Thursday, February 28, 2013

Super Marketing

And here we are, a day we could all see coming from a long ways off.  Let me start by saying that I completely support the ideal of organic agriculture, I practice it in my home garden reliably.  I also have no quarrel with the USDA, they are public servants, serving the public precisely as the public has demanded.  Keeping up with fatuous trendinistas that pollute the culinary channels with flimsy urban myths about food is a very challenging job, those folks are almost heroic in their pursuit of the truth.

So if you see the above label - exactly like that - then you know that the source can be trusted.  What about this label?

Well it certainly looks healthy, doesn't it?  It's all green and swirly with fresh tender leaves and the word CERTIFIED in big letters.  Tucked neatly beneath that attention grabber is almost an afterthought, organics.  More than one organic mind you, so it must be extra healthy.

Who certified it? For all I know, the Certified Organics are a new hit band full of cute boys with even cuter hair.

Once again, marketing rears its ugly head, roaring out buzzwords designed to make you feel better about yourself.  Not designed to make you feel better.  Do you see the difference?

Example A from the USDA is a hard thing to get, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to put it on your packaging.  Because of this, the consumer has a more than reasonable expectation that the food was conscientiously produced with a minimum of harmful additives.  If the consumer wants to know exactly what chemicals are allowed and other details about the organic label, that information is easily accessible, so they can make informed choices about their food.

Example B is a pure creation of someone's nifty computer widget, there were no hoops to be jumped through, because there were no hoops at all.  They made a pretty picture, they made it green - which is the officially overused marketing concept of 2013 - because, damn, green sure does sell good, and slapped a couple of official sounding words on top.

Oh, they also slapped an extra two bucks onto the price, because we all know that organic things cost more.  It's one of those lies accepted so knowingly by the ignorant.  Yes, truly organic things do cost more, but 90% of the things labeled with some variation or organic or natural are just cleverly labeled things that are just like the un-cleverly labeled things sitting right next to them on the shelf.

Here's a handy rule of thumb, people who are trying to sell you something really good will actually put that good thing on the label. There is not likely to be an actual tree in that snack cake.

The smart label reader will virtually ignore what is on the front, because most of that is marketing smokescreen.  The back of the package, or sometimes crammed down the narrow sides, is where you find all the real action.  I don't concern myself with the nutrition facts for the most part, that is not what you are looking for.  You'll want to peruse the list of ingredients, a short one is best, and get familiar with common ingredients like dextrose and sodium citrate.  They are both just another way of saying sugar and salt, so educate yourself.

Two more things to look at are the place of origin and parent company of the manufacturer.  Most of those homey little green packages from small family type operations are actually owned by the larger conglomerates.  And I think it goes without saying that the less distance a product has to travel between point of origin to its ultimate destination is the least costly, least environmentally impactful choice.

I am always arguing for you to be a conscientious consumer because we have become a species that specializes in consuming.  We consume without thought, in fact many people think that consumption is a duty, but it is a flimsy thing to build a culture upon.

It is too easy to consume and discard, and it is your guilt about all of that gluttony that enables to the manufacturers to exploit you.  It doesn't have to be that way though, you can start a food revolution in your own life that doesn't require someone else's label.

The truth about food is easy to find, but the lies are just so much sexier, aren't they?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String

Do any of you have even the smallest idea how much of the cost of your take-out food is actually the cost of the packaging?    Or even the food on the supermarket shelves, do you ever consider the time and money that went into assuring that you would pick this box of cereal rather than the other one?

Sure, you've probably seen something about it on Modern Marvels or something similar, but have you ever really thought about the money you are routinely wasting on the one part of the food that you throw away?


My guess is no, because most people don't.  Most people don't like to think farther than their own ease and comfort, after that is all settled, then they bitch about costs.

I need to make one thing perfectly clear, this is a simple idea:  The packaging will not make what is inside it taste better.

One of my biggest downfalls as a retailer of prepared foods was the packaging, I could not reasonably justify jacking up the price of my great food so that there would be a pretty box to put it in.  My cafe was right across the street from an upscale chain eatery that specialized in fancy to-go arrangements, with many thick boxes, bags, soup bowls and all the trimmings.

My clientele was a mixed bag, from the janitors to Arnold Schwarzenegger, we attracted all kinds of people.  Because of the food for sure, but there was more to it; we knew most of our customers by name, knew what they wanted to eat.  And they knew we were on their side, looking out for the bellies, backs and wallets with equal care.

I got teased a lot by my customers, good-natured teasing about the plainness of my simple sandwich wraps, clam shells and brown bags.  But every time I asked them directly, "Would you prefer to pay a dollar more for each thing on the menu?"  The answer was always no.

Perhaps if it was just the economics, I would have caved to the pressure and invested in personalized, festive packaging.  But it is not just that, not to me.  It is the waste that offends me the most, the disgusting waste of it all turns my stomach.  All that packaging goes right into the trash, almost right off the bat;  and then all that trash has to be hauled away by ever bigger trucks, gouging out deep carbon footprints all the way to the dump.

Going green, my ass.  Hypocrites.

Hey, I already warned you that I wasn't going to play nice, the gloves are off now and you can thank those Rapunzel people if you're looking for a goat.

So, yeah, if you are one of those who chooses anything because of the packaging over flavor, you are a hypocrite.


Because you don't actually EAT with your eyes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Anatomy of a Charlatan

This is it, the spark that lit the tinderbox and it really doesn't look so bad at first blush, does it?  Take a close look at the bottom of the label, right there beneath the clear window that lets you see the ugly sugar you bought so that you can feel good about buying 'healthy' sugar.  There are two little words there Unrefined & Unbleached and it is that second word that is pissing me off royally.

This company's decision to use the word unbleached says everything I need to know about them.  Since sugar is never bleached, BY ANYONE, not even the soulless corporate conglomerates because bleaching is NOT part of the process, they deliberately preyed on the ignorance of the consumer.  This is the first communication I have had with this company and they chose to use that first contact to try and mislead me, not the actions of an honorable entity.

I am sick to death of Eco terrorists using the consumer's concern for planet Earth against them.  Anyone who sells you food by selling you a lifestyle choice instead is a charlatan, pure and simple.  Like all companies, they are in the game to make a buck and they know they can wring more dollars out of you by blowing smoke up your ass.  And you let them.

I looked up their Hand in Hand business, some sort of Fair Trade symbol that was created and administered by the Rapunzel company, and could find very little.  Even their home page just told me where I could buy sugar and hair extensions, yes hair extensions.  Although no claims were made about Fair Trade hair.

No one cares about the hair, but the foodies are a different thing altogether.  It's the foodies these people are targeting and it is a ripe market indeed.  They breathlessly follow each food trend so they can be the 'first' to make tapas, or whatever, in their social circle.  They regurgitate food 'facts' without looking into the truth of them very hard.  And they love to talk, love to pretend they know things and share their 'knowledge' with the uneducated.

Like all those HFCS alarmists, high fructose corn syrup is just more sugary than regular, but those people needed to feel important OR needed to sell you something.  So they manufactured a crisis and all the alarmists ran with it, implying that I would change my ways if I really love my children.

I do really love my children, so I raised them to watch out for charlatans, alarmists and pretenders.

Companies are in business to make money, it is their job to do anything in their power to make you buy.  They lie, deceive, cheat and undermine the competition to get ahead and, since this is 2013, you already KNOW this for a fact.  It is their job to lie and the consumer's job to question, to sift through the hyperbole and get to the bare facts.  If you don't want to expend the energy looking into things, that's fine with me, just don't pretend that you know things when you do not.

The hypocrisy of choosing this small package of sugar from Brazil over sugar from an American company that employs Americans and must adhere to American regulations is stunning.  You do realize that all these Brazilian sugar cane plantations are destroying the rain forest to make more farmland right?  Your fair trade sugar just cost another endangered species the right to exist, good job.

And do you really think that American farmers are not concerned about the health of the planet?  I submit that they are as much or more concerned than you are because that is their livelihood, they have a vested interest in the long term health of their dirt.  They live here, they feed their children the same food you do and they love their children in equal, so why are you turning your backs on them?

No system is perfect, but we Americans pay a whole bunch of tax dollars just to make sure our food producing industries are safe and ethical.  Fair Trade starts right here at home, with the consumer who makes well reasoned choices and not choices based on packaging and deceptive words.  It starts with you being a pro-active consumer and not making food choices based on vanity.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Culinary Politics

I'm not one who pays much attention to traditional politics; it is my general view that anyone who goes into the field of politicking is just too lazy to get a real job and too vain to go on welfare.

However, when it comes to food, I am very much of an activist.  Food is our second most precious resource after water and a cause for great concern in an over-populated world.  But I am not a "foodie", one who is entranced with the romance of recipes and presentations.  Not that I don't love the foodies, their enthusiasm for all things culinary has created a forum for a truly global community, there are no borders where flavor is concerned.

I am much more of a "foodist", it is so much more than just the creation of edibles that concerns me and those concerns have led me here.  There are too many lies, too many misrepresentations and pure ignorance in the community of food that should not be ignored.  It is my pure love for the production and creation of food that is inspiring a series of articles here on Spoon! addressing aspects of current culinary culture that have inflamed my inner activist.

My warning to all new readers is something that people who know me intimately, know for a stone fact about me:  I never, ever lie about food.  I can't lie about something I love so much, it would be far too disrespectful.  This is a warning because, if you ask me if I like what you cooked, I will tell the bitter truth; and that is the same of my opinions about food.

It is also the reason that so many people come to me for advice about virtually every area of the food world. My standards are high and my opinions very well considered; that hard line has won me a lot of respect over the years.  It is not unfair to say that when I recommend a product, website or recipe to someone, they listen because they know I'm not promoting any hidden agenda.  Food fads, trends and celebrity chefs have little influence on me; I've seen too many of them come and go to be impressed.  It is one of the luxuries of being 48 years old, I've had 48 years of seeing how the tides flow in and out so now you youngsters really have something to look forward to.

So, if you stick with me over the next couple of weeks, I am bound to challenge you, to anger you and to provoke you.  I will say very loudly that the emperor has no clothes and I will staunchly defend my positions to anyone.

But I will not lie to you.  Not about food.  Not ever.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Farmer's Market Part 2

 If you missed yesterday's guest post on Lover of Creating Flavour, you can check it out right here.  Today I am going to show you a few more of the treats available at the Sacramento Farmer's Market that are a departure from the fruits and veggies.  If you are looking for the dates and times for any Certified Farmer's Markets in Sacramento County, check out their web page for all the information.

Who loves cheese?

Oh I do, especially this delicious Gouda from Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Company.  On Sunday we sampled three versions of this mild white cheese and all three were delicious, but the aged Gouda was my favorite.  Just a few stalls away was Heringer Estates with some of their award winning wines and information about upcoming events.

They even have this  Eco-Cask for the environmentally inclined imbiber

The stall next door to Heringer's was filled with the olive oils from Bariani Olive Oil.  Olive oils are like wines in many ways and their flavor reflects the region where it was grown, just like grapes.  Bariani has several grades to choose from and some other tasty products like balsamic vinegar.

With a smile like that, who can say no?

Now you have the wine, the cheese and some olive oil for drizzle, but your appetizer platter isn't quite finished without some locally grown nuts.  Pistachios of all kinds can be found at the Artois stall, with flavors like habanero, chile-lime and BBQ, just tasting them all can take a while.

So what happens when your guests are far too enthralled by your culinary delights to leave without dinner?  Fret not gentle shopper, just slide on over the west end of the market to peruse some of the meatier offerings.  Find some seafood at Wild Little Fish like these lovelies

or perhaps an oyster bar

Here in Sacramento, there is some kind of fresh food available year round and taking advantage of all the fresh air markets in the area will give you a pantry that your friends will envy.  Give yourself plenty of time to spend at the market and definitely make a circuit through the stalls just for the looking before actually diving in to shop.  While there is generally at least one stall at every market selling coffee and pastries, I find it best not to partake until after the shopping is done so my palate for all the taste-ables won't be corrupted by the bitterness of a brew.

Buying from local growers is good for the local economy, great for your culinary aspirations and creates less of a burden on our planet.  Remember to bring your own shopping bags and even recycle the thin produce bags, it helps to keep costs down for everyone.

Farming is a tough gig in the best of circumstances, the folks who do it for a living will tell you that it is one of the hardest jobs that will ever break your heart on a regular basis.  Support your local growers who are growing with a conscience because, without them where would we be?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February Farmer's Market

Clyde and I took a stroll through the Farmer's Market beneath the W/X freeway last Sunday so that I could do a guest post for Lover of Creating Flavour.  There were too many good pictures to add to that post, so I thought a few more highlights and some links on this page were in order.  It's late winter, which means citrus time and there were stalls of oranges everywhere, including these pretty little blood oranges.

It was crowded around that stall, Clyde could only get a couple of blurry snaps, but I love the colors anyway.  Here's my favorite plant vendor Cecilia Ayson's table, she doesn't even have a computer, let alone a website; hopefully someday.  You can see the the columns and freeway deck in this one too, they block the rain fairly well but also the natural light.

Larry Glashoff sang a Simon & Garfunkel song about boysenberries while I admired the large selection of jams, jellies and preserves.  I'm going to try their apricot next because I am a fiend for apricot jam, nobody ever makes it as good as my grandmother did.  But I keep looking.

Glashoff Farms has an inviting web site where you can see all their products and find out where else you can buy them.

We Sacramentans know a thing or two about tomatoes and this one is exactly how I like them, bright red and heavy with a few imperfections and dings.  Those perfect supermarket specimens don't have any real flavor and merely looking good is not enough.  The Tomato Man probably knows a few things more, judging by this winter beauty.

Tomorrow I'll share the rest of the goodies, but here are two more links for you.  Rice is one of the bigger crops around the area and Massa Organics will be happy to help you try some.  This page is worth a visit just to see the house constructed from bales of rice straw.

The last link is for my other blog where a month-long short story has just started.  Wanderer has little to do with food, but much to do with the State of California and a good read as well so I would be so pleased if you had a look.