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Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

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From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!

3. MÅURICE

IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.

 

4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.

 

 

 

 

6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!

 

 

 

 

7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.

 

IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!

 

 

Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!

 

((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

Producing Meaning (Picture Prattle)

26 Jun

I walked into Trader Joe’s yesterday on a mission to buy watermelon. I walked out with a camera full of pictures, and a blog post on my mind.

It all started with some peaches.

File_009.jpegRight when we walked in, we saw a display of “Peach Pie Peaches.” We wondered what that meant. Did it mean they’re perfect for pie? That they taste like pie? Or was it simply a catchy alliterative name for a new variety? We concluded it was probably the latter, and started to walk away. Until my boyfriend noticed that the package said “heirloom flavor.”

IMG_0169.JPGAnd that’s when this post started to come together. The phrase “heirloom flavor” is a perfect example of product copy that confuses more than it clarifies. “Heirloom” technically refers to produce that comes from heritage seeds. Heirloom produce is usually considered more flavorful than other varieties, and also more “pure” since it isn’t cross-bred. But what on earth does “heirloom flavor” mean? Does it mean that the peaches taste like they could be heirloom, since they’re so flavorful? Does it mean the peaches are heirloom? Or is it simply a copywriter’s attempt to infer quality?

I tried to resolve this mystery via my good pal Google, but never sorted it out. It looks like Family Tree Farms did sell heirloom peaches at one point, but it’s unclear if the peaches at Trader Joe’s are that variety. It’s possible these specific peaches aren’t heirloom, so “heirloom flavor” was the best they could say from a legal perspective. It’s possible they used to call it heirloom but had to stop due to regulatory reasons, and now can only say the suggestive phrase “heirloom flavor.” It’s also possible that someone added “flavor” in an attempt to amplify taste appeal. In the world of food marketing, “flavor” can add or detract from perceived appeal depending on how it’s used. Think “vanilla-flavored” vs. “full-flavored” or “flavorful peaches.” Language is nuanced, my friends.

I’ve done a fair number of packaging projects, and it’s always really fascinating what ends up on a package. Package copy is largely made up of “claims,” phrases that explain a product’s key attributes and benefits. Typical claims are things like “gluten-free,” “no artificial flavors” or “provides 6g of protein.” In this case, “heirloom flavor” is a claim that effectively means nothing, since its intended meaning is so unclear.

Claims work alongside the product name and branding to tell the product’s story at shelf. So, many companies choose to plaster their packages with as many claims as they can, hoping to touch on every topic their target consumer might care about. I’ve written claims before, and I’ve also tested them in focus groups. I will tell you for a fact that consumers don’t read most of what’s on a package. And yet, companies continue to use as many claims as they can.

Here is an example from a more classic type of packaged good: cookies. Look at how the Goldfish brand has spread different kinds of messaging all over its package, from texture cues to health benefits. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that almost every packaged good you buy is telling a story with claims. Next time you’re out buying snacks, take a closer look at the package copy – and then let me know what you think!

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Candy for Lunch

14 Jun
Goo Goo

Old ad campaigns on display at the Goo Goo Cluster store

On a recent trip to Nashville, I stopped at the Goo Goo Cluster store to buy myself a treat. The store doubles as Goo Goo’s “history museum,” and an old ad caught my eye. “A nourishing lunch for a nickel,” it said.

I had to giggle. After all: Goo Goo Clusters are candy, a mix of chocolate, caramel, nuts and marshmallow. Delicious? Yes. Nourishing? I wouldn’t say so.

And yet, Goo Goo advertised their candy as a “nourishing lunch” well throughout the 20s and 30s. That slogan wouldn’t work today, for reasons that go far beyond ad regulations. The old ads position Goo Goo on this idea of sustainment, a filling meal that keeps you feeling good throughout the day. That might have worked back in the day, but today’s consumers have different perceptions of what’s healthy, and what’s “acceptable” as a meal. In today’s society, consumers simply wouldn’t accept the notion of a candy bar as a “sustaining” lunch.

The Goo Goo ad made me think about perceptions of health and sustenance, and how they shift over time. Words like “healthy” and “nourishing” sound like they should have concrete definitions – but their meaning evolves along with consumer understanding and beliefs. Just take a look at what’s happening with grains: in the last decade we’ve shifted from idolizing the low-carb Atkins diet, to idolizing whole grains, then ancient grains… and now 17% of U.S. adults actively avoid gluten altogether.

Today’s consumers root their food “truths” in a different story than we’ve seen before. There is significant pressure for big food brands to clean their ingredient decks, offer “healthier” options and enable smarter choices. We’re seeing a lot of big CPG brands struggle, while smaller “challenger” brands swoop in to meet evolving consumer needs. Smaller brands swoop in because they can – they’re nimble, with a strong sense of purpose that’s focused on meeting today’s perceptions of health and nutrition. Rather than trying to reverse old products into a health-focused strategy, they’re planning for today’s needs from the start.

Over time, Goo Goo started calling their product candy instead of lunch. That’s the right way to go for products that can’t fit into modern perceptions. But for a lot of big brands, there are in-betweens: taking out artificial flavors, adding trendy nutrients, creating new products with health benefits. Where there’s a consumer need, there’s a way. And as consumer conceptions of wellness continue to shift, classic packaged goods brands will need to keep an eye ahead of the tide. Simply knowing what today’s consumer thinks about health and wellness won’t suffice – because by the time you’ve reacted, public opinion may change.

This post was originally published on my company’s blog – check it out on the Sterling Brands site

Food Is Not Content (and neither is your life)

13 Mar
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From People.com

Remember those crazy complicated, towering milkshakes that made the Internet rounds earlier this year? Available in flavors like Cotton Candy, they included so many add-ins and add-ons that they literally rose above their glasses, in a seeming feat of structural engineering. They blew up on sites like Buzzfeed and were shared all over social media as people ogled the wonder that is a super tall, super crazy milkshake. Lines formed outside their source, NYC’s Black Tap, as people clamored for their chance to try one of these milkshakes themselves.

And, of course, to get a picture doing so.

This same story has played out dozens of times. Whether it’s croissant/muffin hybrids dubbed “cruffins” or croissant/donut hybrids dubbed “cronuts”- we keep seeing food-focused media frenzies. The word gets out, lines form, people get their hands on the treasured treat- and then the onslaught of social media posts begins.

city bakery

An example of a time I chased down a certain bakery and it lived up to the hype. And yes, this picture got lots of likes. (City Bakery, NYC)

Of course, my post title isn’t entirely true. Food CAN be content. I personally have a baking blog, so clearly I think food is worthy of clicks and discussion. And I am totally one to chase the latest food trends, even if it means going out of my way to find a renowned bakery or restaurant. But, when foods become trendy, you tend to see photos glorifying the creations for their structure, their combination of flavors, their sheer creativity. You don’t see many posts talking about the food itself, though. That isn’t super hard for me to believe: I’ve been to the home of the aforementioned Cruffin and seen people spend more time photographing their food than eating it. But after the milkshake frenzy, I got curious what people had to say about the milkshakes themselves. So I Yelped the restaurant. Some rave reviews, but many posters conceded that the milkshakes looked better than they tasted. Once you got past how cool it looked, you realized it was actually pretty hard to eat and perhaps too complicated to taste great. It was more about the “WOW” picture than the “WOW!” flavor. But while their Yelp reviews told the truth, I’d bet you their Facebook shots simply said the “WOW!” part without the fine print on taste.

Now, I’m not trying to diss Black Tap: I haven’t been and can’t speak for its shakes myself. I’m simply using this as an example of a broader trend: accepting an experience as valuable because of what it shows others, rather than what it gives YOU. I’m noticing a trend toward thinking of our lives as “content.” When you start doing things to get the perfect photo for Facebook, and not because you really want to- that starts to cross a murky line. When you get excited to try a food trend so you can show everyone you had it- even though the food tasted terrible- you start to put real life enjoyment behind social media envy. When you tell your kid to smile, even though they’re crying, so you can get the right shot for Facebook- what does that mean about us as humankind?

It’s one thing to capture great moments or great meals or great friends. All things I love to do. It’s another thing entirely to put how your life looks, above how it feels. To plan your moments or meals around what you want others to see. I think we’re still learning how these mindsets shift our behaviors, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. Whether we seek the perfect beach shot or the perfect milkshake, it’s easy to get caught up thinking our lives are content. And the more we think about how our life looks to others, we’re probably forgetting how our lives feel to ourselves.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking “oh this would look great on Facebook.” And I take a step back, put my camera away, and refuse to let myself post it. Extreme? Maybe. But it’s effective to knock myself back into the moment, and into judging whether I’m actually enjoying the experience- or caught up wanting to show others how awesome it “looks.”

Baking Inspiration from the Fancy Food Show

24 Jan

I had the joy of attending the Winter Fancy Food Show last week. This biannual trade show is produced by the Specialty Food Association, an industry org that connects manufacturers, buyers and food professionals. Officially, I was at the Show for my day job as a brand strategy consultant. I work with many packaged food clients, so I always try to stay on top of industry trends. Of course, as a food geek, I was downright giddy about getting to attend a trade show. The show featured a mix of newer and established brands, spanning everything from mayonnaise to pasta to gourmet honey. Some of the products were basically what we’re used to seeing, e.g. potato chips. And then there were products that are just now breaking into U.S. markets, like edamame pasta and cricket chips.

I only saw one teeny section of the show, but even in that small sample I noticed a marked shift in what’s on offer for American consumers. There is a good writeup of the show’s macro trends here on the Specialty Food Association’s website. I agree with their takeaways and also noticed a big shift in how people are talking about their products: lots of allusions to “better for you,” implying improved versions of something we’re already used to (e.g. chips made from alternate grains). Lots of “controlled decadence” verbiage labeling bite-sized or single-serving desserts (e.g. 100 calorie brownies). And, of course, numerous references to “small batch,” “artisanal” etc., which is the basis for a different blog post I plan to write.

Today, I want to talk about something more personal: how the Show affected my baking scheming for 2016. So without further ado, here are some notes on what I saw, and how I expect that to trickle into my baking this year.

20160120_064012.jpgBolder flavors and unusual combinations: The U.S. market has seen great growth in “innovative” flavors over the past several years, and it’s going to keep growing. I have always been a sucker for “intriguing” flavors in my desserts and am so excited that these bolder flavors are going more mainstream. I tried a delicious Bourbon Pepper Caramel Corn from The Art of Caramel and now am brainstorming ways to meld those flavors in a balanced baked good- I’m thinking cookies might be the right fit. I grabbed a sample packet of the Spice Hunter’s Coriander Lime blend, which is probably going to make its way into a quickbread of some sort. I also have been thinking up ways to use Salted Caramel Fig Spread and Guava Jam (I’d already been thinking about guava since I went to Brazil, but trying the delicious guava paste from Guayeco Foods made me think about it more!)

20160120_064105.jpgTurning up the heat: Spicy and hot flavors have been growing in popularity the last few years. I saw many products that incorporated Sriracha, chili and peppers. I actually can’t handle spicy food- you should see my face when I try to eat spicy Indian curries. But: I love a spicy kick to my baked goods and really enjoy things like chipotle as a spice in my cookies, brownies and cakes. I am determined to find a way to bake with the Smoked Chili Honey I picked up from Gran Luchito. I also grabbed a delicious spicy chocolate bar from Wild Ophelia, which inspired me to bake with actual peppers.

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Flavored oils and sugars: I saw a lot of flavored oils and sugars on offer at the show. Much more than I see at the grocery store, which makes me hope these sorts of products will be coming to mass supermarkets in the coming years. I was particularly inspired by the Blood Orange Olive Oil Brownie baking kit I saw from Sutter Buttes. Personally, I’ll pick up a bottle of their Blood Orange Olive Oil and try a from-scratch brownie recipe rather than using the kit. Still, I love and appreciate their baking kit line, because it brings unique flavor combos to home bakers of all sorts and stripes. Olive oil is great in baked goods and I am excited to see what added flavor comes from their flavored oils.

Veggie substitutes: I noticed a TON of snacks riffing off vegetables (and fruits, too). My favorite sample was actually from a line made for toddlers: simple snacks made from real fruits and vegetables with just a slight amount of oil, and some light frying to crisp it up. But I also saw “veggie versions” of adult snack foods like chips and snack bars. I keep saying I’m going to bake with more vegetables but haven’t actually fulfilled that pledge. Let 2016 be the year that I put veggies in my baked goods!

That’s it for now- even though I could write pages and pages about what I saw at the Show. Keep an eye out for recipes stemming from this inspirational trip!

Note: this post is cross-posted over on my other blog, Sugarsmith. That blog focuses on baking and dessert- so if you’re into such things, check it out! 

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