1: which is actually two things in one. Nicole bought some half & half the other day from our local artisanal food jobber. This is primarily a butcher shop, but they also sell local dairy products, eggs, etc., etc.
When she got home, she noticed that the sell-by date had already passed, by about 24 hours. She called the place, and they told her that the next time she came in, they’d give her a free quart of half & half. Additionally, the store now knows that either they’re not getting frequent enough deliveries from the dairy, or that the dairy is selling them nearly-expired products.
In a completely separate matter, Nicole took some olive oil back to the local grocery store the other day, because the stuff wasn’t actually olive oil. If you know what olive oil is supposed to taste like, it’s pretty easy to tell the stuff that’s 5% olive oil and 95% bean squeezings; and if you’re not familiar with olive oil, an easy way to tell is that olive oil turns solid when you put it in the refrigerator. This stuff didn’t.
Nicole didn’t tell them that she was returning this because it had been misrepresented, and was in fact not at all what it said on the label. Try explaining all of that to the bored teenager working at the grocery store: the only difference between that and not saying anything is that you will have done some talking, and you will have been looked at like you have lobsters coming out of your ears.
It’s virtually impossible for a customer to get a message (like: “You are selling counterfeit olive oil”) through to anyone with any decision-making authority at a company with more than about 20 employees. The end result? We’re probably not going to be buying olive oil at the grocery store any more.
2: At a different grocery store today — Wegman’s — I noticed an interesting thing. Most of the products are arranged not by function, but by ideology. Or by ethnic origin.
By this, I mean that there was one department full of nothing but hippie tea, from relatively ordinary things like Red Zinger all the way to Japanese roasted twig tea. Then there was another aisle full of ordinary tea, ranging from Bong Ho Industrial Tea Concern Ltd. Sachets Of Reconstituted Tea Sweepings (864 ct.) all the way up to Red Zinger, the hippie tea for people with jobs.
Then there was a huge aisle full of Coke and Pepsi and so forth; but if you were looking for Coke with sugar in it, you wouldn’t find it there. You had to look in the aisle full of Mexican food, where they had Mexi-Coke by the bottle or the case, next to twenty kinds of Tamarindo. According to Wegman’s, the Hecho en Mexico Coke is more like Tamarindo than like, say, Coke.
There were three separate selections of chocolate bars:
Yuppie chocolate, all of which is the color of tires, with oh-so-subtle labels promising that the things contain little more than cocoa stuck together with the absolute minimum of binding agents;
Normal candy, which ranges from the low end of yuppie chocolate down to Hershey bars and Nestlé Crunch;
Candy typically sold only in Exotic Lands like England and Germany and Canada.
Similarly the digestives are next to the English mustard, not next to the other cookies; the Radenska water is not next to the Perrier and the San Pellegrino, but next to the other German things (though Radenska is actually from Slovenia); and so on and so forth.
All of these things are widely scattered, so if you actually want to see your mineral water options, or the cookies available, you have to be prepared to wander all over the store. Which may be the whole point: but in my case the result of this kind of thing is that I always feel like I’m somehow missing the thing I’m really looking for, because my taxonomy does not match Wegman’s.
More annoying than that, the effect is to ghettoize this stuff, so that you’re not going to consider, say, the German mustard when you’re looking for mustard in general; you’re only going to see the German mustard if you are looking for German things in the first place. The most important thing about the mustard, Coke, digestives, etc., Wegman’s is saying, are not their food natures as mustard, Coke, and cookies, but rather their country of origin.
3: I think that all of this points to a problem the United States has with the culture of eating. You actually see the same thing at work all over the place, but it’s much easier to demonstrate with food.
I started thinking about this again while watching that Jamie-Oliver-Feeds-The-Hillbillies show on ABC.
I shouldn’t really call it that, because Huntington, WV, where it takes place, is a small city, with trains, and an airport, and an Interstate, and a navigable river, and so on and so forth. True hillbillies are the result of the incredible isolation that a lot of West Virginia produces; you can easily have to cover 150 miles there to get 20 miles away from your starting point in a straight line. Huntington is actually a fairly nice place.
But according to the CDC, it’s also a fairly fat place, in fact the fattest town in America: Fat City U.S.A. And so Jamie Oliver has come there to teach them all to eat.
Oliver cooks meals, and tells them to stop deep-frying everything, and tries to get the schools to actually cook food rather than reheating frozen stuff, and that’s all fine and well. The most interesting thing happened when he cooked something or other in a school that required knives and forks.
And it turned out that a lot of these elementary-school kids didn’t know how to use utensils. I don’t mean that they weren’t very coordinated: I mean that they really had no idea what the heck they were doing. The strong impression is that they’d never used a knife or fork before.
And that seems likely, because they seem to survive on a diet of nothing but chicken nuggets and french fries. I have nothing against either chicken nuggets or french fries, mind you, but these kids really do seem to eat nothing else, unless it’s some other variety of state-fair midway food being served up for dinner. They inhabit a completely different food culture.
Think about what you eat at home, when you cook from scratch. If you never do this, think about what your mother or grandmother might have served. The meal that I’m envisioning is a smaller, non-gut-busting version of Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner: you have some meat, and some vegetables that are recognizably vegetables, and possibly a salad (though salad is never, ever part of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners for reasons I haven’t figured out), and so on and so forth. You sit down and eat most of this off one plate.
Now try finding that in a restaurant.
You can get a specific version of it in a steakhouse, from a fancy place with a special port-wine cellar all the way down to Ponderosa and its ilk. And you can assemble it at Old Country Buffet. But nearly all restaurants instead serve either some conspicuously ethnic food, or what I call stunt food.
Stunt Food is all branded and specialized, and mostly unrecognizable as anything other than its branded, specialized self. The Bloomin’ Onion® is a perfect example, as is anything that comes to you while sizzling in any manner, as is the entire menu at TGI Friday’s.
Some of this is just logical: the restaurant needs to offer you something that you can’t easily do at home for 10% of the cost, and there are some things that you can pull off in a restaurant kitchen at scale that are difficult or impossible to do at home. But people must like the simple meat-and-two-veg meal, or they wouldn’t go on making it at home so much. And it’s almost non-existent outside home kitchens. Cracker Barrel delivers things that are vaguely similar, but their enormous portions at least push them up against the Stunt Food line.
Why the hell is this? Why is our food culture so messed up? Why is the country of origin or the market segment more important than the basic nature of the food for organization at Wegman’s? Why are the things people eat in restaurants and at home almost completely different? Why does nobody seem to notice this?