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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 17, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

McMuffins, Jimmy Dean, and Manna

I served as a Mormon missionary in Brazil from 1971 through most of 1973.

No, I was not in the jungle -- Mormonism is primarily an urban and suburban church, and our missionaries go to cities.

So I lived in the urban maelstrom of São Paulo and the smaller cities of the interior. I came to love Brazilian culture, language, and people. But at the end of two years, I was ready to come back to America.

I had kept up (I thought) by reading the foreign edition of Time Magazine. That's how I tracked the wind-up of the Vietnam War, Nixon's landslide over McGovern in 1972, the beginnings of the Watergate investigation, and the OPEC oil embargo.

I didn't have a driver's license (I didn't get my license until the summer of 1974, when I was 23 years old), so I had never bought gasoline, but I had some idea of what 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline would do to the lives of ordinary citizens. If we could have seen today's prices back then, we would have screamed and run for the exits.

I had also kept up with pop music by illegally duplicating the music tapes brought to Brazil by missionaries arriving from the States. From Bread to Leon Russell, from America to Gordon Lightfoot, from Carly Simon to Carol King and Cat Stevens, I was up on everything!

When I came home, I expected America to be just as I had left it. Not so. In the interim, pop music had expanded to include The Captain and Tennille, whose "Muskrat Love" sounded harmless to me but had apparently scandalized many; Jim Croce; Roberta Flack.

The cool new British composer/singer Elton John, whose music I first heard in the soundtrack of a French movie subtitled in Portuguese, was a monster hitmaker.

Tony Orlando was tying yellow ribbons around oak trees, and Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" made adultery sound way too cool. Paul Simon had become his brilliant post-Garfunkel self, and Grand Funk Railroad was An American Band.

Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music redefined the American musical comedy for me and my generation, and The Way We Were and American Graffiti, two exercises in nostalgia, said far more about 1973 than about the eras in which they were supposedly set.

But for me, the biggest deal was food.

I had lost 50 pounds on my mission, and I stayed in good shape for nearly a year afterward, what with lots of walking and having no money and losing thousands of dollars starting a theatre company.

But that first Christmas home, I got acquainted with two new foods: cheese and McNuggets.

The cheese came from Hickory Farms, a new chain store that brought a tremendous variety of exotic cheeses to many American towns. Americans today can hardly remember what cheese was like -- what groceries were like -- back before 1980. Growing up in California, Arizona, and Utah, you didn't choose what kind of lettuce to buy. There was just ... lettuce. Iceberg lettuce. Rows of round-headed vegetables. I had no idea there was any other kind.

And cheese came in three varieties: Kraft American, Kraft Velveeta, and pimento spreadable cheese that mothers spread on celery and offered as exotic hors d'oeuvres. (Why we haven't anglicized that term as 'ordurves' I cannot fathom -- it takes up too much brain space to store the French spelling in my memory.)

Parmesan was more like a seasoning than a real cheese, since you shook it out of a tube rather than slicing or spreading it.

Since Velveeta also doubled as fish bait, it was basically Kraft American, sold in a big blue box and sliced with a roller-and-wire tool, that was "cheese" in the minds of Americans who lived far from the delicatessens of the northeast.

But Hickory Farms changed all that. They had a huge central counter of cheeses, and friendly employees in the middle of that counter would dispense thin slices of cheese samples for customers to try.

That's how I discovered Edam and Gouda that first Christmas season home (I got back to Utah in October), and discovered Hickory Farms's "Farmer Cheese" as a mild favorite.

I have long since branched out to such unthinkable items as feta, goat cheese, and blue cheeses in many varieties, not to mention many other sharp and mild varieties from other countries.

And Hickory Farms has become a Christmas-only store selling gift packages and a few so-so "mix" cheeses that I recently tried out for old times' sake. Just made me sad for what Hickory Farms used to be.

But the biggest shock back in 1973 was what had happened to fast food. McDonald's was offering non-hamburger items called McNuggets and McMuffins.

Not that they had abandoned hamburgers. In fact, the Big Mac was introduced while I was gone, and I was baffled by the ability of people of all ages to recite "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun."

Still, it was a just a double-decker burger with a layer of bun in between. Delicious, but ... not revelatory.

McNuggets were revelatory. Or, I should say, the hot mustard sauce was.

The trouble was that McDonalds was careless about quality -- at least, as far as I was concerned. I can't stand gristle. If I bite down on a chunk of something semi-squishy but unchewable, I get nauseated. And in about every fifth McNugget, there was a bit of chicken gristle. It became too risky to eat McNuggets, delicious as they were, because nausea was always just one nugget away.

Not until Chick-Fil-A went nationwide a decade later did I resume eating chicken nuggets -- because finally there was a fast-food vendor that sold chicken that was always, always, always excellent.

So for me, McNuggets were a short-lived adventure. But not so the Egg McMuffin.

In fact, their whole breakfast menu remains one of McDonalds's best things. I like their hot cakes with syrup better than those in most sit-down restaurants; their orange juice was always decent, if not brilliant. Their hash browns are exactly greasy enough.

But best of all was the McMuffin sandwich: A round, thin poached egg on a toasted English muffin with melted cheese and a slice of Canadian bacon. For some people this might have seemed vaguely alien when it first appeared, but I had just come from Brazil, where a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich was called a "Bauru," after a city in the state of São Paulo; but if you then put a couple of fried eggs on the sandwich, it became an "Americano."

When I first heard that name I had to laugh. Why would they call it "Americano" when nobody in America ever put fried eggs on a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich?

Then, after a moment's thought, I remembered that in Brazil, Americans are called "norteamericanos" -- North Americans (also a misnomer, since that should include Mexicans and Canadians, too). "Americano" would refer to anything or anybody from North or South America. So they're as entitled to bestow the name on things as we are.

My point is, I'd had hot sandwiches with ham, cheese, and fried egg, so the egg McMuffin was right up my alley. Having it be English muffin instead of a crunchy-crusted sub roll only improved it.

Then I got braces. (Yes, like my driver's license, I got braces later than most people.) And now the Canadian bacon made the egg McMuffin impossible to eat. I couldn't bite off or tear off a piece of the bacon -- the whole bacon slice slid out on the first bite and flopped against my chin.

It just wasn't worth the bother.

Then I got married, got a couple of college degrees, moved to the south, and had my first McMuffin that substituted a patty of sausage for the Canadian bacon. I could bite through a sausage patty. No chin-flopping meat.

Not only could I eat McMuffins again, but also the sausage was way more delicious than the bacon had ever been.

The weird thing is that if I went to a McDonald's drive-up and asked for an egg McMuffin, but with sausage instead of Canadian bacon, they would give me an English muffin with cheese and sausage -- and no egg! What was that about? Where was it written that if you asked for sausage to replace the bacon, the egg got tossed out, too?

Well, apparently it was written somewhere, because after a while it even showed up on the menu. If you wanted a McMuffin with sausage replacing the Canadian bacon, you had to ask for a "sausage McMuffin with egg." You couldn't ask for an "egg McMuffin with sausage" because then you'd get sausage and Canadian bacon. I didn't understand the logic. And "sausage McMuffin" by itself had no egg.

What kills me is that somewhere along the way, McDonald's changed again, this time from weird to rational, so having trained me to say "sausage McMuffin with egg," they now act as if I'm an idiot when I order that, and say, "You mean a sausage McMuffin?" When I reply, "Yes, but I also want egg on it," they roll their eyes (I can see this even at the drive-up, because eye-rolling comes right through their crappy speaker system) and say, "It's a McMuffin, it has egg." Which is what I thought back in the day, when they would leave it off if I didn't say "with egg," and when their own menus spoke of "sausage McMuffin with egg."

Now, the common belief is that McDonald's offers the same menu everywhere in the U.S., with all the same ingredients, but this is not true. I discovered upon traveling west that the sausage used in sausage-McMuffin-with-egg is different there.

It's bland. It's like a mouthful of pig fat, because there's nowhere near enough spice in it. So good sausage at McDonald's is apparently regional, or at least it was; I've long since stopped ordering sausage at western McDonaldses.

I feel like I'm taking almost as long to tell the story of Orson and the egg-cheese-and-sausage-on-a-muffin sandwich as it's taking Ted to tell the story of How I Met Your Mother to his two teenage children.

(And in case you're wondering, I think of How I Met Your Mother, created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, as the best comedy on television right now because, like That 70s Show before it, it manages to tell a progressive story in which relationships change, and while there's a lot of sex comedy in it, there's a lot more human relationship comedy.

(Unlike Chuck Lorre sitcoms, in which the characters never show an iota of change, and after one season the comedy is about nothing but increasingly stupid and dirty sex, so I get bored and give up on them after two seasons.)

How old do you think those two teenagers from How I Met Your Mother are now? Thirty? Thirty-five? Just wondering. If the series ever actually ends, they'll be using walkers.

Back to the sausage McMuffin with egg. We have a high-school religion class, which we call "seminary," at our home almost every schoolday morning at six-fifteen, which my wife teaches.

On Fridays, there's a breakfast snack brought by one of the parents of one of the kids, and on the last Friday of each month, the bishop and his two counselors come to our house and cook a full-fledge breakfast for the kids.

Usually, the breakfast is pancakes and eggs and bacon, and that's great. You'd be astonished at how many pancakes teenagers can eat and still walk afterward. And it's hard to do a bad job of cooking pancakes and bacon and eggs.

A couple of months ago, to test the faith of the congregation, I was added to the bishopric as the second counselor, so after a total of eight-and-a-half years of having these breakfasts in my home while I blissfully slept in till, like, seven, I actually get up early and help in the cooking.

So after a couple of pancake-and-egg breakfasts I had the bright idea of changing things up and having homemade egg McMuffins. Great idea! quoth the others, and then I set out to prepare.

Here's the surprising fact: Egg McMuffins are harder to duplicate than you might think.

Sure, English muffins are easy to get, but if you think cheese is just cheese, you're wrong. You don't want a cheese that gets stringy when melted, and some cheeses lose all their flavor. I find it æsthetically impossible now to use the American cheese I grew up on.

Still, wasn't hard to figure out that Muenster cheese is a good mild flavorful melting cheese; so far so good.

The problems are the eggs and the sausage.

Poached eggs should have been easy. My wife and I poach eggs using the excellent Calphalon poacher. But poaching sixty eggs in batches of six means you're going to be cooking them for a long time, and by the end, the first-cooked are going to be cold -- or you're going to have to keep them warm in the oven. Yum? Maybe not.

So I went in search of a good egg poacher so we could do it twelve at a time. But with only a week before the breakfast, it was too late to order the Calphalon poacher, and I couldn't find one in town (even Extra Ingredient didn't have the poacher in stock, and they have everything). All the poachers that Extra Ingredient did have were too deep -- the eggs become too thick to put on a sandwich. Even the Calphalon poacher really makes them too thick.

In other words, McDonald's uses special poachers that make the eggs come out exactly the right size for the sandwich, and poachers that size aren't easily available to the general public.

So I surrendered and I'm just going to scramble the eggs. Let the kids pile them on however they want; I do a decent simple scrambled egg, and I can cook three dozen eggs all at once that way.

Which leaves us with the sausage.

No way am I frying sixty sausage patties in my kitchen. I've been in kitchens that fry a lot of fatty foods. So much grease clings to the walls that you can gain three pounds just by leaning against them. You also slide to the floor.

Not in my kitchen!

So I went to Harris-Teeter to buy one package of each brand of fully-cooked sausage patties. I got both turkey sausage and pork sausage from Bob Evans and from Jimmy Dean, and Butterball turkey sausage. And in case people preferred bacon, I got precooked turkey bacon from Butterball and pork bacon from Jimmy Dean.

I can tell you right now, turkey bacon may be right up your alley, but for me, what I tasted wasn't bacon. The Jimmy Dean bacon, though, was terrific. I'm sure the Butterball was healthier. This is a once-a-month breakfast, not a lifetime commitment, so I'm going with the Jimmy Dean.

The sausages were a different matter. Both kinds of Bob Evans sausage were a cheerless grey in color, like an old asphalt road. Not really appetizing to look at. By contrast, the Butterball and Jimmy Dean fully-cooked sausages looked like they're supposed to. Darker. Crunchy. Cooked.

I nuked them, and then my wife and I tasted them. My wife isn't a sausage lover, but that meant she might be more discerning. Or not. Hard to guess.

It happens that we were unanimous. Even when we closed our eyes and didn't look at the sausages, even when we put them on muffins with melted cheese, the Bob Evans sausages were out of the running.

The Butterball turkey sausage was quite good. But the Jimmy Dean turkey sausage and the Jimmy Dean pork sausage blew the others out of the water. No contest.

So it's Jimmy Dean all the way for the breakfast this Friday -- pork sausage, turkey sausage, and bacon. The kids can make their own choices of what goes on their sandwich, but on the theory that I offer only the best, the three breakfast sandwich meats will all be from Jimmy Dean.

Which makes me happy, because Jimmy Dean's television show was one of my favorites when I was young. And Jimmy Dean was the guy who sang the Billboard #1 song "Big Bad John," which I really liked when I was ten years old, and I still like even now. (Hear it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CS3ErDN50Qk )

I'm glad his name is associated with great sausage and bacon.

I'm bracing myself for the kids to say on Friday morning, "What's this? Where are the pancakes? We hate egg McMuffins and even those are better than this." After all, just because I like something doesn't mean that anybody else is going to agree with me.

But if the experiment fails, it won't be for lack of trying to get it right.

By the say, speaking of Brazilian food (which, you'll recall, I was doing a couple of days ago at the beginning of this column), there are a few other things I first tasted in Brazil.

Bottle water, for instance -- back when there were no personal-sized water bottles in America, you could get Agua Lindoya (my favorite brand) in any corner store, either room temperature or chilled. It was one of the things I missed most when I came home. It took fifteen years before Americans started getting bottled water in such convenient sizes -- and often it was those imported French waters like Evian, until people realized that they actually taste nasty.

And another thing Brazil got first was smoothies. They called them "vitaminas," and you could get them at any corner diner. Not made with any prepackaged mixes, either. You saw them slice open the giant papayas, shear off swatches of fresh sweet pineapple, toss the bananas into the blender, and mix it all up with a base of milk or orange juice. Absolutely brilliant.

Even now, the best American smoothies -- I think of Red Mango's offerings in Greensboro, and Jamba Juice elsewhere -- use mixes. (High quality mixes, all-natural ingredient mixes, but still ... mixes.) You won't see fresh sweet pineapple in the shop because all we get here are Hawaiian pineapples, bred to fit the can, not for sweetness. Mango comes in a mix. And as for papaya -- forget it.

Yet it's papaya that gives a smoothie the right consistency, and fresh sweet pineapple the flavor. Americans just don't know smoothies yet.

Here's the bitter jest. I went back to Brazil in the late 1980s, and discovered that hardly anybody was selling vitaminas. It turns out that the universal presence of vitaminas in every corner diner was a craze. It lasted the whole time I was there, but then it passed.

Maybe it's back. Maybe they call them "smoothies" now (though the "th" sound is unpronounceable in Portuguese, so they'd be pronounced "smoochies") and think they originated in America.

Sadly, that would help sales in Brazil. They did it better, they did it first, but Brazilians buy more of anything if it has an American provenance. Triste, né?

And now, to those of you who are asking, "What is Card writing here, his memoirs? Who cares about all this stuff?" I'd like to respond with another question: How much did you pay for this paper? Nothing, right? And who made you read this column clear to the end? Nobody, right?

Now excuse me while I go nuke some sausages, toast some muffins, melt some cheese, and scramble some eggs while my wife teaches about Moses and the manna-eating Israelites in the wilderness.

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