When future historians ponder the Great Kale Shortage of 2016, they’ll note the decision by Ronald McDonald, the formerly trendsetting culinary icon, to put the leafy green crucifer onto the menu at the 1,400 Canadian locations of his eponymous eatery. Kale, once found primarily in green smoothies, artisanal chips, and paving the streets of Brooklyn, has been fully democratized.
Inevitably, much of the resulting discussion has focused on health. When you try to turn a salad into a full meal, no matter how healthy, calories do happen. Still, the “Keep Calm, Caesar On” and “I’m Greek-ing Out” salads are notable for their robustness: with 730 calories, 53 grams of fat, and 1,400 mg of sodium, the Caesar option easily outstrips even a Double Big Mac.
But this well-intentioned chatter misses a question of much greater importance to devoted gastronomes: Is it any good?
My meal got off to an inauspicious start when my server informed me, with a sympathetic cluck, that they didn’t have the grilled chicken option on the premises that day. Leaving aside my suspicion that the option was only available on days not ending in “y,” I settled for the “crispy chicken” alternative, an elongated relative of the McNugget. My friend Andrew opted for the same, and the brown paper bag, as we carried it through an undulating crowd of teens from the local high school on lunch break, had a satisfying heft.
Yes, that’s one tiny piece of kale.
I’d enlisted Andrew to join me for two reasons. Starting in the late 1980s, we spent our high-school years dashing out to McDonald’s once a week for a special treat. Our friendship was formed over Big Macs with the pickles removed and those tiny bags of French fries they used to serve. Now Andrew is something of a foodie who has his own sous-vide machine at home and more or less knows how to use it. He also enjoys a well-made kale salad.
The salads were playfully plated in a way to evoke instant curiosity. Where, we wondered, was the kale that everyone was talking about? Some modest excavation revealed small, teardrop-shaped leaves of baby kale salted into the romaine-heavy mix.
On its own, the kale had an exceptionally mild, almost iceberg flavor, suggesting that McDonald’s has found a cultivar that will appeal to the broadest swath of the nation’s palate. In addition to the kale and romaine, there was also one small purple leaf of unclear provenance; later research suggested it was probably the “premium lettuce mix,” theoretically consisting of “Lolla Rosa lettuce, red leaf lettuce, tango lettuce, green leaf lettuce, and green oak lettuce.” Andrew, to his disappointment, didn’t get one.
Kale is only part of the story of this salad — a minor part. In addition to the chicken, there were generous portions of bacon and Parmesan cheese, as well as pouches of roasted garlic focaccia croutons and a creamy Asiago Caesar dressing. These constituents mingled together in a plastic-fork-bending crescendo of saltiness that counterbalanced the crisp freshness of the greens.
“It’s actually pretty good,” Andrew noted after a few bites.
It’s tempting to see, in the audacity and innovation of the recipe, the influence of the frontier spirit at the far-flung edges of the McDonald’s empire. The Canadian market, after all, was where the chain’s daring experiments with pizza made the most headway in the 1990s. One wonders also whether the hint of sweetness in the dressing is a nod to the northern predilection for maple syrup (though this effect is, in fact, cleverly executed with plain old sugar).
But could the kale salad play in Peoria? By the time I scraped clean the bottom of my cardboard bowl, I was wishing I’d ordered two cups of water, but I wasn’t hungry. Also absent was that feeling of self-loathing that follows a particularly regrettable meal. I felt like I’d eaten food — and, under the circumstances, I’d call that a victory for the onward march of kale.