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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheap Food Products

The Best You Can Afford vs The Cheapest You Can Buy

Let me tell you about where I shop for food and why. As a card-carrying member of Annoying Food Snobs of America, I only shop at food stores that carry high quality fresh produce, excellent meats and seafood, and top of the line canned, frozen, and packaged goods. My shopping dollars are generally divided among Publix, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and local farmer's markets and specialty stores.

That's not to say that there aren't other great stores out there. I've also shopped Safeway, Kroger, Albertson's, Harris Teeter, Ingles and a number of other fine supermarkets, but there aren't any of those in my area right now. There is a strange little local chain store that carries an odd variety of top shelf stuff that even Publix doesn't stock mixed in with low end products that Publix wouldn't touch. It's kind of become my local “fallback” store.

I'm not a big purchaser of “health food,” so I don't buy a lot of “regular” groceries at Whole Foods or Fresh Market, but those places can't be touched when it comes to fresh meats, produce, and cheese. Both stores are great supporters of local food producers. Additionally, they offer “tasting bars” for some of the products I use most. You wouldn't get far schlepping down to your local Piggly Wiggly and popping the top on a few bottles of olive oil to see which one you liked best, now would you? Whole Foods lets you sample and choose your favorite. I would – and frequently do – drive fifty miles to get the kind of quality fresh food products that these stores offer.

Conversely, I wouldn't drive around the block to shop at an Aldi or anyplace that has “Sav” in its name; Sav-a-Lot, Sav-a-Ton, Sav-a-Bundle, Sav-Til-It-Hurts. No thank you – save me! I went to one of those places once and had nightmares for a week.

Is it insane to drive to the next town to shop at Whole Foods? Undoubtedly. Is Publix the most expensive store in town? Pretty much. Could I save ten dollars a week by shopping at cheaper stores? Yep. So why don't I? I'll tell you.

For reasons of taste and nutrition, I value good food and will go to extremes to obtain it.

I have never been a big fan of cheap food products. In the early days of my upbringing, a “name brand” could be counted on for quality while generic or “store brands” were notoriously inferior. My mother went to her grave without ever purchasing a store brand item. If the supermarket was out of Green Giant asparagus and all they had in stock was a store brand, Mom would either go to another store or go without. So it’s easy to see where I get my “brand bias.”

However, I am not totally my mother’s son. I don’t reject store brands out of hand just because they are store brands. If the quality is there, I’ll buy a store brand. If not, I won’t. Simple as that. What I won’t do is buy the cheapest, nastiest, bottom-shelf, off-brand garbage that is sold in some of the cheap, nasty, bottom-shelf, off-brand food stores that have sprung up in recent years. My taste buds still have a little dignity. But I have found that store brands carried by some of the high-end chain stores I referenced earlier are equal or superior in quality to the national brands. For instance, I can only think of one or two occasions where I was disappointed enough in a Publix product to go back to a national brand.

You’re just paying good money for a brand name,” my thrifty friends preach. “All the food we buy comes from the same two or three factories and they just put different labels on it.” I used to feel that people who said such stuff also believed that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus get together at the Tooth Fairy’s house on Friday nights for poker. But with big food conglomerates gobbling up competition in the marketplace as they do these days, who’s to say that these people are entirely wrong?

I know too many people who think that food is food. It goes in one end and comes out the other and if it tastes the same at both ends, who cares? It’s just food. Fuel. Sustenance. Something you have to have in order to keep breathing. Generally speaking, these are the people who shop the aforementioned cheap, nasty, bottom-shelf, off-brand food stores and buy the aforementioned cheapest, nastiest, bottom-shelf, off-brand garbage.

Changing mindsets is difficult. I could no more convince my mother to try a store brand tomato sauce than I could convince others in my family that while they may be saving money by buying the stuff that is a short step above animal fodder, they are sacrificing quality.

I’m not rolling in money. I clip coupons and I hunt bargains. But at the same time, I have learned that there is a vast difference between the best you can afford and the cheapest you can buy.

Cheap food is just that. It’s cheap. It’s not “inexpensive.” It’s not “low-priced.” It’s not “economical.” It’s inferior, second-rate, low-quality stuff made up of substandard ingredients processed and dressed up to taste like the higher quality stuff. It’s a pig in a prom dress, designed to make you feel like you’re saving money even as you deprive yourself of taste and nutritional value.

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in this discussion is the matter of taste itself. Taste is a very subjective thing. Now, it is scientific fact that some people have fewer taste buds than others. Most people have around 10,000, although some statistics show that women have a genetic proclivity towards having a greater number of taste buds than men. Factors such as disease, smoking and just plain old getting older can affect this number. In fact, research has shown that by age 65, a person can lose as many as half of the taste receptors they had when they were born. So, while something may taste like crap on a cracker to me, it might taste like filet mignon to one of my older, chain-smoking, male relatives.

Another factor to consider is palate sophistication. My wife, for example, grew up in an environment where she ate the “good stuff” while living with one parent and the “cheap stuff” while living with the other. Therefore, she developed a degree of sophistication that enabled her to tell the difference. As she frequently – and correctly – points out, people who, for economic reasons or whatever, have never had the “good stuff” don’t know any better. To them, the “10 for a dollar” macaroni and cheese is perfectly fine because they’ve never had anything else.

Genetics and sophistication aside, economics plays a major role in the way things taste these days.

As I alluded earlier, name brands used to equal quality while store brands were equivalent to junk. It was a matter of perception, which, to most people, is reality. But in their ever-growing desire to increase profits, name brand food manufacturers have been leveling the playing field for the generic brands by simply diminishing the quality of their products through the use of cheaper ingredients. In short, it’s not that the store brands taste better, it’s that the name brands taste worse!

Case in point: When I was a kid in the 1950s and early ’60s, I absolutely adored Kit-Kat candy bars. Made in England by Rowntree, Ltd. and imported to the United States, they were chocolate-covered wafers from heaven! Well, they’re still wafers covered in something pretending to be chocolate, but they now originate at that place where good chocolate goes to die – the Hershey factory.

I am certain that Milton Hershey is spinning in his grave over what has been done to his creation. The Hershey Company, in its quest to satisfy its investors at the expense of its customers, has incrementally destroyed American chocolate manufacturing. The over processed brown garbage that flows off Hershey’s assembly lines resembles chocolate in name only. Increased use of palm oil, corn syrup and other cheap ingredients have gradually changed the flavors and textures that cocoa butter, cane sugar and more costly substances impart to “real” chocolate, resulting in a horribly dumbed-down concoction that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the quality for which Hershey products used to be world-famous. But they’re keeping costs down, by golly!

Spice maker McCormick & Co. is now supplying food companies with cheaper herbs and spices, such as Mexican oregano instead of the pricier Mediterranean herb, and garlic concentrate instead of heavier (and costlier to ship) garlic cloves. And they’re always developing new “flavor blends!” In other words, since the good stuff costs too much, let’s just mix up a few varieties of the cheap stuff and foist it off as a “new blend.” This cheap dreck is showing up in the pre-packaged foods you buy and that you’re probably paying the same price for as when they were using better quality ingredients.

Kraft Foods, once a hallmark of quality, has spent most of the last half-century buying every other food manufacturer in existence. As its acquisitions grow, its quality decreases. Investors don’t care if your Kraft American Cheese Singles are made with yak milk as long as they keep making a profit.

I remember so well the taste of a Tombstone Pizza when it came from a little factory in Medford, Wisconsin. Now that Kraft makes them, they taste pretty much like tombstones.

It used to be a big thing to eat at a Stouffer’s restaurant. I was thrilled when their premium frozen food line was introduced in the late 1960s. The stuff was good enough that NASA fed it to the astronauts on Apollo 11, 12, and 14. Enter the NestlĂ© Company and its voracious appetite for buying up and dumbing down the competition, and now the food that once fed men on the moon tastes like moon rocks.

How’s your Hamburger Helper tasting these days? Not as good as you remember? General Mills Inc. says that by reducing the number of spice and ingredient pouches in boxes of Hamburger Helper -- and by halving the number of pasta shapes used in the product line -- the company has trimmed manufacturing costs by ten percent. And by how much, do you suppose, have they trimmed the taste of their product?

Oh, and if you were a particular fan of Pillsbury Turtle cookies, you can kiss your pecans goodbye. Walnuts are cheaper.

Food companies say the changes they are making don't affect quality, flavor or nutrition. General Mills says consumers polled actually liked the walnuts just as much as the pricier pecans. (They never asked me.) And their decision to mix the chocolate chips into Pillsbury cookie dough rather than to sprinkle them on top has saved more than five million dollars in annual costs. Yippee!

But if the manufacturers say these changes don't affect quality, flavor, or nutrition, consider this: One of the big breakfast cereal manufacturers recently announced that they were reducing sugar levels in their kiddie cereals to make them healthier. Applause, applause! BUT, they revealed that they are making the changes in small increments over a period of years so that consumers don't notice the changes and stop buying the product! This is a prime example of what food analysts and discerning consumers have long recognized; that by tweaking formulas slowly and almost imperceptibly, you gradually alter the taste, so that after, let’s say, five annual alterations to the original formula, you have something that tastes completely different than it did five years ago. Therefore, slowly and almost imperceptibly, food companies are dulling America’s taste buds to accept the cheaper products they are producing.

Ask Coca Cola about that one. Remind them of “New Coke.” But when “New Coke” fizzled rather than fizzed, did the Coca Cola Company actually go back to its original formula for “Coke Classic?” Nah! They dumped in cheap corn syrup in place of expensive sugar and then tried to sell you on the idea that you were still drinking “The Real Thing.” To quote Star Trek’s venerable Scotty, “Yeah, and if my granny had wheels, she’d be a wagon.”

And it’s not just taste that is a concern. There are significant nutritional changes being implemented through the use of inferior quality ingredients. In the same manner that medieval cooks once employed heavy spices to disguise the often rotten food they prepared, modern manufacturers are loading up their wares with salts, sugars, fats, and other substances not conducive to optimal health in order to disguise the more “cost effective” nature of their product. Meat fillers like soy protein are moving from the “mystery meat” dishes in the high school cafeteria to the packaged foods on grocery store shelves. Like pigs being led to market, we’re all bulking up on fillers – but we’re saving money!

So what’s the solution? Same as it’s always been. Preparing your own dishes from fresh, natural ingredients. It’s healthy, it saves you money, and it tastes good.

Despite all the advertising gimmicks, I don’t remember the last time I bought a blue box of macaroni and cheese. And I have never, even at my most desperate extreme, bought the “10 for a dollar” variety. Why should I? With some good quality cheese – not that orange-colored reconstituted vegetable oil product, – a box of elbow macaroni, a little milk and a little butter, I’ve got better macaroni and cheese that took the same amount of time to prepare and didn’t cost nearly as much per serving.

What do I want on my Tombstone? How about, “He was too smart to fall for silly slogans.” My wife once neglected to remove the cardboard circle from the underside of the frozen pizza before she put it in the oven. No matter. They both tasted about the same. Give me a little flour, water, salt and yeast, some canned tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and some herbs and spices, and I’ll bury your Tombstone.

Sing along now, “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.” Then watch me blend some natural herbs and spices with chicken bouillon, vermicelli and long-grain rice and you’ll be singing my praises when you can’t tell mine from the packaged “chicken-flavor” product produced by Golden Grain, a subsidiary of Quaker Oats, which, in turn, is owned by PepsiCo. Only mine doesn’t contain hydrolyzed soy protein and corn gluten, monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, ferric orthophosphate, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate and riboflavin. Should yours?

Believe it or not, I do have a bottom line and it’s this: you get what you pay for. Is cheap food really worth the cost? I don’t think so.

Stand up for your taste buds, America! If the scientists are right, Mother Nature and Father Time are already conspiring to kill them off. Do you truly want corporate greed to help finish the job?

Start a revolution in your kitchen. Instead of buying the cheapest food you can buy, buy the best you can afford and then cook something fresh and delicious tonight.

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