the back of the fry package.

Strangely, those lines begin to look attractive, even tasteful. They make me think that if Martha Stewart would super size, the package would look something like this. Maybe that is saturated fat talking, or maybe it is the fact that when I turn the package sideways, the lines look like prison stripes.

12:11 p.m. I seem to have hit the wall at fry No. 80. In a marathon, that is the point in the race when runners feel that they can't go on. In a super sizing, that is when the fries start looking like shoelaces. A lesser eater would have fallen back on ketchup for help. But I push on, eating only pure, naked fries and thinking happy thoughts, such as what happens during the miracle of deep-fat frying.

I remind myself that anyone who has ever tried to cook french fries at home -- anyone, in other words, who is a true, red-blooded, if artery-clogged, American -- knows that it is a difficult undertaking.

You have to soak the sliced raw potatoes in warm water to speed the conversions of their sugars into starch. Then you have to cook them at least twice. I found this out from oil-splattered experience. Moreover, my fries never tasted as good as the ones I get at a restaurant. My oil never got hot enough.

I recall that I didn't appreciate the inner beauty of deep-frying until I read an article in the March 5, 2001, New Yorker magazine by Malcolm Gladwell, "The Trouble With Fries." I bring notes pulled from the article with me to McDonald's, but I don't read them again until later. During lunch, a few pages of the notes serve as makeshift napkins.

I read Gladwell's explanation that cooking the potatoes in hot oil transforms the water inside the fries into steam. The steam not only causes the interior of the french fry to swell and soften, it also keeps the oil mostly on the surface of the fry, delivering an irresistible morsel that is crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. If I had been taught this in college, I might have majored in chemistry.

The difficulty, Gladwell says, is finding a cooking oil that gives french fries a pleasing flavor but isn't bad for you.

12:15 p.m. Final fries. There is light at the bottom of my super-size package. I spear the last fry, registering 80 degrees on the thermometer, and polish it off. Final tally: 91 fries in 16 minutes, for an average of a little under 6 fries a minute.

12:25 p.m. On the ride back to the office, I hear liquid sloshing around in my car. I think it might be a leak in the car radiator. It turns out to be the remaining 24 ounces of my Super Size Coke rolling on the car floor.

12:45 p.m. Feeling logy. Why did I do it? In part because it may not be there much longer. In part because I wanted to indulge in this excess before my generation, the aging baby boomers, puts the cultural clamps on it. And I did it because when you super size your lunch, your fingers taste good for the better part of the afternoon.

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