The Secret Ingredient is Curiosity


As long-time readers know, on most Fridays, I share a little “behind the curtain” look into making Now I Know. Today, I want to talk about the number one reason people unsubscribe to the newsletter. To paraphrase a recent one: “I just want the fun fact, not all of that reading.”

Fair enough! But that’s not what interests me. To explain, I want to share a video I didn’t make — and one that I really shouldn’t like. But I did!

It’s about fast food hamburgers. (And thanks to reader Jeremy G. for sharing it with me.) Here it is, below, or via this link.

The video, basically, is three chefs recreating iconic burgers — the White Castle slider, McDonald’s Big Mac, and the In-N-Out Double Double, Animal Style.

Now, for a fun fact about me: I’ve never eaten any of those hamburgers. I’ve never even been into a White Castle or an In-N-Out. So it doesn’t really make sense that I’d be a fan of this video. But I am, because it’s not just about the burgers. It’s a video about curiosity. 

All three of the chefs are trying to figure out how to recreate a well-known meal but to do so without a recipe or instructions. Sure, a lot of the information is readily available — the Big Mac is famously comprised of “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun” — but there are definitely gaps, like, what is in that special sauce? And how much meat do you use in the patties? Alvin Cailan, the chef that recreates that burger also goes to great lengths (okay, maybe not “great” lengths) to find the right kind of bun to account for the sesame seed density and the club part in the middle.

And he’s the least curious of the three guys. The White Castle recreator, George Motz, takes us through a brief history of White Castle to explain why their burgers are square and have five holes in them (while also sharing a bunch of other fun facts.).Kenji López-Alt makes the Double Double, and at one point breaks out a chalkboard to show how he used algebra to back into the proper ratios of ketchup and mayo for the sauce. 

That’s the stuff that makes the video so interesting, at least to me. If you want to make a Big Mac at home, Cailan’s instructions aren’t really all that useful — yeah, you can probably figure out the detailed steps if you’re a reason; here’s one, for example. They’re not fun, though. There’s no curiosity. As López-Alt says in the video, “recreating fast food at home, it’s like you’re on a treasure hunt; you’re trying to unlock the secrets.” Just making the burger seems unsatisifying.

And that’s why my emails have “all that reading.” I’m not just trying to give you a fun fact. I’m trying to satiate your — and my! — sense of wonder and curiosity. 

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: There’s No Such Thing As a Lot of Free Pennies. A great example of curiosity: I actually broke out 16 pennies and a tape measure to make sure the bonus fact was correct. 

Tuesday: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Empathy. This newsletter provoked an hour-long phone call with my brother about a lot of things Harry Potter. As long-time readers know, I’m a huge fan of the Harry Potter stories, despite the fact that I don’t think they’re terribly well-written. One thing I talked about with him– and I had just realized this on Tuesday morning (which actually led me to discover the study addressed in this one) — is that I struggle with how awful the characters are in the books. Even the good ones. Across the board, the characters themselves tend to lack empathy. I won’t rattle off a laundry list of examples here (and trust me, it’s tempting).

And that’s a strange (although not uncommon) paradox. The study I talk about here discusses how the books increase empathy, but given how the characters themselves were written, I can’t believe that was the author’s intent; she just wanted to tell a story about kid magicians in a clearly delineated battle between good versus evil. 

Wednesday: Card Clickers: It’s not solitaire. It’s a secret tutorial.

Thursday: The Sh*tty Reason Florida Disavowed Space Oranges: This is one of those stories that I’ll be mentioning, forever, when people ask me “what kind of stuff do you write about”? It’s got everything, but most importantly: Could you imagine coming back from the moon and someone saying “so, what did you do up there?” and knowing full well that you had a conversation about farts?

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “30 Years Ago, Romania Deprived Thousands of Babies of Human Contact. Here’s what’s become of them.”  (The Atlantic, 37 minutes, June 2020). It’s not a feel-good story.

2) “How a 90-Year-Old Missing Person Became a Hit on Spotify” (Priceonomics, 15 minutes, January 2016). The artist’s name is Connie Converse, and she was effectively undiscovered until around 2004 when NPR played some of her music. But here’s the weird part: she had been missing for 40 years. The song was from the 1950s; Converse went missing in 1974 and hasn’t been seen since. As the article (bittersweetly?) concludes, “society, it seems, has finally found a place for the woman who could never quite find a place for herself.”

3) “Say Cheese! — I Photoshopped a Smile onto my Favorite Historical Figures” (The Grim Historian, 8 minutes, March 2021.) The title sounds like a joke and the photoshops are legitimately funny, but the article is a serious look into the lack of smiles in historical depictions of famous people. Thanks to reader John G. for telling me about this one.

Have a great weekend!