Thursday, March 9

Food for Thought Marketing

I have a taste for hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the roots of words, the smell of coffee, and Stevenson's prose; the other man shares these likes, but in a showy way that turns them into stagy mannerisms.

--Jorge Luis Borges, "Borges and I"

Dueling quotes from the Crunchy Bunch:
[Rod Dreher 03/07 08:45 AM ]

In this chapter, I write about how Julie and I learned how to cook at home when we got married, and how discovering the joy of creating good food in our own kitchen, especially to serve to friends, taught us a lot about the good life. What do y'all think we as a society lose when we see food merely as instrumental, as mere ballast to fill our bellies between activities? What do we stand to gain through a more considered approach to food?

Whence KLo:
Why People Eat Out
[NRO Staff 03/07 11:21 AM ]

An e-mail:
I eat out a lot. I also have a garden service pick up the yard.

Why? Simple — cost-effectiveness.

My time is worth more if spent on my profession; so is that of my spouse. It makes no sense for either of us to waste time doing minimum-wage work.

Economics trumps sentimentality.

Maybe it's my own love of food (and gardening), but this exchange seemed to sum up the tempest in a post-apocalyptic-meltdown teapot that is NRO's CrunchyCon blog-a-rama: Callous but Comfortable vs I Bought Some Organic Quinoa and Connected With Pioneer Values. Tough to pick a winner.

To take the last first: I'm guessing you're already ahead of me on that equation of everyone doing a job you consider beneath you as "minimum-wage work". It may be enough here to note that if you are routinely eating at places where the employees earn minimum-wage you're taking your life in your hands. Enjoy the short-term gains! Since that emailer is obviously un-Crunchy, I'm guessing there's at least one teevee in the McManse, and he (or she) is at least somewhat familiar with the concept of superstar chefdom. Good assistant chefs and line cooks command a pretty good wage in a decent house, and that "minimum-wage" waiter may very well make more than you and your very important spouse combined.

(There's an old Scots saying: "It is the height of foolishness to insult the cook", which is illustrated by one of my favorite restaurant stories. My intellectual mentor in college was a poor doctoral candidate (redundant, I know) who worked as a captain at the best place in town, white linen, cart-side service, flaming desserts, the whole schtick. One night he had the section nearest the kitchen, and a four-top right next to the door (two alums in town for a football weekend and their attractive nieces) was pissed about the ignoble seating. They started one-timing him. Every time he had to pass them, which was every time he entered the dining room, somebody would grab his sleeve and order another drink or an appetizer. When he'd return someone else would want something. One at a time. This goes on for the better part of an hour, and they're yukking it up, and asking him if they're giving him a hard time, hardee-har-har? So he finally stops at the table and says, "Look. I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot, and I suppose I'm to blame for not making sure everyone understood the situation. You see, I'm going back there, getting you something to eat or drink, and you can't see what I'm doing, and I bring it out here and you eat it. I'm happy to get your orders one at a time, if that's what you'd like, but it makes it difficult for me to get back there and make sure nothing's wrong with your order." He said the nieces had turned pea-soup green before he was halfway through the speech, and that was the end of the trouble, and he got a 50% tip. So just watch who you call a minimum-wage serf, 'kay?)

I'd be happy to side with King Crunch himself; cooking and gardening are good for the soul, and those times in my life when I was too busy working to do much of either I was miserable about it. But the transparent overlay of "connecting to old family values" is a crock. Cooking a meal for yourself or your friends isn't work. Stretching a budget while trying to please a family, and doing so day in day out whether or not you feel like it is work. It's rather well known that those real Americans these people are always praising without giving the slightest hint of actually knowing any ran to every convenience they could afford as soon as they had the chance. I don't deny the value of simple joys or the distinction between the love of food and the filling of the gullet--though I don't think it's a requirement for membership in the Brotherhood of Mankind--but imagining you're connecting with some mystical chord because you cook is like imagining you understand the African-American experience because you listen to Billie Holiday.

If it was bad enough that the Crunchies couldn't separate food fadishism and the simple peasant values all of Christendom is built on, the anti-health Nazi rhetoric from the other side was all but unbearable in its self-congratulatory ignorance. There was this from Iain Murray, defender of Tory Food:

The real enemy of good food these days is the health establishment, as Mark Steyn says and Rod admits. There are genuine threats to human health from food, and they must be eradicated in a caring world, but for the most part they have gone far too far.

For the most part? Well, he's got no less an expert than "food superstar Tony Bourdain" to back him up:
The EU has its eye on unpasteurized cheese, artisanal cheese, artisanal everything, shellfish, meat, anything that carries the slightest, most infinitesimal possibility of risk - or the slightest potential for pleasure. There is talk of banning unaged cheese, stock bones, soft-boiled or raw eggs. In the States, legislation has been suggested, mandating a written warning when a customer requests eggs over easy or a Caesar salad. ('Warning! Fork - if placed in eye - may cause injury!') A woman in the States won a lawsuit, claiming her coffee was too hot, scalding her as she stomped on the accelerator exiting the McDonald's parking lot. ('Warning! Deep-fried Mars bar - if stuffed down pants - may cause genital scarring!') The result of this unrestrained fear mongering, this mad rush to legislate new extremes of shrink-wrapped germ-free safety? Much like it was after Upton Sinclair's The Jungle scared the hell out of early-twentieth-century meat eaters - the absorption of small independents into giant factory farms and slaughter domes.

Now, I like Tony Bourdain, and it should be noted that what he's saying is something a little different than what Murray tries to make of it. But what, indeed, has "gone too far" here? The eyeballs of the EU? The suggestion of legislation in the States? Pfui. You're not in the business of creating the most sumptuous taste experience imaginable. You're in the business of feeding the public, and the public has a right to be protected. This is the guy who wrote Kitchen Confidential, and he imagines that his own artisanal impulses should trump even the odd eye or suggested legislative concern with industry-wide practice?

Bourdain is concerned with the homogenization and gunkification of dining, as he should be. It's something which is evidently outside the blinkered view of either side at NRO. (Murray praises the British Campaign for Real Ale, a position which unwittingly slams his free-enterprise bunkmates; where does he imagine all those tasteless, bloodless American chickens come from? And if he thinks poultry production is "over-regulated by the health industry", I invite him to visit a chicken processing plant sometime. Don't eat first. Not eating later will take care of itself.) But Bourdain ought to be more careful in his choice of anecdote: that famous McDonalds coffee incident isn't quite how it's portrayed. The fact is that this was happening on a regular basis and the Mickey's mice knew it. They lost, in front of a jury and with more than adequate representation, because of a corporate-wide practice which was both dangerous and a culinary travesty: for some reason these business geniuses decided that coffee had to be held at brewing temperature, roughly 190º. And all that accomplished was the continued baking of an already execrable product. Nobody drinks coffee at near the boiling point, and I'm sure Mr. Bourdain knows better than most that water at 120-140º will burn you a lot less severely than something fifty degrees hotter.

While I was slogging through yesterday's discussion it suddenly occurred to me that the "conservative" movement (which Roy sagely suggested may be nothing more than a marketing scheme) has routinely rolled out new branding efforts every time the going got rough. The "failure" of the US to kick Russian ass at the end of WWII led to the Red baiters; the public humiliation of McCarthyism brought us The National Review and the John Birch Society; the Civil Rights movement was met by Goldwaterism, while the rest of the Sixties made Ronald Reagan's political career. The neo-cons just happened to show up when it looked like the Camp David Accords might lead to a settled Middle East. Clinton Scandals, Inc., took wing when the Republicans lost a White House that was supposed to be theirs, followed by Compassionate Conservatism (remember when?), South Park Republicans, and now Birkenstocked Burkeans. It really does look like a battle over shelf space, doesn't it? Maybe it's time for the traditional values crowd to start looking for an anchor. Okay, it's long past time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.
Personally, I have this urge to dump boiling coffee in the lap of every asshole who pops up with that anecdote as though it were even remotely accurate in a discussion of tort reform or anything, in fact, other that corporate malfeasance.
And people who go on about the nobility of cooking ought to be a lot more careful about not supporting politicians who think captive regulatory agencies do a swell job of making sure your food is safe.

Cooking a meal for yourself or your friends isn't work. Stretching a budget while trying to please a family, and doing so day in day out whether or not you feel like it is work.

I want that stapled to these dorks' foreheads, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've been to a restaurant that _doesn't_ have a little disclaimer at the bottom of the menu reading, essentially: "Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs, meat and shellfish may significantly increase the likelihood of contracting/developing a food-borne illness. If you're going to order raw or undercooked food, you can't blame us if/when you get sick because we -told- you it might happen. And we didn't want to sell it to you in that state, but you insisted, and since you were paying for it..."

I don't see what the problem with putting that kind of a warning on unpasturized cheese (or similar products) is -- after all, pretty much any meat you buy these days has the same sort of warning.

Of course, I've got my Food Handler's license, so I have kind of a germ-phobic view of food prep (and I don't see the appeal of raw food that is not plant material, personally; the thought of eating raw meat makes me rather queasy).

Anonymous said...

Surprisingly (or not), one of the best articles I've seen about the coffee case was in the Wall Street Journal (the editorial writers never seem to read their own paper). It's filled with all of those "fact" things that get in the way of conventional lore and knee-jerk outrage (including the postscript re:the reduction of award).

It's sad that Americans who once identified enough with the victims of the über-capitalist state to impel the creation of unions, safety nets and welfare have been so throughly subverted that they now empathize with oppressed corporations, tax-burdened investors, and the poor rich.

As far as I can tell, the "new" crunchycon humbuggery wraps plain old yuppie materialism in an L.L.Bean Home catalog and calls it "values". But they are as far removed from those "minimum wage" folk as Gatsby from the Valley of Ashes, and they'd like to keep it that way.

coldH2O said...

Great post & boy, right on. Thanks.

Banana Librarian said...

It's always a good thing to find like minds out there in cyberspace. I so agree with your blog and the commenters as well. Especially the part about cooking for your friends vs. having to do it on a budget daily. I work in a large urban university setting, interacting with these ignorant students daily. What they don't know could fill Bush's brain.