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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

BEHOLD! the humble apple

(Imagine the intro music from 2001 A Space Odyssey here)

The origins of the apple are much disputed, but many historians tell us that the ancient Romans began the breeding and cultivation of what we now know as the apple as early as 3300 years ago in 1300 BC. Historically, the apple has been touted as everything from the fall of man from God's grace (Adam & Eve) to the denture wearer's greatest nemesis in the old Dentu-cream commercials. Today we know it to contain flavonoids, antioxidants that improve immune function and prevent heart disease and some cancers. It is also high in fiber and other things that promote health. Apples were one of Hippocrates' favorite remedies.

In the US, the northwestern region produces as many as 35 million bushels a year of this tasty fruit*. Recently, President Obama grabbed four apples at a Philadelphia market and gave the salesman a dollar. Recognizing the error, Obama personal aide Reggie Love quickly stepped in with some more money for the fruit seller, who had just been ripped off by the leader of the free world**. I don't think this was a major faux pas; after all, why would anyone assume a much higher price, when apples are in-season and usually go for 69 cents a pound and up?

Yesterday, I was in HY-V market and when I passed a bin of apples, the one in the picture above called to me in that siren voice I hear sometimes, "Buy me. I am delicious and photogenic." So, I bagged it and thought about how I'd do the shot. F-values and shutter speeds, lighting values and placement running through my head, I wandered up to the register, where I found that this apple was about $2 ($3.79 a lb.), the same per-lb. price as the nectarine that cried out to me with a similar plea. These are not organic or any other unreal modernistic marketing claptrap - they're just plain ol' fruit! Really Hy-V? At minimum wage, someone has to work an hour to buy 3 regular apples in your market?

Here's a shot of the $3.79 per-lb. nectarine. Like the apple above, it has no magical properties, it didn't improve my love life and certainly didn't improve my financial outlook. They were yummy as all git out, but would surely have tasted better at 1/4th the price, I am sure. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man." I have never found him to be much wrong before, and his record holds true here too.


*Thanks to: for reference material.
**Quoted from:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Marketing: The (d)evolution of the "Smart Potato" and the duped consumer

One of my greatest professors was Dr. Daryl Hobbs, a brilliant rural sociologist and a good 'ol boy to the core. As a graduate student in his class, one was forced to actually think; there were no fill-in-the-blanks questions, and being a sociology class - few absolutely right or wrong answers..

At the start of a class with maybe 17 students, he asked: "What's the hottest toy going to be for Christmas." Being September and us being mostly half awake (as grad students are wont to be at that time of day), everybody guessed at various popular toys and baubles. When we were out of things seen on TV commercials, he said: "It's whatever the marketing people want it to be."

To start, let me present the "Smart" potato, which can be had for $1.00 to $1.50 in 1/2 lb, 1-potato units.
Smart potatoe - you've got to be kidding!

Of course, it is just a tater and it sells for about 1/4 the price of the above, by weight. The yummy staple of the American diet. Asians have rice, mid-Easterners have cous-cous and in Europe they have pasta and other grain starches. In the Americas we have potatoes.

These starchy tubers come raw, and in various cans, boxes and jars. Sliced, slivered, diced, grated, julienned, whipped, chipped, chopped, extruded, and mashed, from soup and hash to McDonald's fries - they are as nutritious as any other starch and probably contribute to the increase of diabetes in America as much as refined sugar products and twinkies ever did. How, you may ask, can you hype a blob of starch covered in a brown skin to the point where consumers would make dumb decisions and pay through the nose (or taste buds) for these?

Enter the marketing crowd. They sat around and said: "We can't add much value to this. After all, it's a tater!" This is where marketing types earn their pay. They figured that if they extole every minor virtue the spud has, under-play any negatives and package it in a different way that they could get people to buy them for about 500% of their value.

Apparently that works.The item above is just a spud, hopefully washed well and covered in plastic wrap. The insidious part is in the labeling. At the bottom, not shown here, it says "Microwaveable potato." So what? They're all microwaveable; I've been doing it for years. The label says "Hand Selected," "Simply Smarter," and "Pro-Health" too. All meaningless labeling ploys. The brand name "Smart Potato" implies that you, by the very virtue of falling for this marketing ploy, are somehow smarter as a result of wasting your money on them.

Come on guys - it's a damned tater!

The "Smart" consumer would buy the same thing for 1/4 the price and not add to our landfill problem by adding the plastic wrapper to his purchase. Other ridiculous marketing creations are: pre-sliced carrots, pre-chopped onions and bagged chopped lettuce. Most of these are sold with the idea that the purchaser is "Smart" for being a time saver, and as such they are designed for the "busy" homemaker.

Have we really come to the point in human evolution where we can't chop an onion or slice a carrot? Does it save time when it takes almost as long to open and discard the unnecessary packaging as it does to rinse and prepare our food? Seems like homemade is becoming a thing of the past where our food is prepared elsewhere and assembled at home. Kind of like our cars. Do the marketing types really believe people will fall for this? Apparently so.  How lame is that, when one can't even chop an onion?

Here's my version of the smart carrot. 
If anyone needs instructions, take it out of the fridge, wash it and use a sharp knife. It takes maybe 30 seconds and you can even take a photo when you're done ;-)
Smart carrot

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Downtown food - Uptown prices: Eating out in the 'breadbasket' of America

Columbia Missouri is a town of about 100,000 people and many college students. The downtown area, adjacent to THE University of Missouri main campus of 30k students, has historically been where all these students work, live and shop. There have always been several eateries and shops there, along with theaters and other entertainment opportunities.

Although there are a few student-oriented restaurants and music venues, nowadays downtown's nature is rapidly changing. For the most part, it is becoming an upscale dining room and haberdashery for the gentry living in the outskirts of town, while students who are more mobile often go to stores, malls and restaurants farther away or run up the Visa card downtown.

This post is about the food and drink. The whole area next to THE U is increasingly populated by 'emporiums' full of 'artisan' 'fare'. Beer has a 'finish' and a 'bouquet,' as well it should when a glass of stout ran me $7 last week while I was shooting a local musician (with a camera). Salads are now called mixed greens and are full of endive covered with vinaigrette; baguettes, pates, remoulades, lattes, chais, frappuccinos, 'legacy' ham, 'artisan' cheese, gnashes and gnocchis abound. After all, if you give it a foreign name - it must be worth more. The blue-collar hash joint is almost extinct here.

There are a couple of reasonably-priced places to get a tasty breakfast for maybe five bucks; but if you want your eggs over-easy with hash browns and sausage without a 2nd mortgage you'll have to search 'em out. Lucy's Cafe, The 9th St. Deli and D&D Cafe are three reasonably-priced places to eat; lunch about $8 and breakfast maybe $5-6. After that, it's a landscape of fast food and/or high-prices where you can break your fast (and your wallet) for maybe $10-$15 - if you're lucky.

There are a couple of cafes left in town.
Best breakfast in town
Best breakfast in town
The menu below has an egg (read 1), piece of 'legacy' ham and bread for $8.50 (with a spot of pate and a pickled onion, of course). Probably diet food - add a 3-dollar coffee and a tip and you'll be about $14 lighter when you stagger out the door.  A friend, who just took the train to Dallas, TX, said these prices are "Amtrak prices'" and that prices in Columbia are about the same as Dallas and other major metro areas.
An egg-salad sandwich is $7.50 (sides $3 extra, see menu)
The Upscale Menu - Slice o' bacon $3

On New Years eve, Sherry and I went to see the shows and have dinner. We stopped at a small Italian place on 9th Street (nice to have an Italian restaurant here for a change). The server handed us a card with the "special" - $33 for a large steak (pretty high, but survivable), so we decided to split the dinner and have a snack later. At the bottom, in really small print, it stated

"$5 for an extra plate." 

I think it's OK to jack the prices a little for the holidays; but "customary" isn't always "right"; I don't mind $50 with Cokes and a tip for a holiday dinner with my gal, but $5 to share it is just over-the-top. We didn't bite ;-)
Steak - right & wrong

So, we went down the block and had a couple of burgers for $28 (no Cokes) and stopped for two pieces of candy for dessert ($5).  
By God, we showed 'em.