Branded

An interesting piece by Stuart Elliot in the NY Times on food advertising.  Mr. Elliot notes that top food brands are selling more of their products, “as Americans spend less and eat at home more.”  Ad budgets for “automobiles, financial services, and luxury goods are slashing ad budgets,” writes Mr. Elliot, while products like Heinz ketchup “(up 967.1 % in the first half of this year, according to TNS Media Intelligence)” (and) Hellman’s mayonnaise (is) “up 165.6 %.”  No wonder: Heinz ketchup and Hellman’s mayonnaise are synonymous with the food they have effectively branded.  As in: “Get me the Heinz” or, “Got Hellman’s?”  It’s not just the psychological familiarity of the products, which advertising reinforces, it’s that they taste better than their national competitors.  Food magazines took too long to go after the advertised brands and the result is they are out of business.

Checkout by Anna Sam

“Checkout,” is reviewed in the 10/22/09 issue of the London Review of Books.  The notes and thoughts of a person working checkout in a French supermarket, the book provides insight into the life of a person who may be like the people most of us meet each day, but never bother to get to know.  It was a huge hit in France.  The review can be found at www.lrb.com.  The book is available at www.amazon.com.  Publisher: Gallic Books: www.gallicbooks.co.uk.

Stress and Dining Out

Relief or diminished stress comes about from activities that involve denial and distractibility.  You take two common elements of what makes us human and you apply them to some activity that gets your mind off what bugs you: Yoga, meditation, sex, eating, or physical exercise.  The principal is transcendence.  What’s great about dining out is that it is a group activity that at the same time is very personal.  Restaurants don’t consider the idea of transcendence in writing menus or training servers–it’s too abstract.  It’s hard enough to get the food to the table while it’s still hot.  But restaurateurs and chefs  do consider the idea of stress when serving meals. If you think about a restaurant you ate in recently where you felt the stress leave your body, that would be a place worth revisiting.  It’s one reason we will continue to see more Italian restaurants open: No culture is better able to embrace the contradictions that contribute to stress and transform them into something uplifting and satisfying.

Talking Turkey, Part Two: Feathers in the Fan

In response to the listing of prices for turkeys at national, upscale stores and purveyors, a response was received by one of the purveyors who preferred to keep his comments off-line.  It’s ironic as his store is, by far, the best butcher shop in Boston with thoughtful, pleasant, humorous butchers who sell the best protein–fish, lamb, beef, pork, and poultry–on the East Coast.

However, he noted that his overpriced turkeys are “Natural.”  “Natural” is a meaningless term.  It has no significance from an FDA standard, a standard of taste, or any other criteria, scientific or culinary.  Natural means…nothing.

He also noted that his local turkey is “organic, but not certified,” which is absurd.  The reason the local farmer he buys from can’t call his turkeys “organic” is because federal law makes it a crime, punishable by stiff fines, to mislabel a product.  Either a product is organic–achieved through a certification process–or it isn’t.  The turkeys sold that are not labeled organic are not organic.

Further, he said that Whole Foods buys its turkeys from Bell & Evans.  It does not.  It buys its turkeys from Jaindel farms, a three generation, family-owned farm in Pennsylvania that also sells to Bell & Evans.  (They also for decades sell the birds to The White House.)  He notes this in apparent defense of his pricing of his non-local, Pennsylvania turkey, which, as noted, costs more than double the price of the Whole foods version.  For a 12 pound organic, Pennsylvania-raised turkey at Savenor’s, you will pay $107.88.  For a 12 pound, organic, free range Pennsylvania-raised turkey at Whole Foods, you will pay $47.88.

He also said he values local products, which is true.  Who doesn’t?  But he also sells spectacular, first-rate lamb from Colorado, beef from Australia, and pork from Wisconsin.  One type of his turkeys is local.  That’s nice.

Finally, he said his turkeys are, “The real deal.”  Is that supposed to mean something?  He is implying that Citeralla, Lobel’s, Whole Foods, and D’Artaganan are not “real.”  News to them.

Talking Turkey

Plenty of recipes can be found in newspapers and magazines, but where is a list showing the relative cost of a turkey?  Let’s compare the prices per pound at five upscale markets.  You can order online:

SAVENOR’S (top butcher in Boston/Cambridge): $4.49 for a local bird (no indication as to whether it is free range or organic, the marketing pitch here is “local”) and $8.99 for an organic bird from Pennsylvania.

LOBEL’S (top butcher in NYC): $74.98 for an organic 10-12 pound bird.

WHOLE FOODS: $1.99 for a free range bird; $3.99 for an organic, free range bird from Pennsylvania.

D’ARTAGNAN (top restaurant supplier and now available to consumers): $73.99 for a 10-12 pound organic free range bird.

CITARELLA (top grocer in NYC): $2.49 for a store brand (no indication as to whether it is free range or organic) and $5.99 for an organic bird.

The big loser here is Savenor’s, whose bird costs more than double the same version at Whole Foods.  Whole Foods is the big winner.  Let’s leave aside the odd policy of pricing in pennies.

The Next Wave in Dining

The next wave of restaurants will be Italian or Italian-American or influenced by Italy.  We’ll see charcuterie as first courses; lots of great pasta dishes; and small entrees many of which will be meant to be shared.  The Italian food we get in big U.S. cities has been getting increasingly better and the Italian food in Italy has been getting increasingly worse.  In NYC, we have Locanda Verde, Lupa, and Esca; this week saw the opening of Maialino–Danny Meyer’s new Roman style trattoria.  In Boston, Scampo and Rocca are by far two of the most interesting restaurants in town.  What’s great about this type of New World Italian food is the emphasis on good ingredients, the lack of pretension, the fair prices, and the atmosphere in the restaurants where it is served: Pleasant, even fun.

What Makes A Restaurant Worth Visiting?

The first thing is, as is true in any relationship: Being consistent, which implies reliability and predictability. (Of course, fast food empires were built, in part, on this recognition.)  Whether it is the first-rate slices at Galleria Umberto in Boston’s North End or the salmon cones at The French Laundry, customers want to know each time they are dining that it will be the same as the last time.  Why is that?  Partly because life is unpredictable and chaotic: Restaurants create the delicious illusion that experience, like mother’s milk, is nourishing, that you can have as much as you want, and that each time will be the same as the last time.  The task of a restaurant, which is massively formidable, and why so many fail, is to be consistent.  It’s not wholly in our nature to be consistent and the effort required to be so is one factor that divides successful chefs and owners from those who fail at it.  The other factor is talent: It is possible to be consistently bad.

Dining Out

Like most people who work in the food industry or write about food, I prefer eating at home to eating in restaurants.  You can’t control what’s put in the food when you’re in a restaurant and all too often the food is too salty, too fat-filled, and too big.  The other night I was at Mistral, an upscale spot in Boston, dimly-lit, hushed service, and entrees way above 35 bucks.  (The sole was $55, but for that price it also gave a fin job.)  Anyway, as I was saying, there I was at Mistral.  The plates teemed with food: Enough raw tuna as an appetizer to serve four.  A pasta dish with tomatoes–not to be too prissy, but why serve tomatoes in November?–that would on a Sunday in the 1960’s provided nourishment at Nona’s flat in Napoli for all 12 of us: Gina, Georgio, Nina, Paolo, Frankie, Antonio, Alessandra, Carlo, Carla, et. al.  Who can possibly consume that much?  A good place, Mistral, a solid “B.”  But why bother?  So when I come across a real gem, I eat there as much as possible.  The next time you have a chance, go to Esca, Lupa, Locanda Verde, or Scampo…smart, fun, and delicious…

Travels with Uncle Scott

I was in Vietnam and Cambodia last month.  In Vietnam, they have this thing called “weasel coffee”: Beans excreted from weasels or civets that are cleansed and dried.  The result is a strong, complex brew that has a very long finish.  It’s worth buying.  In Cambodia, you can enjoy “prahok”: Mashed, dry fish, kind of like anchovy paste, added in small amounts to dishes like wok-fried meats.  The prahok, as characteristic of Cambodian cuisine as salt is to Italian food, creates depth of flavor.  Both weasel coffee and prahok reflect certain traditions.  The weasel coffee is a legacy of the French occupation of Vietnam: Their love of coffee enjoyed on the rubber plantations that created the Michelin empire.  Prahok is a cheap protein in a lake-filled country where poverty has been endemic since the fall of the Khmer empire in the 12th century.

The Stomach Wants What the Stomach Wants

Unless they are preoccupied or misfits, children and adolescents do not talk about food.  Instead, you hear them talk about music, sports, friendships, school, love, sex, stuff they own, and things they wish they had.   Adults are more like neutered dogs: What they ate, what they are going to eat.  It’s as if dining is there to provide what’s missing in their lives.  Chefs have become the courtesans of our culture.  A fast food restaurant offers the culinary equivalent of a quickie.