This article explains the cultural history of sauce, with McDonald’s Dim Jack as the starting point.
Following the rotten meat scandal in July, McDonald’s launched several major marketing campaigns, trying to recoup the lost confidence. The first wave of marketing started with the Justice League Burger series where each style of burger is featured by a superhero. ‘Dim Jack’ represents the latest wave of this line of marketing.
Hong Kong people should not be unfamiliar with Dim Jack as it was a resurrection of the earlier Dim Jack campaign back in 2010. This times, however, is different. It boldly reintroduces chicken nuggets and makes them the central attention of the ‘Dip Dip’ package, despite the fact that McDonalds was once forced to suspend sales of the chicken nuggets after the scandal. What emboldens McDonald’s to such a move is the sauces.
Dim Jack is a man with blue hair, and wearing purple suit who steals someone else’s sauces. The ‘Dip Dip’ package contains the chicken wings, chicken nuggets, chicken bites, and four kinds of sauces: sesame miso, honey mustard, Wasabi and Korean chili.
These sauces are featured by McDonald’s as a cheap way to promote what is otherwise poisoned nuggets. However in food history, sauce was once held in such high esteems that wars were fought over just to satisfy the gourmets of a few privileged people. The issue is: what made the descent of sauce as gourmet food to nowadays nothing but chemical fluid?
When chemical engineering was non-existent, and food was scarce, sauce was a luxury reserved for a few people. Producing sauce is a labour-intensive process and assembling all the necessary ingredients is even more difficult. Mayonnaise and aioli respectively require the excess of egg yolk and garlic to be emulsified by olive oil which presuppose the abundance of olive.
The excess that sauce requires is better illustrated with this anecdote:
‘According to Brillat-Savarin, the Prince de Soubise is supposed to have had a single ham dressed with sauce made from the concentrated juices of forty-nine others. His steward presented the prince with a bill for fifty hams.”Bertrand, have you gone mad?”
“No, your Highness; only one ham will appear on the table; but I shall need all the rest for my brown sauce, my stock, my garnishings, my …”
“Bertrand, you’re a thief and I shan’t pass that item.”
“But, your Highness,” answered the artist, hardly able to contain his anger, “you don’t know our resources! You have only to say the word, and I’ll take those fifty hams you object to and put them onto a crystal phial no bigger than my thumb.” ‘ (see p.117 of Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food)
The quest for pepper, sugar, and other exotic spices, which fueled the empires rivalries, serve as additional notes to the fascination for the magical power of sauce to transform food.
Yet all this changes after the industrialization. As food supply increased, excess is the norm, rather than exception. It becomes unsurprising that sauce can be easily made by the accumulation of a cheaply produced ingredient, say soya bean.
What made matter worse is when modern chemical engineering or rather corrupted use of chemical substances conspires with human’s natural crave for sugar and salt to produce unhealthy, and sometimes deadly sauces. Monosodium glutamate (aka MSG) is the unquestioned example. Other flavour enhancers coyly avoids the public gaze under the disguise of the E-number codes. The infamous ‘一滴香’ (literally ‘a drop of flavour’) in China, which can greatly enhances the flavour with only one drop is made of composite substances that can kill people.
The pendulum swings. Sauce goes from a magical liquid to cheap chemical substances. The high cuisine now favors natural food with flavour elicited solely by organic freshness. Sauce is now seen as the friend of the poors who cannot afford any fresh food, and is employed to cover up the rotten chicken nuggets.
Extended reading: Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Arme