Special Sauce: Kenji on Browning Meat, Adam Chandl…

Headshot of Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

[Adam Chandler photograph: Katie Basile. Burger photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

On Special Sauce this week, I had the pleasure of continuing my deep dive into the history of fast food with Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. But before I tell you more about that conversation, we kicked off this episode, as we always do, with another round of “Ask Kenji.”

Serious eater Nick Bastow asks Kenji why minced meat has to be cooked before it’s added to a sauce, such as a Bolognese or chili. Kenji explains that it’s not just about rendering excess fat but also about creating the right texture—which will be different if you’re making, for example, his chili sauce for burgers and hot dogs rather than the other recipes named above: “In that recipe, what we actually do is, we take the meat, we don’t brown it at all, we add our liquid to it, and we kind of break the meat up in the liquid. And the texture you get from that is completely, completely different…. Like a very chunky paste. So, rather than a chili texture, where you have big chunks of meat that are kind of bound in the sauce, you end up with a much looser—I don’t know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it’s like a sludge.” Though a delicious sludge, to be sure.

And, er, speaking of meat in unusual surroundings, Adam Chandler tells a great story about the real-life Colonel Harland Sanders, who sold fried chicken from a gas station in southeastern Kentucky for 20 years before “KFC” ever became a household name. Apparently, Sanders wasn’t necessarily the courtly Southern gentleman the company portrays him as; according to Chandler, “He actually got into a feud over roadway traffic being diverted from a [gas] station and shot a guy.” The story, which didn’t make it into Chandler’s book, just gets stranger from there.

Beyond telling the fascinating origin tales of Sanders and many other fast food chain founders, Chandler’s terrific read also connects the evolution of fast food to the overall history of American culture in the 20th century, starting with the spread of motor vehicles and the increased mobility that that afforded some Americans. “[They wanted] food that was quick and easy, to go, which relates to the White Castle phenomenon in the ’20s. This is 100 years ago. And wanting familiar experiences, wanting something that seemed safe. We didn’t trust meat. We’d all read The Jungle and were afraid of ground beef. And so to have a restaurant, and eventually a chain, produce the exact same experiences over and over again, in stores that look the exact same, was comforting. And now, that could not be less comforting at all. We want personalized—it sounds dystopian to go into a place and say, ‘I’m going to have the exact same experience wherever I go. It’s going to look the same.’ But a hundred years ago, that was a huge relief.”

Finally, Stella Parks, the bravest Serious Eater among us, gives us step-by-step instructions for making one of her greatest discoveries, toasted sugar—a kind of dry caramel that’s made simply by heating ordinary white sugar in a low oven for several hours. The result is a less sweet form of sugar that can be swapped out for regular white sugar in any dessert. “It’s a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes,” Stella says.

How often do you get to listen to Kenji wax rhapsodic on browning meat, hear about the wild exploits of Colonel Sanders, and be schooled by BraveTart on the joys of toasted sugar, all in one terrific Special Sauce episode?

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: I don’t know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it’s like a sludge. So that’s what happens when you cook round meat and break it up with a lot of liquid. It breaks up much, much finer.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest, Adam Chandler.

Adam Chandler: Harland Sanders of KFC fame was selling fried chicken at a gas station in Southeastern Kentucky for 20 years of his life. My favorite story is, of course, that he shot one of his gas station rivals.

EL: And finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment from the Serious Eats’ test kitchen.

Stella Parks: Basically you can use toasted sugar in any recipe that calls for white sugar. It’s a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes.

EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt. And Kenji, serious eater Nick Bastow wants to know if we can’t brown minced meat before the adding tomato step, why do we still have to cook it? Is it to avoid some sort of protein clumping? In which case, could we just break it up with a fork after cooking, especially when pressure cooking? Too scared to test this in case I waste an entire potful.

JKLA: So that’s a good question. Almost every recipe for, say, like a bolognese sauce, or just a basic American style meat sauce, or chili will have you quote unquote “Brown the ground beef before you add the liquids,” or add some … Sometimes you’ll add onions after that. Usually what they really mean is that cook it until it’s no longer pink. The main reason we do that, it’s two fold. So part of it is a lot of recipes we’ll have you drain the meat after you brown it. So that initial first step is to render excess fat, fat that would make the final dish taste sort of greasy. Some dishes, you can leave it in. A bolognese sauce, you could leave it in, but something like a chili, you’d probably want to drain it a little bit. So that allows you to do that without draining away all the other aromatics.

JKLA: More importantly though, it is a textural element. So if you go on Serious Eats, we have a recipe for a chili sauce. So it’s not chili, but it’s chili sauce and it’s designed for going on top of burgers, hot dogs. And in that recipe, what we actually do is we take the meat, we don’t brown it at all, we add our liquid to it and we kind of break the meat up in the liquid. And the texture you get from that is completely, completely different. It’s almost like a very, very smooth paste that you get when you do it that way. Like a very chunky paste. So rather than a chili texture where you have big chunks of meat that are kind of bound in the sauce, you end up with a much looser … I don’t know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it’s like a sludge.

JKLA: So that’s what happens when you cook meat with a lot of liquid, ground meat and break it up with a lot of liquid, it breaks up much, much finer. And you don’t really get that sort of chunky texture that you want in a ground beef chili.

EL: Got it.

JKLA: With most of these things also, it doesn’t hurt. It honestly doesn’t hurt to try. It’s not going to ruin it. You might end up something different from what you’re used to, but all the flavors are going to be there.

EL: Nick will not be wasting an entire potful. Nick’s in good shape now.

JKLA: All right.

AC: The more and more I wrote about fast food, the more I got a sense that there was something more there to it.

EL: Today we are once again talking to Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. Tell us about the process of writing Drive-Thru Dreams. How did it come about?

AC: It’s a Talmudic question.

EL: Okay.

AC: I think that with no clear answer, I can kind of connect the dots backwards, but I can’t really connect them forwards. The process started, I think, because I was looking into the history of it, and I was studying it. And I just thought, “This is a fascinating topic. And I guess I feel differently about it than a lot of people do. I’d like to give this a shot.” I also saw it as a really convenient way to talk about American division.

AC: And so the process of writing the book started in 2015 which feels like a lifetime ago. And I wrote a draft of the book. And the election happened, and I had to rewrite the book because I think that what I was hoping to highlight were cultural differences that seemed light, and whimsical, and a little less serious than I mean them too. And after the election, I think the way we talk about food-

EL: And the way we talk about everything.

AC: The way we talk about everything. But I think, one of the lesser explored aspects of Trump’s victory is how it resonates in food. And fast food was a huge part of his campaign. He would tweet pictures of himself eating McDonald’s on a plane, having a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a knife and fork and a copy of The Wall Street Journal. And I think he really successfully used the cultural significance of the status of fast food as a cultural signifier of something that wasn’t elite to telegraph this everyman quality.

EL: Right.

AC: It was extremely successful. Here is a maligned industry that, coastal elites kind of thumb their nose at. And again, I’m speaking very broadly here, but so was he. And even though he’s a thrice-married billionaire, and a real estate mogul, he was the guy eating fried chicken and McDonald’s on the plane. And he had this real honesty to it. He means it. One of the few things I think he really, truly means is his love of fast food.

EL: Right. And I was about to say … Right, is that was the one maybe real connection to a lot of his supporters.

AC: Exactly.

EL: Not one that he created.

AC: Yes.

EL: But one that actually existed before he ran for president.

AC: Right. And so I think there’s a really big problem with the way that some criticism of fast food, which is valid, and necessary in a lot of ways, comes off. And so when I wrote the second draft of the book, I kind of … I had to look more at the history of fast food as something that is kind of central to the country. It really follows American history closely. You can explain it in a way that makes sense over the decades.

EL: Yeah. That was one of the most interesting and convincing parts of your book. Fast food is not just a metaphor, but a signifier for the macro changes going on in American culture. The book starts with White Castle, right? And goes right up to the present day. You don’t get in the Popeyes Fried Chicken, but there’s just certain limitations to book publishing.

AC: Right.

EL: You thought you were signing a contract to do this sort of whimsical, intelligent take on fast food, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Holy …” Was that-

AC: That’s a direct quote. That’s exactly what I said.

EL: And was it your decision or did your editor suggest it?

AC: It took a little bit of doing, just sorting out how do we respond to this? If this book is about Donald Trump, it has a very short shelf life. So taking a broad view of fast food wasn’t exactly where I thought I was going to go to. The book was originally a road trip book. I started at the Gulf coast near Whataburger was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is right on the Gulf of Mexico. And I wanted to drive all the way up to the Great Lakes where Ray Kroc founded his first McDonald’s. And this would be the two unsung coasts of America.

AC: And instead of doing it chronologically as a road trip, it became chronologically as American history. And I really have to credit my editor for that. Her name is Brynn Clark. She is amazing for helping me kind of bring that into being in a way that, I think, fulfilled the book’s potential promise. So I wish I could claim that it’s my brilliant brainchild, but I’m lucky to have a brilliant editor who really pushed it.

EL: The way you executed it is what really stood out to me because, again, you straddled this line. It’s like, “I take fast food, I take what I do seriously. Fast food is a signifier and a metaphor for everything that’s going on in the culture. Good, bad, and indifferent.”

AC: Yes.

EL: Right?

AC: Absolutely. I mean you can really trace it from whether it is the fact that Americans were becoming more mobile, and driving Model T’s and wanting food that was quick and easy to go, which relates to the White Castle phenomenon in the ’20s. This is 100 years ago. And wanting familiar experiences, wanting something that seemed safe. We didn’t trust meat. We’d all read The Jungle and were afraid of ground beef. And so to have a restaurant, and eventually a chain, produce the exact same experiences over and over again in stores that look the exact same was comforting. And now that could not be less comforting at all. We want personalized … It sounds dystopian to go into a place and say, “I’m going to have the exact same experience wherever I go. It’s going to look the same.” But a hundred years ago that was a huge relief.

AC: Following through World War II, prosperity of postwar life, and the baby boom, and the building of a highways, and the building of the suburbs, fast food was a product, in a lot of ways, of the suburbs.

EL: And then you talk about in the book that in many ways Colonel Sanders represented the American dream.

AC: Sure.

EL: Made manifest.

AC: All of the fast food founders have these amazing stories. It blew my mind to really go into the biographies of these founders, because they’re not what you would expect. For such a corporatized industry you have all of these mom and pop kind of founders who … Dave Thomas of Wendy’s fame, he was an orphan. And he was out on his own trying to work when he was 12 years old. Harland Sanders of KFC fame was selling fried chicken at a gas station in Southeastern Kentucky for 20 years of his life. He wasn’t successful until late in life.

EL: And even when you pointed out, even when he sold out, he didn’t optimize all his time.

AC: Right? He’s a great American character. Of someone who just kept trying, and kept trying, and kept trying, and found success very unexpectedly. And very late in life. And he was a perfectionist, and he was a cantankerous man. So he’s a great character. My favorite story is, of course, that he shot one of his gas station rivals in Southeastern Kentucky, which is … He actually got into a feud over roadway traffic being diverted from a station and shot a guy.

EL: But didn’t go to jail?

AC: He didn’t go to jail. It was in self-defense. And the man who he fired upon was a guy named Matt Stewart. And Matt Stewart saw Colonel Sanders and a couple of Shell executives approaching. And Matt Stewart was painting over one of Colonel Sanders’ signs. He fired his gun at the three men, and he hit one of them and killed him. And then the Colonel grabbed his gun and fired back and knocked this guy down. He went to jail and he died under very mysterious circumstances.

EL: Wow, the guy who shot one of the three guys? That the Colonel shot at in self defense?

AC: Right. The legend is that one of the Shell executives paid off a deputy or a sheriff to kill the killer in jail. Which is amazing.

EL: Right, that was the stuff you can’t prove, so that’s why I wasn’t in the book.

AC: Right, exactly. I could only say the … You can only print the legend so many times before you get yourself into trouble. Even the rest of these fast food founders have these overwhelmingly similar stories. Glenn Bell of Taco Bell fame rode the rails looking for work, and they all served in the army. Al Copeland of Popeyes fame grew up in the first public housing unit, apartment, in the country.

EL: Tom Monaghan from Domino’s Pizza grew up in an orphanage in Ann Arbor, I believe.

AC: Exactly. That’s right. That’s right. There are so many of those stories. That’s one of the through lines. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, worked Saturday shift at McDonald’s. We talk about the American dream is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. We have all these characters. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda is another person who worked, Jay Leno, a lot of politicians. Paul Ryan talks about working at McDonald’s. And this all feeds into this ideology of, you start off at a McDonald’s, you work, you learn, you learn what it means to work hard, and you build up these skills, and you build up your ambition and then you go out into the world, you make a difference.

EL: And you told that story of the Pakistani immigrant, who started Church’s, was it?

AC: He started as a dishwasher at Church’s.

EL: What was his name?

AC: Aslam Khan. This is one of those amazing stories of someone who grew up in a village in Northwest Pakistan, with no electricity, no running water, and eventually made his way to a city. Worked in a US embassy club as a waiter. Came to the United States, thought “I can be a manager at this Church’s Chicken.” They looked at as experience and were not impressed despite having tons of service experience. So he said, “You know what? I’m going to start as a dishwasher.” And his favorite quote, of mine at least, was, “It took me 18 years to get to America and 13 years to become a millionaire.” And we love stories like this because this is what we’re taught from a young age. Is that this self-reliance myth, this pull yourself up by your bootstraps American ideology is something that we treat as a religion here. And it’s not as true as it once was. Obviously.

EL: No. That was what I was just about to say. If you look at the new chains. Shake Shack was started by Danny Meyer, whom I love, but he didn’t grow up in an orphanage.

AC: Right.

EL: Or even the guys from Sweetgreen, whom I also really admire, but these were children of the upper middle class for sure.

AC: Yes.

EL: Talking to Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. Do you think it’s still possible these days to grow a fast food operation by pulling yourself up from your bootstraps?

AC: I think it’s possible. I just think it’s so much harder. And even if you look at just the age … The trope of a teenager working for pocket money is something that people like to trot out a lot. You know, at a fast food restaurant. But the average age of a fast food worker is 26 or 29 depending on who you ask. And that’s not somebody who is probably in the same aspirational phase that you are when you’re a teenager. This is probably somebody trying to make a living, feed a family and have some stability. And so it’s much more difficult to imagine that person ascending with the same ease that you could 20 or 30 years ago.

EL: And McDonald’s has adopted all this mythology with this … Like with the ad about America’s best first job. With the kid being accepted into college. And in the book you actually talk about this elderly woman. Which I thought was a fascinating story because I didn’t think of that. And it’s like this woman just … Tell us about her, because she didn’t want to be lonely.

AC: Yeah, absolutely. There is something about fast food restaurants that I think exploring really brought out for me, which is that they are this place where anyone can go. The statistics back it up. 80% of Americans eat fast food every month, and 96% eat fast food every year, which is more people than participate on the internet. And the CDC wrings its hands a lot about over a third of Americans eat fast food every day. On a given day, over a third of America will eat fast food. But their status as places where anyone can go, where there’s no barrier to entry is really important. If you go to a place in a rural town, whether it’s a Dairy Queen, or a Burger King, or whatever it is, you’ll see people gathering at nine o’clock in the morning. Catching up with their friends over a cup of coffee. They can hang out as long as they want, and there’s no barrier to entry. It’s a special place in that way.

AC: And so in the book I talked to a 93 year old McDonald’s worker. Her name is Sarah Dappin, and she’d started working at McDonald’s when she was 87.

EL: So she was America’s best, one of the last jobs.

AC: Right, exactly. Exactly. And it’s surprising because a lot of seniors, or a lot of older Americans are going into work at fast food restaurants. Either to supplement their income because the safety net isn’t what it once was. Where you can continue working a low wage job and still get social security benefits. Also because younger Americans stopped working teenage shift jobs in the way that they used to. As they have collected internships or tried to move on to college and things like that. So fewer teens are working fast food jobs, and more seniors need these jobs.

AC: But also it’s not just a place for seniors to hang out or work. It’s a place for them to socialize. A senior center is not a place for intergenerational mingling. You are sectioned off by age, and it’s generally an unpleasant place to be by many accounts. A fast food restaurant is different. You have all ages there, you have all ethnicities, all groups just doing whatever it is they want to do there. And that means of sense of community, even if it’s kind of a haphazardly set community.

EL: Yeah, it’s fascinating because after reading the book, I realized that fast food joints are really the ultimate third places in American culture. The most democratic third places, and by a third place we mean the place people congregate besides work and home.

AC: Exactly.

EL: Right? The third place was actually Ray Oldenburg’s book and it was actually called The Great Good Place, and it was published in 1989. You also talk about the role that fast food plays in the inner city. And I was fascinated by that because one of the things that you pointed out was that in Watts after the riots that the McDonald’s were not touched. And I thought that was a strong signal, right? That McDonald’s had come to mean almost a safe gathering place and wasn’t seen as this exploitative business.

AC: Exactly. The story is that in the 1992 Watts riots, there was a huge five-mile riot and fire zone where almost all the businesses were destroyed, and the ones that were left standing where the McDonald’s, and black-owned businesses, Korean-owned businesses. A lot of different businesses went up in flames, or were destroyed or looted, and the McDonald’s were somehow spared. And it’s funny because there’s actually a … Snopes, the internet debunking site had to create an entry because this seems like such an urban myth, but it’s actually true. It is fascinating to see these places just because they welcome everybody, broadly speaking, as a place where you can go even in a time of crisis. So I went to the McDonald’s in Ferguson-

EL: Right, because you talk about Ferguson, right, which was many years obviously after the Watts riot. And again, the one place that wasn’t looted or set on fire or whatever, was the McDonald’s. And Ferguson, which is where Michael Brown died.

AC: Right. Even in New York, we had Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park. The Burger King and the McDonald’s there served as a place for the activists to meet or hang out when it got rainy or cold. And they were welcomed in there. No one was shutting them out. They needed to use the bathrooms. They wanted to get a meal. And so again, it serves as this third place, even under extraordinary circumstances. Forgetting the totally banal, regular, everyday life things, even in a moment of crisis, it is a place where people go.

EL:Yeah. You wrote in the last chapter, you described fast food as addictive, unnatural, majestic, and gratifying. Which I thought was a wonderful juxtaposition of adjectives to describe fast food. What did you mean by them?

AC: Well, it’s hard to be universally in love with fast food. It’s such a complicated thing and it’s representative of so many things that are negative about American society and reflective of bad policymaking, and of an inequality. But it also has this fun, imaginative spirit. There’s so much ritual and comfort tied up in the experience of eating fast food, and it really is this equalizer, in a way, that’s really poignant, at least I feel. And walking around different places, talking to people, everyone has a story about when and where they used to go, or where and when they still go. Whether it’s, I’m going to the airport and I’m going to have something before I get on a plane. That’s my go-to. Or, every summer I go back to this place called Maid-Rite in Iowa, which has a loose beef sandwich, which is delicious.

EL: I went to Cornell College. I know all about Maid-Rites.

AC: Exactly. Exactly.

EL: I’m not sure they’re delicious, but they’re iconic.

AC: That should be a tagline for most fast food. “I’m not sure it’s delicious, but it’s iconic.” Yeah. Even chicken nuggets over the years. But it’s really fun to have a common reference point, and there are so few common reference points, especially today. Media is fracturing. Politics are fractured. There are so few ways to engage with people, but fast food is one of those monoliths that really provide a baseline. So I love having conversations with people about it. A lot of writers get tired of their topics, but the stories I hear on the road of people who … Or people who just email me out of the blue to tell me a story about what was meaningful to them. It never fails to surprise me, and it also makes me feel great. I can relate to it. And you can’t ask for more than that.

EL: Yeah, sounds like you actually still have more to say about fast food.

AC: Well this is why I need an editor, which is important, because I could have written 400 more pages about all the random aspects of it, and the things that I think are fascinations of mine, and maybe not fascinations of others. But yeah, it’s an endless universe. You have to draw a line somewhere. There are so many different chains. I’ve gotten emails from people who told me, “You didn’t write about my three-chain burger joint in Southern North Dakota.” Or something like that. That I couldn’t have found and nobody would’ve recognized. But I did my best. But I also think that you have to draw a line at a certain point, because I could talk about this forever. It’s an endless universe. Everyone has amazing … There are so many commercials over the years. There’s so many mythologies over the years. There are so many different aspects of the universe. It’s huge.

EL: A lot of people don’t know that Dr. John did all those Popeyes ads.

AC: Right.

EL: Which is awesome. I produced a couple of Dr. John’s solo albums.

AC: Oh my God. Are you serious? That’s amazing. RIP Dr. John.

EL: So you wrote this great paragraph on the, I think, it’s second last page in the book where you say, “As the social fibers fray, as fights are waged in impersonal isolation, thicketed by social, digital, geographic and economic divisions, there will be fast food. As diners fluent in the pieties about ethical food systems watch someone with no paid sick leave and no health insurance meticulously stir their $22 polenta, as the fast-casual quinoa dispensaries go cashless and leave more people behind, there will be fast food. Against our better interests and angels, there will be fast food.”

EL: Come on man. That’s good. You’re good. You’re good man.

AC: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And again, this is an editor shaping a lot of jibberish into those beautiful paragraphs. I can’t take full credit, but thank you. I appreciate that.

EL: A good editor, for Serious Eater I had this 25 year old wunderkind editor at Penguin Portfolio, and it made all the difference in the world. It was just like … Because I was like you, especially you’re writing a memoir. I could write 300 more pages about my life. I don’t know that anyone would be interested. But it’s true. And by the way, it’s not always true, as we know, as writers about editors. There are editors who make your writing better. There are editors who make your writing the same. And then there are more often than not, there are editors who make your writing worse.

AC: It’s true, it’s true. But we have to celebrate the good ones and hope that the others … I also have done a fair share of editing. So I’ve tried my best in tough circumstances, and circumstances for editors are only getting harder these days.

EL: Yeah, it’s true.

AC: So I respect the work they do and no matter what.

EL: So now it’s time for the Special Sauce All-You-Can-Answer Buffet. So who’s at your last supper? No family allowed.

AC: How many do I choose?

EL: Yeah, four or five.

AC: Four or five. Okay. Well I’m going to, right off the bat, Colonel Sanders has to be there.

EL: That was a given. That was a given. That doesn’t even count.

AC: Well he’s this great storyteller and he’s such a maniac. And also the food would be phenomenal. I assume that he would go back into the kitchen and make some things happen. So he would absolutely be there, such a fascinating figure. Many books have been written about him. Joshua Ozersky wrote a really great book about him called The Colonel. So I would absolutely put the Colonel at the table.

AC: I’m going to tell on myself here. Phillip Roth is obviously a huge influence on me as a reader and as a writer. I would love to have him laugh at the Colonel’s jokes and tell some of his own. Let’s see. No family. It’s so hard. Bum Phillips is an old Texas football coach that I grew up kind of idolizing, so he would absolutely be in the mix.

EL: All right. Bum Phillips, Philip Roth, and Colonel Sanders.

AC: Oh God, this is so terrible. Bella Abzug I’m just going to throw that in there just to-

EL: I need to come to this.

AC: This would be a lot of fun. You know, you need a real mix of political and spiritual minds.

EL: How about music?

AC: Music?

EL: You did write about Billy Joel in a hilarious way.

AC: I love Billy Joel. I don’t think-

EL: But I don’t know if you’d want him there.

AC: I don’t think I want him at dinner. I think that would be … I don’t think that would be fun for a lot of people.

EL: What about Nina Simone?

AC: Nina Simone. I love Nina Simone. I’ve written about Nina Simone. I don’t think she would enjoy the table to be honest. I think she-

EL: She didn’t enjoy a lot of things.

AC: Yeah. I don’t think she would love that table that I’ve assembled here, and neither would Fiona Apple, who I also like. Kacey Musgraves, she’s great.

EL: All right.

AC: I think that would be the right note between pop, country, and all of the things kind of contained at this table.

EL: Got it. I love this table. What are you eating?

AC: We are eating … Well if the Colonel’s cooking, we’re eating fried chicken. Although someone … I read somewhere that his actual favorite food was hamburgers. That’s a whispered legend. I don’t know if that’s actually true. Yeah, I think it’s going to be a cheeseburger. Cheeseburger is my go-to the way that people … I’ll have a cheeseburger when I’m hungry the way that people will have a slice of pizza when they’re hungry.

EL: Right. All right.

AC: So probably a burger.

EL: Are there fries?

AC: Oh sure.

EL: Okay.

AC: Have to be.

EL: And what’s for dessert?

AC: Dessert-

EL: McFlurries for all?

AC: Someone recently made fun of me, because I said one of my favorite desserts is a sugar cookie. Just the simplicity of it really does it for me, and I’m not even trying to be precious about it. I grew up eating sugar cookies. And apple pie is also and a tarte tatin or something like that.

EL: So what are you listening to?

AC: I’m trying to think of what would go well with this crowd. This is where the guilty, neurotic, Jewish entertainer in me comes out because I’m … The music that I would put on at a dinner party is not the music that I think everyone would necessarily like.

EL: That’s okay. Just what would the music that you would put on?

AC: Oh boy.

EL: It’s your last supper.

AC: Yeah, you’re right. It is my last supper. It is my last supper. I’d probably put on some George Harrison. I think that’s probably what I would end up doing. I feel like that’s a nice melancholy way to lead myself out of this life.

EL: Pre-Beatles or post-Beatles?

AC: Post-Beatles. He recorded all those tracks that the Beatles didn’t want, and it became Beware of Darkness, which is one of the greatest albums I think ever made. It’s just a compilation of all these amazing songs that the Beatles were like, “We don’t really want that.” So I think that would probably be on the list.

EL: Traveling Wilburys songs might be on the list?

AC: Yeah, sure. I mean that gets me everybody. That gets me a big collection of people. So that would be fun.

EL: So give me three books that have influenced your life.

AC: Three books, Sabbath’s Theater.

EL: I can’t believe, I actually just read Sabbath’s Theater, which is this Philip Roth book that may be wildly funny and alternately disgusting.

AC: Yes, absolutely. I think that that’s just like looking at a master craft, sort of a perfect bookshelf. Everything about that is so strong.

EL: All right, so there’s one.

AC: Willa Cather, My Antonia I think is a classic. Brilliant. She’s a wonderful writer. And I’m going to go with The Art of Fielding.

EL: The Art of Fielding?

AC: Yeah, sure.

EL: Which is a recent novel by …

AC: Chad Harbach. I could list so many others. Again, it’s sort of like … I think of this as Desert Island things that I have to have to carry me through boredom. I think those would be three great ways to go.

EL: That’s good. And what about a nonfiction writer that’s influenced your work?

AC: I have to shout out David Samuels who writes about anything and everything from politics to art. He is a really great mind and has kind of been a mentor of mine.

EL: Where can people read his stuff?

AC: New Yorker, he wrote this great article about these jewel thieves that he called “The Pink Panthers” that are the terrorizing central and Eastern Europe. And it’s an amazing story. He wrote a really great piece in Harper’s about the Bronx Zoo, the weird history of the Bronx Zoo. He recently wrote a something for … I forget where it was, but it was about Los Angeles’ doughnut scene. Sort of an ethnography of Los Angeles donuts, which is really, really cool and something you never think about. So he’s a big favorite of mine.

EL: Yeah. So it’s just been declared Adam Chandler Day, all over the world. What’s happening on that day?

AC: Well, a lot of people are confused because Adam Chandler is the name of a famous soap opera character.

EL: This is true. I discovered that when I first googled you.

AC: Right. So there are a lot of affairs happening. There’s a lot of fratricide and all kinds of things. It’s chaos. It’s pure chaos. That’s what’s happening on Adam Chandler day. He had, I think, four or five marriages and eight or nine kids, five of whom survived. So for the soap opera set, that’s total anarchy. And for the younger set, I think there’s a confusion about whether it’s meant to be Adam Sandler Day, which is another one that I have to live with. So other than that, whatever else happens on Adam Chandler day is definitely sitting on a couch ordering Seamless, feeling guilty about both of those things, and then maybe going outside for a walk. And hopefully getting some writing done.

EL: Got it. All right.

AC: It’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun.

EL: So, but everyone’s writing and ordering Seamless, or just you?

AC: I like to imagine everybody having a good day while I’m doing that.

EL: Got it.

AC: That’s what I hope is happening. But if everyone wants a flavor of what my life is often like, that’s what happens on Adam Chandler Day.

EL: Got it. So thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Adam Chandler.

AC: Thank you for having me.

EL: Not the soap opera star. By all means, check out Drive-Thru Dreams. As I said, it’s probably my favorite book about fast food of all time. It’s really awesome.

AC: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

EL: And now it’s time to head over to the Serious Eats’ test kitchen, where our pastry wizard Stella Parks, author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, will lead us through the creation of a killer confection.

EL: By the way, no need to take notes. Her detailed recipe is at seriouseats.com along with a video.

Stella Parks: Toasted sugar is a form of light caramel made by heating plain white sugar in a low oven for several hours. The result is a golden sugar that tastes less sweet with a toasty caramel flavor that can range from light and subtle, to dark and nutty. Basically you can use toasted sugar in any recipe that calls for white sugar. It’s a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes.

SP: This is some specific directions for toasting a four pound bag of sugar. I’m pretty specific about the amount of sugar and the pan size. And the reason is, you can make a really big mess otherwise. So the key is to use a 9 X 13 glass or ceramic baking dish, not metal. If it’s metal, it’s going to cook too fast around the edges and heat too much, and the sugar’s going to liquefy and turn to a very dark camel around the sides. We don’t want that.

SP: So just spread it into an even layer. If you see any lumps that are in the sugar, you can kind of mash them out, but they’ll work themselves out over time anyway. Once that’s done, I’m going to pop it into a 300 degree oven and I’m going to let it go for five or six hours. You don’t have to let it go that long. You can go anywhere from two to four hours, longer, shorter. Two hours is what I consider a good minimum for a four pound bag of sugar. Water is produced as a byproduct of this transformation, so it’s important to stir the sugar frequently and thoroughly to give the steam a chance to escape. Otherwise the steam will be reabsorbed by the sugar causing it to clump and harden, or even melt.

SP: Four pounds of heaviness. Okay, so when stirring the sugar, the goal is to get all of the really hot sugar from the edges, away from the edges and into the middle. And the sugar that’s not as hot in the middle towards the edges. So it’s not just wiggling the spoon in there, that’s not really enough. You want to really stir it around.

SP: So it’s been five hours. It’s very toasty. It’s actually on the verge of wanting to start to clump and melt. The toastier the sugar gets, the more it needs stirring and the more the steam needs to escape. We want to cool the sugar to complete room temperature before we put it away for storage. As long as it’s warm, it’s a sign it may be holding onto some steam still, and that will cause it to clump and harden in storage. But as long as it’s cooled completely and stirred, so the steam can be released, then it will store granular, and dry, and easy to use.

EL: Again, details of Stella Parks’ recipe are at seriouseats.com. More from our test kitchen next time.

EL: I’m Ed Levine and that’s Special Sauce for today. Do send in those questions for Kenji. The address is, [email protected] Thanks for listening and see you next time, serious eaters.

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