How We Became a Society of Gluttonous Junk Food Addicts
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Every chef is said to have a secret junk food craving. For Thomas Keller, chef-owner of Per Se and The French Laundry, two of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, it's Krispy Kreme Donuts and In-N-Out cheeseburgers. For David Bouley, New York's reigning chef in the '90s, it's "high-quality potato chips."
"Father of American cuisine" James Beard "loved McDonald's fries," while Paul Bocuse, an originator of nouvelle cuisine, once declared McDonald's "are the best French fries I have ever eaten." Masaharu Morimoto is partial to "Philly cheese steaks," and Jean-Georges Vongerichten confesses a weakness for Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich. Other accomplished but less-famous chefs admit to craving everything from Peanut M&Ms, Pringles and Combos to Kettle Chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Having attended culinary school and cooked professionally, I can wax rhapsodic about epicurean delights such as squab, Beluga caviar, black truffles, porcini mushrooms, Iberico Ham, langoustines, and acres of exceptional vegetables and fruits. But I also have an unabashed junk food craving: Nacho Cheese Doritos. Sure, there are plenty of other junk foods I enjoy, whether it's Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream or Entenmann's baked goods, but Doritos are the one thing I desire and seek out regularly. (Not that I ever have to look that hard; I've encountered them everywhere from rural villages in Guatemala to tiny towns in the Canadian Arctic.)
For years I wondered why I craved Doritos. I knew the Nacho Cheese powder, which coats your fingers in day-glo orange deliciousness, was one component, as were the fatty, salty chips that crackle and melt into a pleasing mass as you crunch them. I figured there was a dollop of nostalgia in the mix, but an ingredient was still missing in my understanding. Then I read a spate of articles about "umami," designated the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, means "deliciousness" in Japanese and is described as "a meaty, savory, satisfying taste."
I knew some foods -- parmesan cheese, seaweed, shellfish, tomatoes, mushrooms and meats -- were high in umami-rich compounds such as glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. (Most people know umami from the much-maligned MSG, or mono sodium glutamate.) And I knew combining various sources of umami -- such as the bonito-flake and kombu-seaweed broth known as dashi, the foundational stock of Japanese cuisine -- magnified the effect and delivered a uniquely satisfying wallop of flavor.
What I didn't know was that "Nacho-cheese-flavor Doritos, which contain five separate forms of glutamate, may be even richer in umami than the finest kombu dashi (kelp stock) in Japan," according to a New York Times article from last year.
Mystery solved. Now I knew that whenever the Doritos bug bit me, I was jonesing for umami. I had to admit it: I am a junk food junkie and Frito-Lay is my pusher-man.
I am hardly alone. Frito-Lay is the snack-food peddler to the world, with over $43 billion in revenue in 2008. The 43-year-old cheesy chip is a "category killer," dominating the tortilla chip market with a 32 percent share in 2006, and number two in the entire U.S. "sweet and savory snacks category," just behind Lay's potato chips.