Welcome to our summer cookout spectacular episode! First, we dive into the world of regional burgers with George Motz, America’s foremost burger historian. He explains the Germanic origins of the burger, and gives us a tasting tour of America’s regional hamburgers, including the Mississippi Slugburger, the Cuban Frita, and the Connecticut Steamed Cheeseburger. And he walks us through his recipe for one of his signature burgers: the Oklahoma fried onion burger. You can check out his whole series, Burger Scholar Sessions, on YouTube.
George’s tip for making a great fried onion burger: 80% lean ground beef, use a flat top griddle instead of a grill, and slice those onions super thin so they cook quickly with the beef.
Then, we’ll get an incredible burger recipe from chef Jehangir Mehta, inspired by Indian street food, that involves 25% mushrooms. And J. Kenji Lopez-Alt stops by for a debate that’s sure to spark conversation at your next socially distanced outdoor gathering: is potato salad a salad?
Kenji's latest book is Every Night is Pizza Night, which comes out on September 1st. It's a cookbook for 4-7 year olds, and it's about discovering diversity and inclusivity. If you purchase the book using this link, Kenji's entire sales commission will go toward COVID relief meals.
Update: In the episode, we note that Graffiti Earth is in the process of moving. Since we recorded the episode, Jehangir Mehta told us that the restaurant is now back in the East Village.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Still In Love With You" by Steve Sullivan
- "Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Trip With You" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "When You're Away" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
- "Happy Rider" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Back in Kindergarten" by Henry Donato
Photo courtesy of George Motz.
Dan Pashman: So George, tell me about the career arc of America's foremost burger historian.
George Motz: Well, it wasn't really supposed to be a career, that's for sure.
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 and welcome to our summer cookout spectacular. Insert firework sound effect here. Later on we’ll get an incredible burger recipe from chef Jehangir Mehta that involves 25% mushrooms. Then later, Kenji Lopez-Alt stops by for a debate that I promise is gonna spark some conversation at your next socially distanced outdoor gathering.
Dan Pashman: But first George Motz is, in fact, America’s foremost burger historian. He’s written books about burgers, made TV shows and films on the subject, and he's got a web series called Burger Scholar Sessions. He started out as a cameraman, and whenever he had to travel for a film or TV shoot, he’d tack on a couple days to eat the regional burger of whatever place he was in. Soon he started filming those adventures and he became obsessed but a lot of people didn’t get it.
George Motz: Even people who were making burgers didn't understand their own historical American importance. There were people who were making them and said, "It's just a burger. You know, George, calm down." But the hamburger was a symbol of real American pride ingenuity. I think it's a very important story to tell.
Dan Pashman: And so, and what is that historical context? Tell me about burger history.
George Motz: The short history of the hamburger is that it came to America, we know, from German immigrants that had to leave from the port of Hamburg, Germany. When they were in Hamburg, they had to wait for passage mostly if sometimes for a week, two weeks, sometimes a month, and they had to eat cheaply and eat well. So they ate steak in the style of Hamburg, which is chop steak, served on a plate with the onions and something in gravy or whatever else. As people started to immigrate through the United States into the Midwest, a lot of Germans moved to the Midwest and brought with them the Hamburg steak. State fairs started to pop up all over the Midwest. And there was a need for food, especially food that was portable. The hotdog predates the hamburger’s invention by a few years. And I can almost guarantee the people who were at state fairs who are selling Hamburg steak on a plate with a knife and a fork watching the hotdogs walked by thinking, "I need to have that."
Dan Pashman: Right, right, I need that technology. I need bun technology, if I'm going to sell this food at this fair.
George Motz: We believe that that happened at about seven different fairs. It's almost at the same time, within the same few years. Mid 1880's to 1890 was whenever those first inventions started happening at state fairs. One of the most important parts is, believe it or not, is the introduction of White Castle. They were the ones who turned the hamburger from a working class sustenance into an actual thing that became one of those popular food items in the history of the United States.
Dan Pashman: Is it true that White Castle ripped off White Manna in Hackensack, NJ?
George Motz: No. It was probably—I mean, not ripped off. Here’s the story, before there was White Castle, it was one guy working out of a very small shoe repair shack in Wichita, KS. He had learned from someone else, if you smash some balls of beef on a piece of metal and put ‘em on buns with some onions, you’re gonna sell a lot of them. And he did, he sold a ton. And another guy came up to him, who was a real estate investor, and he said, "I would like to invest in your idea. Let’s make a few of these in town and sell a lot of burgers.", and that became White Castle. And they decided they chose White Castle because white signified cleanliness, which was very important at that point, and castle signified strength. Anybody who was opening up a hamburger joint at that time, for the next few years, if you did not put the word "white" in your hamburger restaurant, you were not gonna sell burgers. So White Manna is one of those. White Manna, is one of the original whites. Not a White Castle, but one of the original copies of White Castle.
Dan Pashman: What George says reminds me of the story of Wonder Bread. When Wonder Bread first came out, their slogan was “untouched by human hands,” which also was supposed to signify cleanliness or purity. This was all happening in the years after Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, a novel about the meatpacking industry, which made Americans think a lot more about what was in their food. It was also a time when a lot of new immigrants were coming in from Europe. They were working in meat packing plants and bakeries and there was a common stereotype that they were dirty, bringing disease. The basic message with Wonder Bread and White Castle, “white” food is clean food. Here’s another shocking fact about White Castle: it was founded in 1921, which is before the invention of the cheeseburger.
Dan Pashman: So that history is all very interesting to me, George, but to me the burger in this story is still kind of a drift in the wilderness.
George Motz: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And it does not find its true calling until it meets cheese. When does the burger meet the cheese?
George Motz: There's been a few claims to the invention of the cheeseburger. For years, I've called a place in Louisville, Kentucky called Kaelin's, as the birthplace of the cheeseburger but that was in the thirties. We've now found out from actual menu accounts that it goes back as far as 1920. We believe 1924, 1925 at a place called The Rite Spot in Pasadena, California.
Dan Pashman: And once people started eating cheeseburgers. I imagine it like the cave parable, people came out of the cave and they went back into the cave and were like, "How could we have been living like this?"
George Motz: Basically.
Dan Pashman: As a burger historian, George is not just a generalist. He’s also spent years eating, cataloging, and cooking America’s many specific regional burgers.
George Motz: Regional burgers are important because people, I think, they consider the hamburger to be one thing. It's beef and cheese and some lettuce and tomato. But when you actually get out there and start digging and you get off the beaten path and you get away from the fast food, you do find some amazing regional expressions out there. An expression of the local, and in many ways the burger represents not just the ingredients that you can find there but the people themselves, who actually make and eat burgers and how they appreciate them.
Dan Pashman: All right, George, are you ready for the lightning round?
George Motz: I'm ready to go ahead. Hit me.
Dan Pashman: All right, I'm going to name a regional burger. I want you to give me its brief history, tell me what it is, how it's made. And then I want you to tell me the hallmark of an especially good one.
Geroge Motz: Okay.
Dan Pashman: First up, the Mississippi slugburger.
George Motz: Ah. Mississippi slug burger is a burger that has no slugs in it.
Dan Pashman: Okay, right.
George Motz: It was invented, actually, in the 1920s. Also, with the rise of the burger all sort of happened at the same time, but this burger had yesterday's breadcrumbs that were crushed up into it and thrown into the meat and mixed in to actually extend the meat. So you have more meat for the day. There's some weird science that goes on when you add breadcrumbs only to beef and you mix it in and you cook it on a flat top. When the fat renders from the beef, it actually goes right into those breadcrumbs and makes them crispy and tasty as hell. Now, if you go and ask for a slug burger today, which still exists in Northern Mississippi, you're probably going to get something that's not beef at all. It's actually pork and soy flour, which is what it morphed into over the years. In fact, most people in the region don't even believe me when I tell them what there was originally a beef burger with breadcrumbs in it.
Dan Pashman: Interesting. And what to you, is the hallmark of an especially good Mississippi slug burger?
George Motz: Size. Small. Very small burgers, cooked super flat, super crispy, and served usually, sometimes doubles. I think doubles are probably the way to go. You get two sides per patty. So you've got four crispy sides served on a bun.
Dan Pashman: Got it. Next one, the Cuban frita, which is now easier to find in Miami than in Cuba. Tell me about Cuban Frita.
George Motz: Take a Cuban roll, or actually they actually can make Cuban bread and make them into the shape of a bun. And it's the patty, actually—what I wouldn't normally recommend this, but the patty is a spiced patty. It has lots of spices inside of it. Cumin. You're thinking like a garlic and paprika is actually mixed into the beef and it's cooked on a flat top at a very low temperature. It's not seared. It's kind of bubbling in its own juices. To that, they also add an almost like a very thin hot sauce, tomatoey hot sauce, that it cooks in its own sauce. After that, some onions to get thrown on top of that. It's served with a thin sliced julienne potatoes on top of a bun with more onions and, believe it or not, ketchup, which I wouldn't normally put on a burger either, and then onto a Cuban roll. It's fantastic.
Dan Pashman: And those fries are almost like—I mean, these are like very thin shoestring fries. They almost look like the ones that you can get out of a can that are so good. Potato sticks.
George Motz: Yeah, potato sticks. Yeah. If you go to a place that actually serves potato sticks on top, you can tell if they're fresh or not. You want to go to the place that actually has the gear or the machinery to make, you know, home homemade potato sticks, basically.
Dan Pashman: Right. What's the mark of an especially good frita?
George Motz: Freshness. It was all fresh, you can tell. You know, there are a couple of fantastic places in Miami. At one place that I need to plug. Of course, they're wonderful, called El Rey De Las Fritas. So they're actually a small chain, family owned chain. El Ray has the DNA to go back to the beginning of the frita in America, which is back in the 1970s, really, when it took off.
Dan Pashman: One more in the lightning round. The Connecticut steamed cheeseburger.
George Motz: Another great one and very unique, and pretty much only exists in the geographic center of Connecticut. It's made cooked in a steam box. And the history is a little bit nebulous. It goes back to the early fifties. Connecticut was a lot of metal working going on. And a very ingenious guy came up with an idea to make a box, almost like a filing cabinet, with little little drawers in it to put meat. Well, the cheese actually goes into one of the little compartments to steam, as well. So you have the end up with this burger, which is cooked through. It's actually, I mean, it's steamed and it's very gray. It's almost like a gray soft matter. They don't add anything to it, any salt or anything. But then they take that cheese, the cheese turns into this molten goo that gets poured on top of it. And that's really what people go for. It sounds disgusting, tastes incredible. It's a great experience in Connecticut, for sure.
Dan Pashman: So George, we ticked through a few regional burgers. I know there are many more out there. You know, it's interesting to me like, I feel like a lot of us have some idea of regional pizzas. We understand there's New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis pizzas. There's L.A. and San Francisco burritos. There's Memphis and Kansas city ribs. These different regional variations on other food are well known throughout the national consciousness. And yet, I feel like there's very little understanding, and I have very little understanding too, of these different regional burgers. Why is that, do you think?
George Motz: Well, first of all, a lot of the variations on regional hamburgers are hyper-regional. They really only exist within, even sometimes even a certain town, sometimes even only in a certain restaurant. Also, I do believe that still—I am personally, everyday, am fighting an uphill battle to get people to understand and appreciate the hamburger.
George Motz: The regional hamburger, specifically, because people don’t see the hamburger, still to this day, as something that could be considered to be important. Someone once told me, they said, it takes 12 to 14 hours to make a pulled pork sandwich. It takes three minutes to make a hamburger. People don't really consider the hamburger to have a process or a real history. So this is, I believe that's really a part of it. They don't take the burger as seriously as they should, as the way they would for barbecue. I wish they did.
Dan Pashman: There are fancy pants folks out there that like to insult American cheese, George.
George Motz: I know.
Dan Pashman: It sounds, just by that response, like you may have tussled with these folks before as I have.
George Motz: Yes. I would like to address all those cheese haters out there. They have to understand, first of all, that American cheese is really nothing more than un-aged cheddar cheese. That's it.
Dan Pashman: But George, I mean, it's processed. American cheese is processed. How could you eat something that's so processed?
George Motz: Every single cheese out there is processed. Everything. It's very important to understand that it's just more process to it. But it's one of the greatest cheese cheeses for burgers because it melts so perfectly. It's scientifically engineered to melt perfectly on a burger.
Dan Pashman: Amen. I'm with you George.
George Motz: Also, all those haters that want to put cheddar or whatever they want to do to a burger, then you have to force that cheddar to melt. You know you're doing? You're actually over cooking the burger at that point!
Dan Pashman: Yes! 100 percent.
Dan Pashman: In addition to traveling around and eating a whole bunch of burgers, George also cooks them. He’s known to make hundreds or even thousands at a time at food festivals. In general, he prefers a loosely packed burger made with 80% lean ground beef. None of that 90/10 stuff. If you want a juicy burger...look, the juice is melted fat. Okay? So you have to use higher fat beef. He also prefers using a flat-top griddle instead of a grill, so every part of the burger is touching the cooking surface. And one regional version of this type of burger, the Oklahoma fried onion burger, has become one of George’s signatures.
George Motz: You drop a three ounce ball of meat, ground beef, usually 80/20, sometimes 75/25. Chuck only. Sprinkle with some salt. To that, I add a wad of very, very thin sliced sweet onion that gets smashed into the patty with a very stiff spatula.
Dan Pashman: So picture fine ribbons of onion dropped on top of the burger. So it's like half burger, half onions. And then you smash the whole patty, so it’s paper thin. You cook it like that for a minute or two and flip it over.
George Motz: And you end up sort of stewing these onions into the beef. It becomes intermingled and crispy in parts and soft in other parts. A slice of cheese goes on top, American cheese. And then from there it goes onto an un-toasted bun and served. And that's it. Simple as that.
Dan Pashman: And how cooked do the onions end up?
George Motz: Well, the way I like to scientifically describe it is that the onions actually ended up in three different stages of cooked.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
George Motz: The onions that are now smashed and now are around the burger actually touching the flattop get very crispy, because sweet onions cook very fast and crisp quickly because of the high sugar content. The onions now that are in the center, once you flip it over, have become steamed.They actually—they do release a lot of their onion juice and actually help the flavor of the burger. And the ones that are right dead in the center are not crunchy, but almost just barely cooked in a way. So you have barely cooked, you have steamed soft, and you have crispy onions all in the same, pretty much sometimes in one bite.
Dan Pashman: Wow. I got to try it. I mean, I've seen, I've seen your Instagrams. I've seen the pictures. I've seen the videos, and it looks fantastic. I need to eat it. I, too, have adopted the flat top method. You know, what we want in our beef is we want the Maillard reaction. We want that high heat right on the beef. We want the beef to caramelize. We want it to get crispy edges. And you have more hot surface touching the beef, you get more of that.
George Motz: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: So I, too, have adopted the flat top. I smashed the burgers, I salt, I flip. When I go to place the burger on the bun, I put it on the bun cheese side down.
George Motz: Hmm.
Dan Pashman: I believe that you want cheese closer to your tongue to accentuate cheesy goodness. And I believe that the cheese creates a seal that protects the bottom bun from turning soggy.
George Motz: Interesting.
Dan Pashman: What is your take on my cheese on the bottom technique?
George Motz: Traditionally, just going way back to the beginning of like the pub burger, New York city pub burger. They would put a slice of raw onion on the bottom. Specifically, for that reason, to protect the bottom bond from being devoured by burger grease.
Dan Pashman: Interesting, but you sound skeptical.
George Motz: I just have never really seen it. And I don't really know if when you bite into a burger, you're getting all those flavors at the same time. You should be at least, it doesn't really matter where the cheese is, as long as it's in there somewhere.
Dan Pashman: Hmmm. Eh, I don't know if I agree with that, George.
Dan Pashman: You're right, that it does all get mashed up but I think that when you get the cheese in the bottom it just heightens that cheesiness, that creaminess, that mouthfeel.
Dan Pashman: Look, you know, George, I know that you're a purist and I know that you're kind of steeped in history and you like to preserve traditions. Um, and that all has its place, but I think that we also have to continue to push forward.
George Motz: I agree.
Dan Pashman: If we didn’t, then the Hamburg steak would never have been placed on a bun in the first place. It never would have had cheese added to it over the years. And all the burgers, the variations that you revere, would never have come upon us. And so, I am going to continue to push forward and I hereby advocate the cheeseburger with the cheese on the bottom.
George Motz: Good luck with that.
Dan Pashman: That’s George Motz, you can find info on his books, events, and more at GeorgeMotz.com. If you want to watch George cook some of the regional burgers we discussed, check out his new YouTube series. It’s called Burger Scholar Sessions.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, a different type of burger. Chef Jehangir Mehta will tell us how to make a blended burger with lots of mushrooms, seasoned kinda like a lamb kabob. Then chef and food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt joins me to take a call from a listener, who wants to argue about the definition of a salad. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Breaking news at Bon Appetit, 3 test kitchen stars are leaving the hugely popular YouTube channel: Priya Krishna, Rick Martinez, and Sohla El Waylly. We reported last week that these departures were likely. Several unnamed sources told us the people of color there were still being offered much less than their white counterparts make. And employees feel intimidated, according to Business Insider reporter Rachel Premack.
CLIP (RACHEL PREMACK): They have also received sort of like threatening emails, like, "Oh you better delete that," or "We saw that you tweeted that." It’s a company where speaking out is very harshly censored and people, who work there, are pretty scared.
Dan Pashman: Want to hear the inside story of what’s been happening in the test kitchen? Check out last week’s episode, an all new update on our first show about Bon Appetit.
Dan Pashman: Ok, let’s get back to our summer cookout spectacular, and I should say that everything in this half of the show was recorded before Coronavirus. That’s why you’ll hear me hanging out in a restaurant kitchen, talking about school functions, etc. Now, we eat about 4 times more meat today than we did 200 years ago. And there’s a cost to producing all that meat. You have to feed a cow 13 pounds of cow food for every one pound of meat it generates for us. Clearly, this is not sustainable. Now, one of the really easy and delicious ways to address this issue is by mixing more veggies into our meat. You heard butcher Cara Nicoletti share the story of her Seemore sausages here a couple weeks ago, which are up to 35% veggies. Now, we’re gonna talk about making burgers that work on a similar concept:
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): We use Angus Beef. We are just going to just chop some portobello, which we use in our burger after they have been cooked in. We just literally massage it in and then make a patty with it.
Dan Pashman: This is chef Jehangir Mehta. We’re in the kitchen at his restaurant Graffiti in New York, and he’s making me his signature Graffiti burger. About 25 percent of it is mushrooms and other herbs and spices, hence the term blended burger. It’s like the hybrid car of burgers. So it uses less beef, which is good for all the reasons I talked about. But that’s not why he does it. In fact, on the menu it just says Graffiti burger, no mention of the mushrooms.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): You don’t think it’s different. It's just there. We've never viewed ourselves as how this whole trend is, "Oh, veg-centric restaurant." We've never called ourselves that. This is our food and this is what we do. So, basically, that's why we call it Graffiti burger, and the restaurant Graffitti, too, because it is just my style of food. If people ask me, what is that, that's my style of good.
Dan Pashman: Some of that style comes from growing up in Mumbai. Some of it comes from training at the legendary French restaurant, Jean Georges. Jehangir describes his cooking as “a white lady wearing an Indian sari.” He forms small burger patties, they’re actually like mini burgers. And he seasons them almost sort of like the lamb kebabs you’d see on the streets of Mumbai. Garlic, onion, cilantro, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder. I mean, the works. And then, on to the griddle.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): We cook it to about to medium rare. Again, if someone wants it differently, we are always willing to do it differently.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): If someone orders it and they say, "I want it well done," doesn't that make you a little bit sad?
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): No, I have always been in the belief that if you like it that way, then why should we be the one judging you. Because your palette enjoys it that way. I think this is one thing I learned from—this was years ago. I worked for Jean Georges, when we had first opened Jean Georges as a restaurant and at that time, smoking was allowed at the bar. And one day, I heard the chef saying, his executive chef saying, "I can't believe they're doing this nine-course tasting menu with this amazing bottle of wine, that they had bought for like, I don't know, $4,000, $5,000 something. And they keep smoking, the whole time. Every course. They can't even taste anything." And I heard Jean Georges repeat and say, "Well, if that is how they enjoy their meal, so be it. They like that palette of that smoky aspects of cancer. That's their problem, not me."
Dan Pashman: Jehangir puts the small burger on a grilled mini bun. Then he tops it with lettuce, red onion, and fried enoki mushrooms.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): One thing I have to say, I've never understood how Americans can open their mouth so large to put in anything. Like when I first came, I could not believe how you can eat some of the things over here. And so I think this is the largest, I think, for 2.5 ounce patties is the largest I can open my mouth. So that's why we have it at 2.5 ounces. That was the architecture of it.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right. So function over form.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): Function over form. No, I am American. I am very proud of it but I've still not mastered that aspect. It was not a question on the....
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): On the citizenship test?
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): The citizenship test.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Well, I'll have to call the citizenship office about that.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): Yeah, you should, definitely.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Should we eat?
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): Absolutely.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Alright. Mmm, oh man. It's so good. Mmm. The crunchy mushrooms on top? I mean, I know it's not your goal to trick people, but if you wanted to trick people and tell people that it was a full beef burger, I would definitely believe you. It's really really nice.
CLIP (JEHANGIR MEHTA): Yeah, I think because we put so many spices and herbs in it and we also call it a kebab burger, like in the style of a kebab, and people actually think it's actually made with lamb. And I think, if we were in some third world country, we could have just said, "Yes, chew it.", and made more money on it, but we like to be a little more honest here, I think, in this country.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): That’s not going to get you very far.
Dan Pashman: That’s Chef Jehangir Mehta. Since we last spoke to him, Graffiti shut down, but Jehangir opened a new restaurant called Graffiti Earth, which is in the process of changing locations. You can find a link to a link to the recipe for the Graffiti burger on Sporkful.com.
MUSICDan Pashman: So we’ve covered a wide range of burgers for your summer cookout. Now, it’s time to talk about a side dish and to give you a conversation topic in the process. Did I say conversation? Sorry, I meant argument. Joining me now is our friend Kenji Lopez-Alt, James Beard Award winning author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. He’s also a contributor to Serious Eats and The New York Times, and the chef-owner of Wursthall in San Mateo, California. Hey Kenji.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Hey, how's it going?
Dan Pashman: So we’re gonna take a call now, you ready to go to the phones and handle a controversial topic?
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Definitely.
Dan Pashman: Alright, let's do it. Hi, who's this?
Laila: Hi, this is Laila, from Los Angeles. I have a problem with the naming conventions of salad.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Laila: When people call potato salad and pasta salad a salad, this is a corruption of the term
Dan Pashman: Okay, why?
Laila: For me, they're just not salad. They don't have all the characteristics that you would generally think of as a salad.
Dan Pashman: So what are those characteristics? Define what you— give it to me, what you think should be the definition of salad.
Laila: I would say a lack of leafy greens does not fully disqualify it, but definitely some sort of vegetable base.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: So you would still consider like an Israeli salad, with cucumbers and tomatoes, to be a salad. Or a Greek salad, with onions and tomatoes and feta cheese, to be a salad?
Laila: Yeah, I would consider that a handicap salad, but definitely still a salad.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: But a ham salad or an egg salad, you'd say, is not a real salad?
Laila: Not a real salad.
Dan Pashman: So, you think that if it has a vegetable base, then that is a salad? But isn't a potato a vegetable?
Laila: Yes, but it doesn't serve the purpose of a vegetable. Usually, people order salad to strive to be healthy, maybe have a refreshing accompaniment to a meal. But that's not what the potato salad is usually used for. It's used as a starch side.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I think you're trying to get in a trap here. And, you know, I think the potato is sort of the George Bush definition of a vegetable, like french fries and ketchup should count as vegetables.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I'm with her on this.
Laila: Kenji, I appreciate your appeal.
Dan Pashman: Who invited this guy here? How old are you Laila?
Laila: Well, I, actually, just turned seventeen today.
Dan Pashman: Well, happy birthday.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Happy Birthday.
Laila: Thank you!
Dan Pashman: So you are what year in high school? Junior?
Laila: Yeah, I'm a junior.
Dan Pashman: Okay. In common usage the word, salad, means two different things. I think most of the time, the context tells us which we're talking about. I would like to arrive at one definition though, that can encompass both salads we're talking about.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: A technical definition of a salad is any small chopped, generally, vegetable based ingredients that are tossed in dressing, typically served cold. Not always served. So under the technical definition, I think, a potato salad, a chicken salad, a macaroni salad, I think those are all technically salads.
Laila: If you have to specify what genre salad, it's not a real salad.
Dan Pashman: My friend Justin Warner from Food Network, I talked about this with him once. And he had a definition that I'm going to steal right now, is salad is a mixture of food that have not been cooked together.
Dan Pashman: Some of them may have been cooked separately, but they are not then cooked together.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Okay. Okay. So...I got it. So I guess a sandwich is a salad then?
Dan Pashman: That doesn't really feel like a mixture. If you were to take a couple of different sandwiches and chop them into cubes and mix them in a bowl, that would be a sandwich salad. And I'll bet that can be good.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: So, I mean, I think that definition is a good technical definition. I think it doesn't address Laila's question though. Can I ask you something? What would you call a pasta salad or a potato salad? Do you think that there's a better way to describe it? Or do you think we need a completely new term?
Laila: I would call it a pasta dish, as a term.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: But if you say to someone, "I'm gonna have a picnic. Hey, Joe, you bring the burgers. Bill, you bring the Cheetos. And Mary, can you bring the pasta dish." Is she gonna know what you're talking about? I mean, is she gonna bring a pasta salad? Or is she gonna bring a tray of baked ziti?
Laila: I think context is important. Usually with a BBQ, you'd want a fresh side dish. So I don't think there's really any trouble in saying pasta dish, because she would know that it should be something fresh, cold, not a baked ziti, like you would say.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: What if Mary isn't as bright as you?
Laila: Well, we'll specify for Mary.
Dan Pashman: So Laila, if you were to bring this case before a court of law, one of the questions they would ask you is, what damages have you suffered as a result of this injustice? Can you cite a time in your life where this has actually been a real problem?
Laila: Yeah. Well, I might be a little biased on this because, personally, I really dislike mayonnaise.
Dan Pashman: Now the truth comes out.
Dan Pashman: She's mayonnaise-cist
Laila: So at my school, we often have potlucks. And recently, we had a potluck for my latin class. I was promised that there would be chicken, bread, cheese, and salad. So I said to myself, "Great, that's my vegetable filling for the day." I wouldn't have to pack other supposedly healthy food items. But I showed up, and there was pasta. It was pasta held together by mayonnaise. And for me, that was not what I was promised. It's a deceitful presentation of salad.
Dan Pashman: Okay, that's fair. That's a very good real world example, Laila. And you have proven to me that you sustained some sort of damage here. But it seems to me that the only solution, really, is to come up with a word for potato salad, egg salad, chicken salad...
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I would put them under the umbrella of deli salads.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: You know, the kinds of salads that can be dressed and held in definitely and then just scooped out with an ice cream scoop and put onto your plate at the cafeteria or at the deli. And I think that if you're going to call something just salad that I agree with her, something you expect to be freshly dressed.
Laila: Right, right.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: You expect it to be relatively light and fresh and crispy.
Laila: I can run with that.
Dan Pashman: If we could go back in time, Laila, and you could redo that potluck. You would have been told in advance, we're gonna have a bunch of deli salads.
Laila: Yes. I would have known that my vegetable fill would not have been met.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Yes, but your mayonaise quota would have been.
Laila: Sadly, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Well Laila, I happen to be a lover of mayonnaise. So it does pain me whenever I hear someone speaking ill of it.
Laila: I know.
Dan Pashman: But I do admire any young person, like you, who is as pedantic as Kenji and me. And you seem like you have a very bright future ahead of you. So I appreciate you calling in and sharing your wisdom on this issue.
Laila: Thank you so much Dan. I'm glad I was able to contribute myself.
Dan Pashman: Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab and chef-owner of Wursthall in San Mateo, California, thanks so much...
Kenji Lopez-Alt: Thank you so much Dan.
Dan Pashman: Two recent updates from Kenji to add here. First, his restaurant is open now for outdoor dining and takeout. Second, he has a new kids book coming out. It’s called Every Night Is Pizza Night. It’s aimed at kids 4-7, and it’s about discovering diversity and inclusivity. It’s available for preorder now and if you use the special link to buy it on Sporkful.com to buy it, Kenji’s share of the proceeds will go to providing COVID relief meals.
Dan Pashman: Please make sure you check out last week’s episode. It's an all new update on the situation at Bon Appetit. And if you like it and you think other people should hear it, please share it on social media. Thanks. While you're doing stuff on social media, follow me on Instagram @TheSporkful.