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Malcolm Gladwell Only Drinks Five Liquids «

Dan Pashman: So you grew up in Elmira, Ontario. 

Malcom Gladwell: I did. 

Dan Pashman: Elmira hosts what claims to be the world’s largest one day maple syrup festival.

Malcom Gladwell: This is true.

Dan Pashman: Can you tell me about that?

Malcom Gladwell: For some reason that I, that I don’t know, this little town that I grew up in decided it was going to own maple syrup in the way that Los Angeles owns the Oscars.

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]

Malcom Gladwell: And I went through years of these and the point of the maple syrup festival always eluded me. It’s April, which is a very nasty time of year in that part of the world. It’s like slushy. It could get really cold. It could be freezing rain.

Dan Pashman: Did you, as a kid, did you make maple taffy in the snow?

Malcom Gladwell: No.

Dan Pashman: Do you know what that is?

Malcom Gladwell: I … I am aware of it, yes. I had a general disdain for all maple based products. I’ll be honest with you.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Now the truth comes out.


Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. I hope you’re doing well. I hope the rest of your summer wrapped up nicely. I hope you’re getting back into the swing of school and work and real life and whatever it is you do when it’s not summer time. Today on the show, I’m sitting down with Malcolm Gladwell. He’s a journalist and the author of many books including The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. He also hosts the podcast Revisionist History, which reexamines the past, and asks whether we got things right the first time around. 

Dan Pashman: Malcolm often draws on sociology and psychology in his work to explain big phenomena. But he likes to approach his subjects in new ways, looking at them from an outsider’s perspective, revealing something new in the process. And he often applies this approach to food — he’ll do that for us today. But first, I wanted to talk to him as an eater.

Dan Pashman: So, back to Malcolm’s feelings about maple syrup. It came to symbolize something bigger for him. He and his family were immigrants. He was born in England in 1963, his dad is English, his mom’s Jamaican. They moved to Canada when Malcolm was six, settling in Elmira, a small rural town about 90 minutes west of Toronto.

Malcom Gladwell: And at that point, the strongest memory I have as a child is showing up in Elmira and coming to the conclusion that every Canadian ritual that I observed, I was too late for. All the boys my age had already been playing hockey for two years. So I never even learned how to — barely learned how to skate, which was, I mean, heresy beyond words in Southern Ontario. And I felt the same way about maple syrup, that it was a kind of, we were never gonna be part of maple syrup culture. We were gonna be perennially outsiders. 

Dan Pashman: Do you feel like that outsider’s mentality was formative for you?

Malcom Gladwell: Oh, absolutely. Of course. It’s the most useful of all — I mean, it allows you — it gives you a little critical distance. It gives you a plausible deniability for not having to go to the maple syrup festival.

Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS] So you weren’t really Canadian, didn’t feel Canadian. You were immigrants. Your father is English, your mother’s Jamaican.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: So what was the food like in your house?

Malcom Gladwell: Well, okay. So there’s all kinds of complicated food things. My father is — has an enormous garden. Enormous. He produces so many vegetables that he has to appeal to everyone at church to come and pick their own, cause otherwise it would be swamped. His goal is never to buy a vegetable from the grocery store. So everything is canned, frozen. And he has a kind of disdain for anyone’s cooking but my mother’s. So we never really go out to dinner. We would eat a lot of Jamaican food, except the great Jamaican influx to Canada is really mid- to late seventies. And so you don’t get — you don’t get yam, sweet potato. You don’t get goat. You don’t get all the things that you would need to make real Jamaican food.

Dan Pashman: Did you get scotch bonnet peppers? 

Malcom Gladwell: I think scotch bonnet’s a ‘90s phenomenon by the time — you know, it’s like … 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Malcom Gladwell: So we, my mother had a very limited Jamaican food palette. She would mix that up with very English kind of things like jerk chicken and shepherd’s pie. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Malcom Gladwell: That kind of thing.

Dan Pashman: The region of Canada where Malcolm grew up was home to a lot of fairly recent German immigrants, as well as many Mennonites who spoke German but were from Eastern Europe. Malcolm says the area had 14 churches for 4,000 people. 

Dan Pashman: Eventually, the Gladwells became Mennonite themselves. Now the term Mennonite covers a range of beliefs and practices. There’s Old Order Mennonites, who live similarly to the Amish, not using certain technology and dressing distinctively. And there are mainline Mennonites, like Malcolm’s family. They dress in more modern styles and use technology. Church was a big part of Malcolm’s childhood, which meant lots of church potlucks.

Malcom Gladwell: What was eaten everywhere you went was this very heavy, essentially Eastern European peasant food. You know, casseroles, shoofly pie. I can’t tell you what that is, but it was a very big deal. 

Dan Pashman: I looked it up. It’s a pie with filling made out of brown sugar, cinnamon, and molasses. Usually, withe a crumb topping. In some ways, it’s similar to chess pie or sugar cream pie. They’re all very simple sweet custardy fillings, but the molasses in shoofly pie makes the filling dark and a little smoky in flavor. 

Malcom Gladwell: You know, Mennonites, if you’re barn burned down, they would’ve a barn raising and they would put up a new barn in a day and hundreds of people would descend on their neighbor. And my dad decided to join in one day. So understand that he’s a math professor … 


Malcom Gladwell: And he just — he gets in his Volvo and drives to this Mennonite farm, an old order Menonnite farm. 

Dan Pashman: Oh, those are the ones who are more similar to Amish. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yes. They’re essentially Amish without beards. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: So everyone is showing up in a horse and buggy. He shows up in a driving a Volvo in a beard with his three boys wearing a tie, cause he always wore a tie, and he just volunteered. And of course, they welcomed — you know, the Mennonites are totally welcoming, so everyone would’ve brought a dish. And it was the kind of apotheosis of Eastern European peasant food. All the stuff that — like, you know, salads with jello in them. And …

Dan Pashman: You’re talking like ham and pea type salads?

Malcom Gladwell: Lots of ham. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Malcom Gladwell: And peas. Yes. Yes. That kind of …

Dan Pashman: Right. And I’m picturing like sausages and sauerkraut, or is that wrong?

Malcom Gladwell: Oh yeah, we do — no, you’re absolutely right. 

Dan Pashman: Okay, a lot of sausages. 

Malcom Gladwell: So a lot of sausage, a ton of sauerkraut. Dessert would’ve been this shoofly pie. A lot of molasses, I feel like, going on. My dad, by the way, just thought the whole thing was fantastic. There could not have been greater cultural distance between him and the people barn raising and he could not have been more comfortable. 


Dan Pashman: So fast forward to today, I understand that when it comes to food today, you have some rules for yourself. Tell me about the rules for drinks.

Malcom Gladwell: Well, it strikes me that an enormous amount of unnecessary effort is expended by people and making decisions about what to eat and drink. Right? So you go out to dinner. Maybe you’re one of these people to do this? I don’t know. You go out to some restaurant. The waiter comes around and someone at the table is agonizing about what to order. And like, I — if you can’t decode a menu in an acceptable period of time, how do you fare with life? 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Malcom Gladwell: Where the choices are infinite. So years and years and years of observing this just left me really filled with a kind of quiet rage. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Malcom Gladwell: Why can’t you make up your mind?

Dan Pashman: I decided not to tell Malcolm that before I go out to eat, I plan out multiple meals in advance. I don’t want to duplicate flavors. And I also want to optimize my hunger level. I also typically review the menu multiple times before arriving. And that despite this preparation, in a recent Sporkful episode taped in a restaurant, I had a minor breakdown trying to figure out what to order, but we’ll keep that between us. Anyway, back to Malcolm’s approach to drinks:

Malcom Gladwell: And simultaneously it occurred to me that as a society, as a culture, human beings have enormous problems with alcohol. So drinking struck me as something that you really do need rules. So I decided I want to have some conventions to make sure I’m never that annoying person who’s agonizing about the menu. So I decided my rules would be around what I drink and they would govern both alcohol and everything, really. So my drinking rules were, I will only ever consume one of five liquids. Water in its various forms. So I’ll have sparkling. I love sparkling.

Dan Pashman: What about sparkling with like natural flavors, like a La Croix?

Malcom Gladwell: No! 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: First of all, that’s an abomination. That whole thing that you — and sometimes when you go into some — you go into some gas station, all you want is a thing of sparkling water and there’s nothing except for the ones that are flavored with cranberry flavored — wait, who dreamt this up? This is nuts.

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Malcom Gladwell: No. 

Dan Pashman: Okay, so — 

Malcom Gladwell: Water.

Dan Pashman: So still or sparkling, but not flavored.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. If I had — if I wanted flavored, I would’ve said flavored. The convention would’ve specified flavored.

Dan Pashman: What if you order it and it comes with a wedge of lime on the glass, will you squeeze that in?

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah, that’s fine.           

Dan Pashman: Well, what’s the difference, Malcolm?

Malcom Gladwell: No, cause that’s extrinsic. And by the way, that is a traditional … There’s, you know, to quote the Supreme court, what does the Supreme court like? They say that when they look for guidance as to how to deal with the most problematic issues and of our time, they look for things that have some rooting in American tradition. Right? 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: Well, the Supreme court would say the wedge of lime is fine because the wedge of lime is deeply rooted in culinary tradition.

Dan Pashman: You’re saying the the framers would recognize …

Malcom Gladwell: The framer’s would’ve …. would’ve used a slice. 

Dan Pashman: The wedge of lime. 

Malcom Gladwell: Absolutely. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: You know what? They’re not flavoring cranberry, putting cranberry in their water, are they?

Dan Pashman: No, but, you know, new — look, new interpretations arise over time, but …

Malcom Gladwell: I’m a strict constructionist.

Dan Pashman: You’re a strict constructionist. Okay, got it. 

Malcom Gladwell: Strict constructionist. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. All right. All right. Look, that’s fair. I’m a strict sandwich constructionist.  

Malcom Gladwell: Oh, you are?

Dan Pashman: Yes, I have argued that a hot dog is a sandwich.

Malcom Gladwell: Interesting.

Dan Pashman: Because I believe that, you know, a sandwich — the definition of a sandwich, generally speaking, should be like, would the Earl of sandwich recognize it as a sandwich? 

Malcom Gladwell: Ah, interesting. 

Dan Pashman: And like how would he have defined a sandwich? And like, that is where it should flow from. 

Malcom Gladwell: Okay. 

Dan Pashman: So, water.

Malcom Gladwell: Water.

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: Tea.

Dan Pashman: Okay.

Malcom Gladwell: I’m born in England.

Dan Pashman: Any kind of tea?

Malcom Gladwell: Well, no. I don’t believe in chamomile tea — I mean, these kind of like farkakte, you know, ridiculous, newfangled … 

Dan Pashman: They’re like herbal infusion type things.

Malcom Gladwell: No. That’s nonsense. Black teas. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. Caffeinated?

Malcom Gladwell: Caffeinated black teas. What I don’t believe in is Earl Grey. Earl Grey is a bridge too far. My mother will drink Earl Grey and I just find this — I don’t know what — this is an abrogation. They do something to the Earl Grey. They perfume it. Right? And I find that to be increasingly problematic. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: So, tea. Espresso in some form.

Dan Pashman: So that could be cappuccino.

Malcom Gladwell: Cappuccino. Generally, I’ll have a cappuccino. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: Because number four is milk.

Dan Pashman: You’ll just drink like a glass of milk sometimes?

Malcom Gladwell: No. Typically, I only have milk in with espresso.

Dan Pashman: You realize that if you just said that your drink was cappuccino, you could open up another space on the list. If you combine the espresso and the milk into one, you’d have a new slot.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah, but I put milk in my tea.

Dan Pashman: That just seems like tea though. That’s just like part of — that’s a seasoning.

Malcom Gladwell: No, no, no. No, there — now there, my father, were he with us today, would’ve taken great umbrage of that last comment. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] 

Malcom Gladwell: You know, cause you know the English, there — the class thing around, whether your whether your milk goes in first or last.

Dan Pashman: I don’t know about that. No.

Malcom Gladwell: In England, it’s a class marker. If you’re fancy, you add the milk after you’ve poured the tea. And the way that snooty English people make fun of lower class English people is they refer to them as being very M.I.F., milk in first.

Dan Pashman: Oh, ouch.

Malcom Gladwell: It’s nasty. So my father, who was firmly middle class and has a — as a result, I think appropriately had a chip on his shoulder towards fancy English people, firmly embraced milk in first. In fact, referred to himself, not as an M.I.F.-er, but as a pre-lactarian.  

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING] Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: And he would say, if you put the milk in first, it’s much easier to calibrate the amount of milk you’re putting in. 

Dan Pashman: I have argued that when you’re low on milk for cereal, that it’s good to add the milk first before they pour the cereal in, because that way you can get the correct ratio. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Because you’ll … 

Malcom Gladwell: You’re a pre-lactarian.

Dan Pashman: Yes. When it comes to cereal. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah, pre-lactarian.

Dan Pashman: Only in specific circumstances. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah, you’re a pre-lactarian.

Dan Pashman: All right. So …

Malcom Gladwell: Tea.

Dan Pashman: Water, tea, milk …

Malcom Gladwell: Espresso, 

Dan Pashman: Espresso.

Malcom Gladwell: Not — by the way, I never have a straight cup of coffee. 

Dan Pashman: Okay. 

Malcom Gladwell: Only espresso.

Dan Pashman: All right.

Malcom Gladwell: And the last one is red wine. I resolved the great human conundrum around alcohol, by saying I’m only doing one kind of alcohol ever. And I even get more specific in that, that I will only drink red wine that is below 13.5 percent alcohol.

Dan Pashman: So these are your five drinks. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: You remind me of that — you probably read that years ago there’s a Michael Lewis wrote a piece in Vanity Fair profile of Obama. And he talked about how he had read research. Obama had read research that you — if you have to make a lot of decisions in a day, over the course of the day, your ability to make decisions is degraded. This is why like going shopping can be very stressful and tiring to people because you have to make so many decisions. So Obama said, “I’m not gonna make any decisions about what I wear or what I eat. I’m saving my decisions for the important stuff.” You know, like this is why I would not be a good president though. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: Because I’d be like, you know, I, I don’t know what to do about Ukraine. I used up all my decisions on lunch. [LAUGHS] But isn’t it really, Malcolm, isn’t it really a question of priorities? Because there must be some decisions that you do agonize over?

Malcom Gladwell: Not an agonizer. 

Dan Pashman: Really?

Malcom Gladwell: Not an agonizer. 

Dan Pashman: Even in your creative work, when you write, when you put a podcast together, you don’t take a lot of time? You’re not very conscientious with all the decisions that need to be made in the course of putting something together?

Malcom Gladwell: They don’t feel like decisions in the same way that decoding a menu does. So the thing about a menu or the list of drinks you get at a bar is that it is a you’re presented with a finite list of options and you have to pick one. That’s not what the creative process is. The creative process is not, I got six things I can do with this story at this point. I’m gonna pick number four. That’s not what it is. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Malcom Gladwell: There are no options. You have to dream them up yourself. And so that does — that seems like a very, very different kind of cognitive work to me.

Dan Pashman: Mm-hmm. Just so I understand the list of five of five liquids.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: Do you ever deviate from it?

Malcom Gladwell: It’s funny you say that. I reserve the right to occasionally experiment outside of my — so if you had seen me last Friday night at a restaurant and you would’ve said, Malcolm, what are you drinking? I would’ve said, oh, that’s a vodka and tonic.

Dan Pashman: Record scratch. 

Malcom Gladwell: It was the exception that proves the rule. One of my favorite aphorisms of all time, the exception that proves the rule implies that a rule is never absolute. Right? The reason we make rules is to try and generalize about a vast array of phenomenon. And we accept when we enter into rule making that the rules we come up with are not a hundred percent. They’re not inclusive of all experience. Right? So the fact that I was willing to venture for that one night out in a direction of vodka and tonic was the exception that proved my rule. I was adhering to my rules by my very recognition that I was breaking them. 

Dan Pashman: But like, if you came over to my house for a barbecue. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: You were in my backyard. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: It’s 95 degrees out.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: And I was like, “Hey Malcolm, can I get you a nice cold, tall glass of lemonade? I made it. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. Fresh squeezed. How about a lemonade?”

Malcom Gladwell: No.

Dan Pashman: What do you drink, milk? It’s 95 degrees out.

Malcom Gladwell: Water.

Dan Pashman: And you don’t … you don’t … you don’t feel any tinge of regret or that you don’t feel like you’re missing something in life?

Malcom Gladwell: I walked away from those options a long time ago.

Dan Pashman: And you’re at peace with that?   

Malcom Gladwell: I’m at peace with that.  

Dan Pashman: You said that it’s about decisions. You like these rules because it frees you up from having to make decisions. 

Malcom Gladwell: Mm-hmm. 

Dan Pashman: Is there also part of you that just likes rigidity, that likes structure? 

Malcom Gladwell: So I think we forget how freeing certain kinds of constraints can be. You know, anyone who’s ever done any creative work sooner or later comes to the conclusion that constraints are incredibly useful. Telling someone they only have this much to spend or this much time, you know, it has to be this long — throughout my entire writing career, whenever I got an assignment, the absolute first question I ask is how long is it? How long does the thing have to be? From there, everything flows. 

Dan Pashman: Right.

Malcom Gladwell: Part of this as well, you know, I’m a runner, a relatively serious runner. And serious running requires an enormous amount of self-imposed structure. Right? I had to figure out, you know, it’s a Tuesday, it’s five below, outside. I have to do the following workout. It must be done today. When am I gonna do it? 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Malcom Gladwell: And I got 17 things that are due and I’ve got, you know, blah, blah, blah. And I gotta go do the grocery shopping. And there’s some pleasures that you can’t gain unless you’re willing to be super structured.


Dan Pashman: Coming up, we look into the surprising origins of chunky tomato sauce and the tragic story of McDonald’s french fries. And I ask: Where does pleasure fit into the structured life of Malcolm Gladwell? Stick around. 






Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. In last week’s show I go out for a slice of pizza with Scott Wiener, who runs Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. This guy is so into pizza that if he sees a paper plate on the sidewalk, he can tell which pizzeria it came from, by the exact dimensions of the grease outline on the plate, where the slice used to be. He also has the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of pizza boxes. So naturally, I wondered how Scott’s pizza obsession affects his dating life …

CLIP (SCOTT WIENER): I’m very conscious of the fact that my job and my whole lifestyle and this whole world is unique. So I don’t like that to run a whole conversation. But I’m — I also know that it’s very much truly me. So it’s okay if I’m getting to know somebody, they will need to know this at some point. 


CLIP (SCOTT WIENER): But maybe not the first five minutes of like …

CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right, right, right. 

CLIP (SCOTT WIENER): Hey how you doing? Hey I gotta tell you about this pizza I saw yesterday. Listen to this …


CLIP (SCOTT WIENER): They were using bituminous coal. I can’t believe it either!

Dan Pashman: This is a super conversation, and if you want to hear me agonize over what to order when Scott and I head to his local pizza shop, that one’s up now.

Dan Pashman: Okay. Back to my conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. As you heard, Malcolm grew up feeling like an outsider in his rural Ontario town. When he began writing, he turned that outsider’s eye on his subjects, which sometimes include the food industry. One of his personal heroes is a man named Howard Moskowitz. Howard’s a market researcher whose legacy began in the early ’70s, when Pepsi asked him to figure out how much aspartame they should put in Diet Pepsi.

Dan Pashman: So he ran a bunch of taste tests to see how much sweetener most people wanted. But when the data came back, it was all over the place. There was no clear favorite. Howard didn’t get it.

CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): And one day he was sitting in a diner and suddenly like a bolt of lightning, the answer came to him. 

Dan Pashman: This is Malcolm giving a TED talk years ago about Howard Moskowitz. 

CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): When they analyzed the Diet Pepsi data, they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.

Dan Pashman: What Howard discovered was that there was no magical level of sweetness. Different people like different things. Now, that might sound obvious, but at the time this was a revolutionary concept in the food world. 

CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): Howard confronted the notion of the platonic dish. What do I mean by that? For the longest time in the food industry, there was a sense that there was one way, a perfect way to make a dish.         

Dan Pashman: This old idea that there was one best way to make a food product also extended to tomato sauce. For years, restaurants and food producers primarily sold blended, thin tomato sauces. So when Prego asked Howard to help them revamp their sauce, he saw his chance to confront the notion of the platonic dish. He made batches of every variation of tomato sauce you could possibly think up — thin, zesty, garlicky, spicy, chunky, creamy. And when the data came back, it was once again all over the place. But instead of trying to identify one favorite, Howard sorted the data into groups. And what he found is that there are three primary ways people like their sauce: thin, spicy, and extra chunky.     

Dan Pashman: And that last one, extra chunky, that was significant because there was no extra chunky tomato sauce on the market at the time. Roughly a third of consumers craved chunky tomato sauce, but no company was making it. And what’s especially fascinating to me is that consumers weren’t explicitly asking for it. People didn’t even realize this was a thing they wanted. But when presented with chunky tomato sauce, they went crazy for it.

CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): People don’t know what they want. Right? As Howard loves to say, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants,” it’s a mystery. And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and taste is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down. 

Dan Pashman: Do you think that’s generally true with all kinds of things beyond food?

Malcom Gladwell: Oh, yeah. So this is actually a — there’s a lot of literature on this in psychology. So I, once in one of my books, I think it was Blink, had a whole chapter on the problem with market research. So you have a movie, you show it to a test audience and you record their reaction to it. And what you find is that bad movies or bad TV shows get really low scores, but so do extraordinarily good ones, groundbreaking ones, innovative ones.

Malcom Gladwell: So all — you know, famously, Seinfeld got terrible scores from test audiences. And the problem there is that in a test, when a test audience is watching something, they — in the moments you can’t distinguish between dislike and unfamiliarity. So you’re responding to something and there’s a chance you hate it, but there’s also a chance you’ve just — it’s just something so new that you don’t know how you feel about it. So I was watching my daughter, who’s one. She picked up a wedge of lemon. And she put it in her mouth and she made this incredible face. She put it down again. Can’t believe I’m telling baby stories. This is like how far I’ve sunk. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Malcom Gladwell: And then she picked it up again and brought it back to her mouth. So this is actually a version of what I’m talking about. She can’t decide whether it’s new and unfamiliar and maybe that’s — maybe it’s something I’ll learn to love, she’s saying to herself, or it’s just something that’s horrible. 

Dan Pashman: Right. 

Malcom Gladwell: But that is a version of the mind knows not what the tongue wants.

Dan Pashman: The other big takeaway from the story of chunky tomato sauce and Howard Moskowitz is the idea that different people like different things.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. He’s really the guy who invents segmentation in food.

Dan Pashman: Right. This is why there’s now like 18 kinds of Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. He — that’s Howard. He gave us that world.

Dan Pashman: The original idea of tomato sauce, of what tomato sauce should be, as you say in your piece, was the “authentic style” of a thin Italian red sauce before chunky style came along.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: So, and I was interested in this use of this idea of authenticity, it’s something you’ve also talked about, like in your Taco Bell episode of your podcast. We all know that Taco Bell is not authentic Mexican food. But you sort of made an interesting point in that episode about Taco Bell having been accused of cultural appropriation, and the role that you think it plays in culture.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. Yeah. Taco Bell builds off the tradition of Mexican food and also introduces Mexican food or a version of it to a broad spectrum of American society that might never have known about it. Many Americans discovered Black music through Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley takes Black music, makes it acceptable to a large portion of American audiences who then get educated about it to the point where they start listening to Otis Redding or Al Green or Marvin Gaye or what have you. And they wouldn’t have gotten there, maybe not as quickly or maybe never at all, had there not been someone to interpret the tradition for them. 

Malcom Gladwell: And my argument was that Taco Bell was doing the same thing, that they were interpreting a tradition in a way that made it acceptable to the broad spectrum of American society, who could then turn around and experience the real thing. You’re not gonna hunt for the greatest food truck, Mexican food, taco in L.A., unless you have some familiarity with Mexican food beforehand. There is such a thing as appropriation, but there’s also such a thing as translation and interpretation, and those are different things. And I think it’s important for us to be able to distinguish between when someone’s just going in and ripping off a tradition and when someone is going in and transforming a tradition in a way that may ultimately end up benefiting the originator.

Dan Pashman: I hear what you’re saying. I think the part of that equation that I also note is that maybe you eventually get to the point where people are going to get the “real thing”, because they started with the kind of gateway interpretation.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: But I think also the other thing that happens is when you have that sort of gateway that introduces people to the cuisine, they form a certain expectation of what that cuisine’s gonna be. And it places pressure on the more authentic purveyors to compromise in order to attract that broader audience. And some of those compromises once they’re made, never get unmade because it becomes the prevailing way of doing things. And so yes, something is gained in that interpretation, but also something is lost. You’re gonna lose some amount of vernacular in a cuisine. And …

Malcom Gladwell: But you’re assuming that vernacular is something that’s static and that’s wrong if it changes, as opposed to looking on things like music and food as things that are in constant evolution. It’s clear to me with music. So Elvis comes along, takes R&B, which had been confined to the African American community, popularizes it, and then people start discovering the very artists that Elvis is “stealing from”. Right? Now did those artists end up “compromising”? A little bit. But now they’re making money. Now they’re reaching millions of people as opposed to thousands of people. So now maybe a better way of saying what they’re doing is not compromising, but they’re experimenting. They’re understanding they’re in a completely different market. 

Dan Pashman: Weren’t there a lot of Black musicians who around that time, a lot of them started doing covers of white hits?

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. And why not? My point is like: only good things, I think, ultimately come from cross pollination of cultures. That’s where real innovation starts to happen. So like the stuff is like circling the world so many times, it’s dizzying. Who’s authentic. I don’t know. It’s just a jumble and that’s why it’s so powerful and surprising and delightful. It’s like be respectful. But if you’re doing it with respect — maybe it’s because I am myself a jumble of cultural traditions that I’m — I have nothing but enthusiasm for this kind of like — I’m like, everybody climb in.


Dan Pashman: One more food story that Malcolm has talked about in recent years is what happened to McDonald’s french fries. This issue really hits home for him.

Malcom Gladwell: My father did not believe in McDonald’s. Never would permit us to go there. And there was no McDonald’s in my town. You had to go quite some distance to get to a McDonald’s. So it’s not until … I don’t think I have McDonald’s until I’m 14 and I had heard about the fries. I don’t think I’d even had — this is gonna sound unbelievable, but I don’t believe I’d had french fries ever until I had McDonald’s french fries at the age of 14.

Dan Pashman: So you’re saying your father had a lot of rigid food rules.


Malcom Gladwell: He would call them — he had a set of principles by which he lived his life. 

Dan Pashman: Okay.

Malcom Gladwell: He believed … 

Dan Pashman: How many different liquids did he consume?

Malcom Gladwell: Tea.

Dan Pashman: Okay.

Malcom Gladwell: Never had coffee, never had wine, never had beer, never had any hard liquor, tea, water, milk. 

Dan Pashman: Wow. 

Malcom Gladwell: Three. He’s a three. He’s a three-liquid guy.

Dan Pashman: Wow. So see, you’re really … you’re like psychedelic compared to him, Malcolm.

Malcom Gladwell: Oh, yeah. no, no. I’m like the Frank Zappa of liquids in my family. So I go, I think it was after track practice. We go to McDonald’s and … 

Dan Pashman: Like with a group of friends?

Malcom Gladwell: With a group of other runners and I think it’s safe to say my mind was blown. I had very little fried food growing up until that day when I experienced this kind of life altering moment. Young people today don’t understand that McDonald’s once had the greatest fries. I mean, they were the gold standard of fry. I mean, and then they ditched their fry recipe for no good reason. This is like a culinary U-turn of historic proportions. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Malcom Gladwell: I mean, it’s like —

Dan Pashman: It’s right up there with new Coke.

Malcom Gladwell: It … worse! 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] 

Malcom Gladwell: Worse! And now they we’ve been living with these sort of sodden also-rans ever since.

Dan Pashman: I’ll explain. Back in the late ‘70s, when Malcolm would’ve tried those fries for the first time, he was eating the original McDonald’s fries, made with the recipe created by the McDonald brothers. When businessman Ray Kroc got a taste of those fries, he said they were the #1 thing that convinced him to buy McDonald’s in the ’60s and transform it into the multibillion dollar company it is today. 

Dan Pashman: McDonald’s was built on those fries, which were fried in beef tallow — that’s rendered beef fat. It provides a super crispy exterior and a soft, creamy interior. But in the early ‘90s, that all changed … thanks to a guy named Phil Sokolof. He was a wealthy Nebraska businessman who became a crusader against saturated fats after suffering a heart attack at age 43. 

Dan Pashman: Phil took out ads in newspapers decrying fast food, and debated a McDonalds exec on Good Morning America. Eventually, Phil won. McDonalds caved. They changed the recipe and announced they would fry their french fries in a mixture of vegetable oils. The fries haven’t been the same since.     

Dan Pashman: The kicker is, not only did the vegetable oil result in what Malcolm thinks is an inferior fry, but research that came out years later showed vegetable oil has its own health risks. It probably isn’t any better for you than beef tallow. Malcolm made a whole episode about this on his podcast, Revisionist History. Here he is delivering his final verdict: 


CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): Now, do I hate Phil Sokolof? I’ve thought a lot about this in the intervening years and I’ve come to realize that I don’t hate him. He could have bought a yacht and a big house in a gated community in Florida and play golf. Instead, he took on McDonald’s in an attempt to make the world a healthier, better place. My hat is off to him.

Dan Pashman: That seems like a very generous reading. I mean, you talked to Phil’s daughter and she sort of says that he realized after the fact that the fries were not, not nearly as good. 

Malcom Gladwell: Mm-hmm. 

Dan Pashman: We now know that he didn’t make them any healthier.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. He didn’t know that.

Dan Pashman: He didn’t know that. Fair enough. Look, clearly, he had good intentions. All I’m saying is that if it hadn’t been for him on this sort of quixotic quest, then the fries wouldn’t have been changed, as your story puts forth.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: And so, how can you let him off the hook?

Malcom Gladwell: Because he is not a big corporation. McDonald’s is the one who is charged with the public responsibility of making great french fries. They’re the ones who abandoned their heritage because some guy takes out an ad in the Wall Street Journal? I mean, where’s their spine? Okay. So you can say that in the moment, maybe they legitimately thought that they were peddling an unsafe product. Once we learned that vegetable oil is not in fact, a superior cooking oil to beef tallow …

Dan Pashman: And not healthier

Malcom Gladwell: And not healthier, they should have switched back.

Dan Pashman: I agree with you on that.

Malcom Gladwell: They should come out and say, we blew it, we’re sorry. An entire generation of Americans were denied access to a quality french fry. We will have that on our conscience for as long as we are a publicly held corporation. 

Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]

Malcom Gladwell: I want the full-on corporate apology.  

Dan Pashman: Do you seek out beef tallow fries today?

Malcom Gladwell: Well, it’s funny after that episode of Revisionist History ran, I would go into restaurants and the waiter, or sometimes the chef would come out and say, “Just so you know, we cook our fries and beef tallow.”

Dan Pashman: Okay. [LAUGHS]

Malcom Gladwell: And then the — one of the major producers of beef tallow in the country sent me a giant tub of beef tallow, with our thanks. 


Dan Pashman: Did you do anything with it?

Malcom Gladwell: Cooked with it for years! Of course I did. It’s fantastic stuff. 

Dan Pashman: That moment that you had as a 13 or 14-year-old eating those McDonald’s french fries, experiencing a new taste experience …

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah.

Dan Pashman: Do you still seek out that experience today?

Malcom Gladwell: In food? Nothing’s ever gonna be as dramatic as that first encounter with a perfectly made french fry. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get back to that level.

Dan Pashman: And what about liquids? You’re not worried that there’s some liquid out there that could give you that same experience, if you only you were to put it to your lips?

Malcom Gladwell: No.

Dan Pashman: You said in that episode, “The world’s a bleak place when there’s no room for pleasure.”

Malcom Gladwell: Are you suggesting I contradict myself? 


Malcom Gladwell: And what’s wrong with that?


Dan Pashman: I mean, look, eat however you want. Drink however you want.

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: I’m not telling anyone it’s wrong, but as someone who drives a huge amount of my daily pleasure from what I eat and drink, especially eat, I want other people to get as much happiness from this thing that I get from it. 

Malcom Gladwell: Yeah. 

Dan Pashman: I just feel like, you don’t want a lemonade?

Malcom Gladwell: No, cause remember, I can also bring up a whole series of pleasures that I have, which I don’t think you share and that pains me that you don’t share them.

Dan Pashman: Like what?

Malcom Gladwell: The pleasure of a 12 mile run on a crisp fall day.

Dan Pashman: Well that’s — you got me there. You’ve got me pegged. 


Dan Pashman: All right. Well look, I’m gonna go have a glass of lemonade. You go for a run. [LAUGHS]


Dan Pashman: That is Malcolm Gladwell. He hosts the podcast Revisionist History, which has a new season debuting September 15th. You can also go back and listen to his full episode about McDonalds fries. It’s called “McDonalds Broke My Heart”. Malcolm is the author of many books, the latest is The Bomber Mafia, an exploration of how technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war.    

Dan Pashman: Next week on the show I travel to Consumer Reports to see the extreme lengths they go to to test kitchen equipment. While you wait for that one, check out last week’s show with Scott Weiner of Scott’s Pizza Tours in which he says the line, “I love pizza but I really don’t think I’m insane.” You be the judge, it’s up now.

Dan Pashman: If you’re new to our show please subscribe or favorite or follow, whatever the thing is in your app. Maybe it’s press the heart or the plus or the subscribe button, please do that thing right now while you’re listening, then you won’t miss future episodes. Thanks.

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