Denise Sakaki thinks back on what the catalyst was that brought together salt and sweet in holy matrimony of good taste for her. The answer? Rather surprising.
Text And Photo By Denise Sakaki
My appetite sings over a luxurious bite of slowly braised pork belly finished with a molasses-like sweetness, or a wedge of caramel enrobed in bittersweet chocolate finished with a dusting of grey sea salt. When prepared with just the right balance, the combination of sweet and savory is less a mistake of misplaced sugar and salt, and more of a complex, deliberate construction of flavor. This appreciation isn’t something we’re all programmed with from the get-go, it had to develop after dwelling firmly on the opposite ends of the taste spectrum, in the days where we didn’t like our food to touch on the plate (or at least I didn’t). Try to recall that first candy bar with a heroin rush of pure sugar getting mainlined into a hyperactive little body, or the addictive salty crunch of potato chips that the marketing soothsayers foretold we can’t have just one. I loved these things separately, as flavor individuals, but these days I don’t mind when the tastes mingle. It made me think back on what the catalyst was that brought together salt and sweet in that holy matrimony of good taste. The answer came like a primal craving when I was driving and saw those familiar Golden Arches glowing like some forlorn beacon in the night – it wasn’t a burger I desired, but the rebel order unlisted on a typical value menu: fries dipped in a milkshake. Awww, yeah.
Food snobbery begone – all appreciative palates have to start somewhere, even if it was at the dubious drive-thru. You explore the immediate world around you, and as a kid, it’s tough to avoid the place that hovers with the threat of one billion served. Besides, there’s a tactile delight of fries and the temptation to dip them in everything makes it a perfect match for the milkshake. Salty, starch-creamy potatoes still sizzling from the oil, dipped into the swirled churn of frozen milk and sweet vanilla, yielding that sublime bite of heat and cold. Likely learned from watching a friend’s older sibling showing off their, like, totally rad new discovery, dipping fries in a milkshake was the lightbulb moment in an impressionable mind that salty and sweet is a very good thing. Mention it in a crowd and it’s surprising how many eyes light up over this specific combination. When I mentioned my Thorn Birds-like forbidden love of fast food fries with a milkshake over Facebook, I was inundated with comments of fellow fry-dipping aficionados raving over their favorites, from specific flavor combinations (vanilla vs chocolate is a heated debate), to the types of fries that are truly the best to dip. Crinkled? Wedge slices? Shoestring? The ever-exotic waffle-cut? It was the Undiscovered Country suddenly revealed, with a surprising population.
For all the enjoyably complex sophistication of well-prepared fine dining, it felt like an illicit thrill to be sitting in the car, dipping fast food fries in a vanilla milkshake. I hadn’t eaten this in years and before that first bite, I wondered for a moment if the experience would retain that same savory-sweet rush that I remembered so fondly. Much like watching favorite TV shows from childhood, sometimes the shine of nostalgia wears down and you realize, maybe The A-Team wasn’t as cool of a show as you remembered, but thankfully, the old flavor companions of youth did not disappoint (and the A-Team is still a rockin’ show).
The world continues to spin along its axis and times may change, but there is an odd comfort knowing the joy of fries dipped in a milkshake thankfully remains the same.
Denise Sakaki is a freelance food writer and photographer who is always searching for the connections between food and personal experience. She is the creator of the food blog Wasabi Prime and contributor to Serious Eats, 425 Magazine and Drink Me Magazine.