Chapter 5 Summary
Why the Fries Taste Good
A relatively small Simplot plant in Aberdeen, Idaho, processes almost a million pounds of potatoes a day, 320 days a year, around the clock. John Richard Simplot was the potato baron of the American West. Born in 1909 in Dubuque, Iowa, Simplot and his family moved to Idaho about a year later. His father was a homesteader, and as a young man the son worked hard until he left both school and home at age fifteen and found work in a potato warehouse. He was an astute businessman even at a young age, and he leveraged his meager earnings into a potato farm by the time he was sixteen. After growing potatoes, Simplot advanced to sorting, warehousing, then buying and selling potatoes for and from area farmers. Within ten years he had thirty-three warehouses in two states. He diversified into onions and made a fortune selling dehydrated onions and onion powder, in addition to other dehydrated food products, to the U.S. military during World War II.
After the war he invested wholeheartedly in technology for freezing food, including that developed by Clarence Birdseye. He gambled that frozen food would be the next major innovation in food in American homes. As the goal became making food preparation quicker and simpler, Simplot’s gamble was successful. Processed foods such as Cheez Whiz, Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, Miracle Whip, and others made fresh foods seem less than ideal. One restaurant even featured tableside microwave ovens in which customers could cook one of thirty frozen meals. Post-war refrigerators now contained freezers.
Simplot enlisted scientists to create frozen French fries that would taste just as good as fresh ones. French fries were popular in Europe long before they were common here, and they grew in popularity because they were easy to prepare and easy to eat. He began selling his frozen fries in 1953; however, they did not become as popular as he had anticipated—until he met with Ray Krok in 1965. McDonald’s was always looking for ways to make its products more consistent and efficient to use, and it began using Simplot’s fries the next year. McDonald’s was not the only fast food chain to use Simplot’s products, and these frozen fries changed the eating habits of Americans everywhere. In 1960, Americans consumed roughly eighty pounds of fresh potatoes and only four pounds of frozen fries. Today the numbers are forty-nine pounds of fresh potatoes and more than thirty pounds of frozen French fries. Simplot is one of the richest men in America, both because of his extensive and successful business ventures and his extensive land holdings. In total, Simplot owns more land than the state of Delaware.
Currently, two other frozen French fry companies are bigger than Simplot, but it still supplies the majority of McDonald’s fries. In 1997, Burger King spent millions trying to usurp the popularity of McDonald’s fries, mostly because of the huge profit to be made on them. These food chains buy their frozen potatoes at thirty cents a pound, cook them in oil, and sell them for roughly six dollars a pound. The business is lucrative for everyone but the farmers. A large order of fries costing about $1.50 yields only about two cents for the farmer who grew the potatoes. Small farmers are not able to compete; only conglomerate farms can produce enough to make any real money. Those few companies who buy potatoes are no longer particularly connected to their communities and are driven solely by profits. While American farms are the most productive in the world, the number of actual farmers has dramatically increased due to corporate farming. The entire farm industry is similar to an hourglass—several million producers on the bottom, millions of customers at the top, and a relatively few multimillion dollar, international corporations in the...
(The entire section is 960 words.)