Feeling saucy? Since the return of Szechuan sauce — the Chicken McNugget dip with a cult following — to McDonald's menus for the first time in over 20 years, the internet has been buzzing with stories of Szechuan fans who've tried to get their hands on the popular sauce packets.
On TikTok alone, the hashtag #szechuansauce has over 20 million views with many enthusiastically posting about the triumphant return of the vibrantly-hued chicken accompaniment, which became available for purchase using the McDonald's app late last month.
Sam Pocker, the fast-food enthusiast behind the Fast Food Legend TikTok account, tells Yahoo Life he had four mobile devices prepared in order to successfully secure Szechuan sauce on its March 31 launch day. A wild chase led him to 10 locations before he was able to find a McDonald's restaurant with the sauce in stock.
Part of the allure of this magical elixir is fans never know just when or even if it will ever become available again. March's Szechuan sauce reboot marks only the fourth time the condiment has made a short-lived appearance on McDonald's menus.
Why do we seek out hard-to-find condiments?
Is it simply human nature that accounts for such hype over a dipping sauce?
"When something is announced that's only going to be available for a certain amount of time or in limited quality, people react to that," explains Rachel Goldman, a licensed psychologist based in New York City who specializes in eating behaviors. "Uncertainty of when it will sell out scares people."
It's that uncertainty that ultimately leads to customers' desire to obtain a product the moment it's available. "Think of Black Friday sales or when brands talk about 'product drops,'" says Goldman. "This speaks to our culture today, which is a very on-demand one that wants instant gratification."
"Food trends are influenced by a variety of factors," Goldman explains. "We need to remember food has so much meaning to each of us. We all need food. We all eat food. So food is something that easily can become a trend because it's universal."
What makes a condiment obsession-worthy?
That high you get from your latest grocery shopping conquest? It's real.
"It feels good to get what we want, especially when it's talked about so much and there's so much hype," says Goldman. "Our brain responds to this gratification by releasing dopamine and giving us an immediate boost of the feel-good chemical."
As a result, we have undoubtedly become a world obsessed with condiments. It's no longer uncommon to walk down the street and spot someone proudly wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a bottle of Huy Fong sriracha. Fast food chain Chick-fil-A's condiments have proven so popular you can purchase bottles of their sauces to enjoy at home. In Paris, there's an entire boutique dedicated to selling varieties of mustard.
But where does our love of condiments stem from?
In many cases, our adoration of these beloved sauces and seasonings goes back not to bold flavors, but to favorite memories.
"My love of all things spicy condiment-wise comes from my grandpa,” shares actress Emily Peragine. "For him, food simply does not have any flavor unless it is drowning in Tabasco or has a blanket of red pepper flakes. As a kid I felt that adding extreme amounts of spice to my food would impress him."
"Honestly, I think it did," she adds, "because now I have an insane spice tolerance. If he makes me anything it's loaded with either red pepper flakes or Tabasco. I like to call it spice bonding."
Condiments channel familiar memories
"I vividly remember the first time I smelled fish sauce in Thailand," journalist and social media strategist Coti Howell explains. "I was appalled by the odor, but I moved there to try new things so that's just what I did: I spooned some fish sauce on my crab fried rice from the plastic communal container, trying to keep an open mind. I'll never forget the way it complemented and heightened the flavor of my rice while I sat on a plastic chair on a busy street in Bangkok."
"It had so many levels of flavor and the perfect amount of heat from its chilies," Howell adds. "I immediately fell in love with the flavor — and grew to love the smell, too. Ever since then, the smell and taste of fish sauce has immediately brought me back to that moment on a hot night in Bangkok."
Pocker's favorite condiment is linked to his love of his hometown. "My favorite fast food sauce is White Castle's ketchup," he says. "Each bite immediately transports me back to the early 2000s: eating White Castle at the Queens Center Mall, listening to The Strokes' first album on my Discman and generally feeling like I was set for life."
Goldman says it's those strong emotional and social connections we have to food that make us reach for the same condiments over and over.
"Besides the fact that we all need food to survive, food has so much more meaning to each of us than just nutrients and energy," she says. "Food is linked to emotions, memories and feelings, and because of this it plays an important role in our lives"
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