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McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is the near-perfect indulgence

The Filet-O-Fish deserves to be treated to a plate on a table, if for no other reason than to prevent losing even one drop of tartar sauce.

Patty Yablonski | Times

The Filet-O-Fish deserves to be treated to a plate on a table, if for no other reason than to prevent losing even one drop of tartar sauce.

A few weeks ago, a high-level meeting was unfolding in the pod next to mine where the food editor, restaurant critic and food news editor were discussing scrumptious ideas for today's special section on seafood.

Without thought, I swiveled in my chair and said, "I love the McDonald's fish sandwich."

There was what we call the pregnant pause. No one made eye contact.

These are nice people, polite people, friends and sophisticated food lovers. They struggled to be nice, polite and friendly in the face of such an admission, which they clearly considered more of an embarrassing confession.

Finally, the food editor said, "You should write about that."

So today I am the designated culinary renegade, declaring without apology my deep affinity for the Filet-O-Fish. In my opinion, it's one of the best contracts ever made between fast-food provider and consumer. It's near-perfect in its simplicity and balance: A soft steamed bun holds a block of fish, crisp on the outside with a flaky interior. Beneath it, a piece of American cheese gently melts when the hot fish hits it. Atop the fish is tarter sauce. And here's the genius: it isn't a modest dollop; it's a full-on gob of excess that oozes from the sandwich as soon as a bit of pressure is applied to the bun. Crisp, tender, salty, sweet and gooey.

I could eat one every day.

I don't.

Because even though it's cheap, easy and convenient, I don't consider it in those terms. I think of this ubiquitous sandwich in the same way as another favorite, foie gras, one of the most luxurious foods on the planet.

You probably never expected to see Filet-O-Fish and foie gras, the insanely expensive fattened liver of a duck or goose, in the same sentence. But different as they seem, they have important similarities. Both are high in calories and cholesterol. Both are considered bad for our health. (Foie has an added layer of guilt: Animal rights groups believe it's produced through cruel treatment of ducks and geese. It is now banned in California.)

Fast-food consumption isn't the same as a fine-dining experience, of course, but ideally, eating is a pleasurable experience no matter the menu, and time can be taken to enjoy it as it goes down. Most days, I cook my own food and it's simple stuff: salads, pastas, an occasional hunk of protein when I get that craving. I never eat when I'm not hungry and resist the urge, even when tired, to shovel food in my mouth simply to sate hunger. I have tried, with middling success, to pass that philosophy to my children, always with the acknowledgement that on some days, just getting something onto a plate is an achievement.

A Filet-O-Fish wolfed down in my car may be the easiest answer to dinner after a tough day but I won't eat one that way. Just as I would never eat foie gras that way, either. Both deserve to be treated to a plate on a table because for me they are occasional indulgences to be savored slowly, as something rare. Something one need not consume furtively or with guilt.

I haven't had a Filet-O-Fish in about six months. I'm thinking I'm about due for one. It'll be a special meal.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is the near-perfect indulgence 10/09/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 4:30am]

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