the Shamrock Shake & Uncle O’Grimacey

The McDonalds Shamrock Shake helped pay for the first Ronald McDonald house.

In 1970 McDonalds introduced their lemon/lime flavored green Saint Patrick’s Day Shake. It eventually changed flavors and names to become the mint flavored, and alliteratively titled, Shamrock Shake. Like the autumnal artificial scarcity of pumpkin spice, the Shamrock Shake is only available around Saint Patrick’s Day in the February through March timeframe (except in Philadelphia where it has two seasons).

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Mayor Frank Rizzo, members of the Eagles organization, Fred Hill & his daughter all attended the opening of the first Ronald McDonald House, October 15, 1974.

Philadelphia’s two seasons of Shamrock Shakes goes back to the role it played in creating the first ever Ronald McDonald House. In 1969 Kim Hill, daughter of Philadelphia Eagle Fred Hill, was diagnosed with leukemia. By 1973 the Hills and members of the Eagles organization started the Eagles Fly for Leukemia charity which helped pay for the new oncology wing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

After seeing parents camped out in the hallways and waiting rooms while their children received treatments, the charity went a step further in 1974 and purchased an old seven-bedroom house at 4032 Spruce St. not far from the hospital. The house would be a place for visiting families to stay free of charge while their children received treatment – a “home away from home”. To help pay for this the Eagles partnered with the local McDonalds restaurants asking them to donate money from their next promotional food item, which just happened to be the Shamrock Shake. The Eagles asked them to donate 25 cents per shake but McDonalds executives asked if they could have the naming rights to the house if they donated all of the proceeds. Eagles general manager Jimmy Murray said “… for that money, they could name it the Hamburglar House.” From this, the first ever Ronald McDonald House was established in Philadelphia in 1974. Today there are more than 375 Ronald McDonald House programs around the world which, at what would have been more than 2.5 million overnight stays in hotels, save families around $930 million each year.

Uncle O’Grimacey

As positive as the Shamrock Shake’s impact has been, there have been some missteps. To help promote the Shamrock Shake, McDonalds introduced the new mascot character Uncle O’Grimacey in 1975. The Irish uncle of the purple mascot Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey (complete in his kelly green hat, shamrock-patterned vest, and a shillelagh) would travel from Ireland each year bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland. Uncle O’Grimacey was quietly phased out of McDonalds marketing after a few years due in part to an alleged incident in Philadelphia in 1978 where the person portraying him made statements in support of the IRA and that British soldiers were better dead than alive.

Casual racism isn’t just relegated to the distant past however. In 2017 McDonalds ran an ad promoting the Shamrock Shake. Unfortunately they had a man wearing a tartan Tam o’ shanter playing the shake like a set of bagpipes (which would be Scottish) while standing in-front of Stonehenge (which is in England). McDonalds stopped the ad and apologized saying they are “… strongly supportive of Ireland and respectful of its culture”. Begosh and Begorrah.

Uncle O’Grimacey bringing Shamrock Shakes to McDonaldland.

Acquired Overbites

We have slight overbites because we use forks & knifes.

Before people ate with forks & knifes they used their hands. In the absence of utensils people would have to clench and rip their food with their teeth. While crude, the result of all this pulling meant that people’s top and bottom rows of teeth lined up edge-to-edge. The introduction of utensils changed that.

The use of a fork & knife meant that a person no longer had to use their teeth to pull at their food, they could cut their food on their plate first. As a result anyone who used utensils (including us today) developed an overbite. Most of us have slight overbites where our top teeth hang out a bit in front of our bottom teeth, which comes from using utensils.

This effect can be traced across time, across cultures, and across social classes. Aristocratic classes could usually afford knives & forks before the peasantry, so they developed overbites before anyone else. For example, the more affluent members of 18th century Western Europe developed overbites before the people who couldn’t afford silverware. Even more interesting the overbite took longer to develop in the American colonies, who were poorer than their countrymen back home in Europe.

In China the overbite developed as far back as 800 CE. Instead of knives & forks the Chinese aristocracy used chopsticks, but to eat meat with chopsticks the meat had to be pre-chopped as part of the meal preparation. As a result they didn’t have to pull at their food either, and developed overbites centuries before Europeans.

QI discusses the development of overbites, and as it pertains to Richard III

Coffee: Sun-Grown or Shade-Grown?

Coffee plants want to be grown in the shade, which is better for the flavor and the environment.

Coffee plants thrive in the warm (but not too warm) areas between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, an area nicknamed the “coffee belt” (although, as global warming continues the areas in which coffee plants can grow is shrinking). These evergreen plants grow to be about 12ft tall and, while they like the warmth, they also like the shade. Coffee plants naturally grow best underneath the canopy of trees. Traditionally people would collect the coffee berries from plants growing wild around the forest and then process the seeds to make coffee. Enter industrialization.

Sun-tolerant coffee plants grown in efficient rows for sun-grown coffee. Photo by Shade Grown Coffee film.

Here Comes The Sun

From the 1970s to the early 1990s coffee producers were encouraged by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “upgrade” their processes and switch from shade-grown production to sun cultivation. Sun-tolerant plants had been engineered to better handle direct sunlight. With sun-grown cultivation you can grow coffee plants in greater density, harvest beans more efficiently through mechanization, producing higher yields, making more money. This isn’t without costs.

One of the first steps for sun-grown coffee is deforestation (which increases global warming). Without trees there are no fallen leaves serving as mulch keeping weeds down. Leaves also biodegrade adding nutrients to the soil. This means sun-cultivated coffee requires more herbicides and fertilizers than shade-grown coffee. Further, when there are less trees there are less birds, and without as many birds to eat the insects, you need more pesticides. All of this means more chemicals on the plants and in the soil.

Made in the Shade

While still incorporating trees and other vegetation, modern shade-grown coffee farms can arrange their coffee plants more efficiently than former traditional practices. Even though this usually means lower yields and longer harvest times compared to sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee sells at a premium which can compensate producers for these factors.

The trees of shade-grown coffee farms serve as homes to hundreds of bird species. In Peru for example, the coffee plants of sun-grown coffee farms are home to around 61 bird species. This is in stark contrast to the trees of Peruvian shade-grown coffee farms which are home to 243 bird species. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has said that, “shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest.”

As for the coffee itself, shade-grown coffee plants produce beans with higher density, developing natural sugars, which makes for better tasting coffee. Sun-grown coffee speeds up the growing process, which is good for maximizing efficiency, but it also creates higher acidity resulting in a more bitter taste.

People in Ethiopia, sitting in the shade, processing shade-grown coffee.

So shade-grown tastes better, requires less chemicals, it helps hundreds of bird species, and it helps stop global warming. Next time you’re buying coffee spend the extra few cents for shade-grown.

Added info: Coffee beans frequently come with little logos attesting to various positive attributes in which the coffee was produced. The certification that best represents the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee is the Bird-Friendly label from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Bird-Friendly is widely considered the gold-standard in coffee certification as it means the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and helps the local ecosystem. That said, given the various benchmarks that must be achieved, it’s hard to become certified as Bird-Friendly which means it’s hard to come by Bird-Friendly coffee.

Herbs & Spices (and Salt)

Herbs come from the leaves of a plant, spices are from any other part of a plant (and salt is a mineral).

In cooking they are frequently used together to flavor a meal, and their names get used interchangeably, but herbs and spices are not the same. In short:

HERBS
Herbs are a seasoning that are the leaves of a plant

SPICES
Spices are a seasoning from any part of a plant other than the leaves (roots, stalks, bark, seeds, and sometimes even the fruit)

Herbs

In greater detail, an herb typically comes from smaller deciduous plants without a bark stem. There are exceptions of course as lavender, sage, rosemary aren’t deciduous and never lose their leaves. Either way, the key is that the green leaves become herbs when they are used in cooking, medicine, teas, cosmetics, etc.

Spices

Spices can come from everything but the leaves of a plant. For example cinnamon comes from bark, ginger comes from roots, pepper comes from seeds, and chili powder comes from the pulverized fruit of the chili pepper. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world at around $10,000 a pound, comes from the hand-picked stigma & styles from the Crocus sativus flower.

Allspice, despite a misconception, is not a blend of spices but is just one spice which comes from the berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. Its name comes from the fact that it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

Herb & Spice Plants

There are a few plants that produce both an herb and a spice. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum produce the herb cilantro while the seeds become coriander. Similarly the Dill plant produces dill the herb from its leaves, and dill the spice from its seeds.

Salt

The food seasoning odd-one-out, salt is a mineral and does not come from a plant (although salt is present in plants). There is a lot to say about salt but in short it’s been used as a preservative and a seasoning for thousands of years. It’s the only food seasoning that doesn’t come from a plant.

Norwegian Salmon Sushi

Japanese sushi didn’t contain salmon until a deal with Norway in 1992.

Like many of the oldest things in Japan, sushi originally came from China. Its earliest form was as fish stored in fermented rice. The rice was used as a preservative and wasn’t eaten. Through a series of culinary improvements over the centuries the dish eventually became raw fish served with rice (to be eaten, not thrown out), which is how we know it today.

Of the fish used to make sushi, salmon was not usually one of them. Pacific salmon tend to have parasites, making it unsafe to eat raw and needing to be cooked. Enter the Norwegians. Bjorn Eirik Olsen was part of a delegation to Japan in 1985 trying to sell Norwegian salmon to the Japanese. Norway had begun farming salmon in the 1970s and by the 1980s had an excessive amount of fish they needed to find buyers for. At the same time Japan had overfished their waters and were looking to diversify their supply of fish.

Selling salmon to the Japanese public for use in sushi was a difficult proposition because Japanese salmon wasn’t safe to eat raw. A marketing campaign couldn’t say that Norwegian salmon was parasite-free since that would only make you think of parasites, which wouldn’t help sales. It took a few years but by 1992 Olsen got Japanese frozen food producer Nichirei to purchase 5,000 tons of salmon at a heavily discounted price but on the condition that they sell it in grocery stores as raw salmon specifically for sushi. They also labeled their parasite-free Atlantic Norwegian salmon as ‘sāmon’ instead of the Japanese word for salmon ‘sake’, to help differentiate the two types. This was followed by a marketing campaign where they had chefs on Japanese TV demonstrate using salmon. It was a success.

In the years that followed salmon’s popularity took off. Salmon sushi started in the cheap sushi restaurants but eventually spread to restaurants of all levels in Japan and around the world.

Animal Names vs Meat Names

In English we have different names for animals vs those same animals as food because of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE.

From the 5th century until the 11th century England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were descendant of Germanic tribes which is why English is related to German. In looking along the language family tree we can see that English is actually related to a host of Germanic languages. The early English language of the Anglo-Saxons took a turn however in 1066 CE when the Normans invaded and conquered the country.

The Normans were a French speaking people from Normandy, the northwestern area of France named for them. After crossing the channel and conquering England, they became the ruling class. This led to a tri-lingual system where:

  • Latin was the language of the Church
  • Anglo-Saxon English was the language of the common people, and
  • Norman French was the language of the nobility, courts, and government administration
A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Anglo-Saxon defeat to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE.

What’s For Dinner?

Anglo-Saxons became the working-class hunters and farmers of England and, as they were the ones tending to the animals, they called the animals by their English names. The Norman rulers however more frequently encountered these animals when they were served on a plate, and in this culinary context called them by their French names.

Over the centuries this practice of using two different names was adopted into Middle English which then evolved into our Modern English. This linguistic duality, where a living animal is called one name in English while also being called by a different French name as food, has continued through to the present.

English animal vs French meat dual names include:

  • cow vs beef
  • calf vs veal
  • pig vs pork
  • sheep vs mutton
  • deer vs venison (although originally any hunted animal was called “venison”)
  • snail vs escargot

Interestingly we use the word “chicken” for both the animal and the meat. This is likely because chicken was one of the few meats that everyone could afford and since the common people were raising them and eating them, their practice of using the English language name in both context carried on.

Also the word for “fish” in French is “poisson” which is too close to the word “poison”. It’s thought that this linguistic similarity, and the danger if you get them confused, is why we kept the English language word for both the animal and the meat. We also tend to use the specific name for what kind of fish we are referring to (avoiding “fish” and “poisson” altogether).

Dum Dums Mystery Flavor

The mystery flavor solves a logistical problem

In manufacturing you want as little machine downtime as possible. When the machines aren’t running they aren’t making your product, and you aren’t as profitable as you could be. It’s all about efficiency. The Akron Candy Company of Bellevue, Ohio created Dum Dums lollipops in 1924, eventually selling the product to the Spangler Candy Company in 1953. There were originally seven flavors but they broadened out to 16 flavors. To maintain flavor integrity the machines must be cleaned between flavors – this removes any remnants of the previous flavor and prepares the machines for a pure new flavor. This also creates machine downtime.

The solution: the mystery flavor. To maintain machine efficiency you want to start the next flavor right as you finish the previous flavor. Instead of shutting down the machines, the mystery flavor is created in this liminal time when two flavors are moving through the same machine at the same time. The end of the one flavor and the beginning of the next mix together in different amounts creating ever-changing new flavors. The Dum Dums’ mystery flavor isn’t just one flavor. The mystery flavor is always an unpredictable mix of flavors. It’s a fun game to guess which two flavors are making your version of the mystery flavor, and it’s a clever production solution.

Added info: In 2015 Spangler ran a limited time campaign and produced three specific flavors, outside of the normal flavors, to be the mystery flavor. These were pizza, popcorn, and bacon flavored Dum Dums. Also the name Dum Dums was chosen because a sales manager felt it was a name children could both say and remember.

Thai Restaurants & Culinary Diplomacy

The dramatic increase in the number of Thai restaurants is driven by a culinary diplomacy program by the Thai government

Between 2001 and 2019 the number of Thai restaurants worldwide tripled. In the United States the number of Thai restaurants went from around 2,000 to over 5,000. Meanwhile at around 300,000 people Thai Americans only make up around 0.09% of the 330 million Americans. By comparison there are around 37 million Mexican Americans and around 54,000 Mexican restaurants around the US. That’s one Mexican restaurant for every 650 Mexican Americans but one Thai restaurant for every 55 Thai Americans. That’s a lot of Thai restaurants compared to so few Thai Americans. So other than tasting great, what has driven this explosion in Thai restaurants?

Culinary Diplomacy

In 2001 the Thai government formed the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. whose goal has been to spread Thai food and Thai culture around the world. This government-supported program offers generous loans to Thai nationals living abroad to open restaurants, they offer training in cooking standardized Thai dishes, they award “Thai Select” certificates for restaurants that are of high quality, and they have created A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad to help train new Thai restaurateurs. They also offer predesigned restaurant packages to create Thai restaurants at different price points.

• Elephant Jump is the lower-priced experience aimed at $5 to $15 per customer
• Cool Basil is the mid-tier offering at $15 to $25 per person
• Golden Leaf is the higher-end culinary experience at $25 to $30 per person

Some Thai restaurants are even named after these packages – they didn’t even bother to come up with their own names. These Thai restaurant packages are like a government sponsored version of the “Irish pub in a box”.

The Thai government’s efforts fall under what is known as culinary diplomacy, or gastrodiplomacy. It’s soft diplomacy. Through food you can introduce your culture to other countries, winning hearts and minds through stomachs. As a result of Thailand’s success other countries are creating similar programs including Peru, South Korea, and Taiwan among others. Culinary diplomacy can generate revenue through increases in exports and tourism. Indirectly, these programs can create favorable impressions of a country, its culture, and its people. It can also improve the relations of people within a country. Mustafa Nuur is a Somali refugee living in Lancaster, PA who runs the Bridge program. Bridge is a cross-cultural experience which allows you to book a meal with a local immigrant family to share stories and eat the food from their home country.

Girl Scout Cookies

Most Girl Scout cookies go by two names because the cookies are made by two different bakeries.

The Girl Scouts of the USA were formed in 1912 as an organization for young girls to learn skills and build friendships. As a fundraiser in 1917 the Mistletoe Troop of Muskogee, Oklahoma began selling homemade cookies. Selling cookies was so successful troops nationwide began to do the same. In 1936 the Girl Scouts organization began to use commercial bakeries to produce the cookies more efficiently, which the girls scouts would sell – which is how it’s still done today.

Depending on where you may be in the United States, your cookies are made by one of two commercial bakeries:

  • ABC Bakers (a division of the Canadian corporation George Weston Limited), or
  • Little Brownie Bakers (a division of the Italian Ferrero Group)

Because of the two bakeries the cookies have different recipes and different names. As a result, what some know as Samoas, others know as Caramel deLites. What some know as Tagalongs, others know as Peanut Butter Patties. Only two cookies retain the same name regardless of bakery: the Girl Scout S’mores and Thin Mint. As for the most popular Girl Scout cookie, at 25% of sales, it’s Thin Mint.

A comparison of just some of the cookie names between the two bakeries

Also: The Girl Scout logo is framed in a shape known as a trefoil (basically three overlapping circles that sometimes also has a stylized tail at the bottom to emulate the look of clover, as the Girls Scouts logo does). The Little Brownie Bakers have labeled their version of shortbread cookies Trefoils as a nod to this branding. In the ABC Bakers version of the cookie, named Shortbread, the cookies’ form is less trefoil and more quatrefoil as it is basically four overlapping circles.

Cinnamon

From a mythical origin story, to common kitchen spice, cinnamon has a long strange history

To start, cinnamon is a spice (which means it’s not made from leaves, which is what herbs are). It comes from the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum family. It’s been used for thousands of years, but where it came from had been intentionally shrouded in mystery for much of that time. During the spice trade cinnamon would be harvested in southern Asia, brought to the Middle East along the Maritime Silk Road, and then resold by spice merchants around the Mediterranean and onward. To maintain control over the Western market, the Asian origins of cinnamon were kept secret by its Arabian merchants.

This cinnamon subterfuge begins with an incredible origin story. Westerners were told that there was a species of Arabian bird called the Cinnamologus (ie. “cinnamon birds”) who would make their nests out of pieces of cinnamon they collected from an unknown land. These nests were either high on cliff faces or at the tops of very tall trees depending on who was telling the story. The key was that the nests were inaccessible. So the cinnamon was harvested by either leaving heavy pieces of meat out for the birds, who would carry the meat back to their nests but the weight would topple the nest to the ground, or the nests were shot with projectiles which would do about the same thing.

Medieval manuscript depictions of the harvesting of cinnamon

This exotic & daring method of harvesting cinnamon only made it more desirable, much more so than if people found out you just had to peel the bark off of a tree and let it dry. Not everyone believed these stories, but either way the market supply was cornered by Arabian merchants and so cinnamon remained an expensive spice & Western status symbol for hundreds of years.

Two kinds of cinnamon

Today southern Asia still produces most of the world’s cinnamon. There are several kinds but the two you will find the most are Cassia Cinnamon (aka Chinese Cinnamon) and Ceylon Cinnamon (aka “True” Cinnamon). Cassia Cinnamon originates in China but is now grown all around southeast Asia. It has a bold flavor and is the version of cinnamon most commonly found in the United States. Ceylon Cinnamon comes almost exclusively from Sri Lanka (Ceylon being the old name for Sri Lanka). It has a subtler taste but in the culinary world it is considered the superior cinnamon (hence, “True” Cinnamon). One other difference is that Cassia Cinnamon contains higher concentrations of the chemical compound coumarin, which in large amounts can cause liver and kidney damage.

In general, other than just tasting nice, cinnamon has a variety of potential health benefits and it’s proven to be antimicrobial. Cinnamon can kill E. coli along with other harmful bacteria and as such has been used for thousands of years to preserve meat (including during the embalming process of Egyptian mummies, which is just preserving meat of a different kind).