Sunday, March 26, 2006

Meal Assembly Centers - An Illusion of Home Cooking

The NY Times ran an article today- Meals That Moms Can Almost Call Their Own - describing a new trend - places where people can go to assemble meals. They provide the kitchen, the meal planning, the ingredients, the prep, and the instructions and the clean up.

Apparently this is aimed at people who are tired of take out and restaurant food but who don't have the time and/or ability to cook.

According to the article, "The centers are opening at a rate of about 40 a month, mostly in strip malls and office parks in the nation's suburbs and smaller cities, and are projected to earn $270 million this year, according to the Easy Meal Prep Association, the industry's trade group."

Good idea or just another example of how low American eating culture has sunk? With a blog with the address backtothekitchen.blogspot, you know my opinion.

But I'll leave it to Indian food goddess, Madhur Jaffrey to have the final word:

"People basically don't want to cook but they don't want to be told they are not cooking..It's an illusion."

Monday, March 06, 2006

An Afternoon at the Reform Club with Tony M.

Every now and then I get to spend an afternoon away from work and other obligations. Instead of business or children, I am focused on food, specifically a very long lunch with friends. Invariably these kinds of moments always seem to be spent with my very good friend - Tony Manley. He is British and is as worldly as any person you’re likely to meet (he’s visited over 60 countries in his lifetime). He is also one of the few people I know who loves good food and wine as much as I do.

Tony and his wife currently live in Aix-en-Provence and I have been lucky enough to visit him there about once per year. But I’ve also had a couple opportunities to meet up with Tony when he’s back visiting his children in the UK. In late February, we were able to rendezvous in London for what turned out to be an extended and very memorable lunch together.

We met at the Reform Club and had lunch in the dining room. The Reform Club is a VERY British institution. It was founded in the 1830’s and was the seat of the Reform political movement in England. It describes itself as:

"The first home of classical liberalism, where the spirits of Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, Hilaire Belloc, and other intellectual adventurers live on. To all those of fair argument and good cheer, our doors open wide."

Nowadays, it’s a place for business and government movers and shakers to meet and do deals or whatever they do. Not exactly the kind of culinary or gastronomic locale Tony and I would usually visit. But this is where Tony often hangs out when he visits London. The food is surprisingly good. The accommodations are quite comfortable and the location is in the heart of central London, close to the West End theatres and Royal Opera House that Tony so enjoys frequenting.

The building is stunning. I’m told that it was modeled after a Venetian palace. Upon arriving, you are required to walk up several steps and enter a great opeb cathedral-like first floor hall. Look up about five stories and there is a huge glass ceiling/skylight. Along the four corners of the room are great pillars and the walls are covered with paintings and portraits.

The dining room is very long and somewhat narrow with a view of the back garden. Like every room in the Reform Club, it has very high ceilings. Like England itself, it is venerable, majestic and steeped in tradition. It is also oddly comforting.

Now on to the meal:

I had a chicken and corn soup starter with coriander cake that sounded quite tasty but turned out to be a scrawny nibble. Tony started with the Coquille St. Jacques (scallops) that looked a whole lot better.

We both had the chef’s special “saddle of lamb’’ – it seemed like the shoulder cut to me, but it was very good nonetheless. Tender and juicy, although a tad bit fatty. Alongside the lamb we indulged in more traditional fare - mashed potatoes, peas and spinach. Rib-sticking stuff. We washed down the first and second courses with a bottle and a half of the ‘Reform Club Claret’, a nice cherry like Bordeaux.

For our 'pudding', I had a trifle – very rich – and Tony had a plate of cheese. He chose several English cheeses and one French, a Banon, which is non-pasteurized and difficult to come by in the US. Of course, I expressed interest in the Banon and Tony had them serve me a piece. Stinky. Gooey. Sublime.

We repaired to the upper level for coffees and two Armagnacs each - a very civilized way to finish a proper lunch. After much conversation we looked at the clock and realized it was tea time – 5 p.m.! So of course, we set off for the library for a pot of tea and tea cakes – in this case something that looked like a hamburger roll with raisins in it. It was sliced in half, toasted and served with melted butter.

By six p.m. we were off to get our respective tube trains – me to Paddington Station and the train to Oxford and Tony to Richmond, no doubt for a nice dinner with his son and family!

Just another afternoon with Tony M!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Free Enterprise Yes, Brainwashing and Deception No

I believe in free enterprise.....
I believe in consumer choice.....
I believe that parents are primarily responsible for decisions about what their children eat and drink.....
I am not a proponent of legislation by lawsuit.....


We cannot continue to allow food companies to brainwash our youth and poison our population peddling products promoted through pervasive advertising without challenging their blatant and all-consuming attempts at creating demand (some would say mind control) - aimed particularly at young children and calling attention to the disasterous societal consequences caused by over consumption of their products.

Talk About Disinformation
This blog entry was triggered by an "In All Fairness" 'commentarmercial' entitled, "Cartoons Spark Outrage" that appeared in the New York Times on February 27, 2006. It was written by Daniel J. Popeo, Chairman of the Washington Legal Foundation, a group advocating and lobbying for the agenda of large corporations.

You can read the full commentary on WLF's website.

The title of the piece is a not-so-subtle and rather undiplomatic comparison to the recent uproar and violence sparked by the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed published in Denmark. The author seems to be implying that food fanatics belong in the same camp as violent and crazed religious fanatics.

Popping Off At Popeo
Okay, now that I've gotten these courtesies out of the way, I'm taking the gloves off. Mr. Popeo is a professional big business lobbyist trying to portray cartoon characters used to aggressively market junk foods to kids as benign and beloved children's characters. He assails two groups in particular- The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood - as anti-business, lawsuit happy, food fascists.

I'm not in favor of making junk food illegal or banning its advertising (although some very responsible medical professionals such as the head of the World Health Organization are advocating the latter action). But anyone who has ever watched kids programming on commerical TV or looked at the packaging of food products for children knows that many large food conglomerates are irresponsible in their marketing, advertising and product formulation practices.

Mr. Popeo casts these groups confronting the big food companies for their marketing practices as loonies visciously attacking beloved and benign cartoon characters such as Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. After all, what right-minded person could see Ronald McDonald as a threat to humanity? Well, on the surface these commerical characters certainly seem harmless - until they are gotten hold of by the marketing hype machines of the big food conglomerates. That's when they are turned into pushers.

Mr. Popeo doesn't stop at raising his alarm against attacks on allegedly innocent cartoons. He also lists several seemingly beloved products that he claims are on the food fascist's hit list such as 2% milk and whole milk, Eggo frozen waffles, and Campbell's soups. As he says, "Yes, even chicken noodle soup".

After all, what person in his right mind could ever attack something as wholesome as chicken noodle soup? Excuse me Mr. Popeo, but you are obviously in the thrall (if not the pockets) of companies like Campbells who advertise soups like tomato, chicken noodle and mushroom as some sort of `condensed maternal love in a can'. Give me a break! Have you ever looked at the ingredients in this stuff? Absolute crap - a day's worth of sodium and enough additives to keep chemical process plants running 24/7 year round. "Gee thanks Mom for going to all the trouble to open and heat up this delicious bowl of artificial ingredients. This proves you love me."

While products like canned soup and other processed foods are indeed junk, they shouldn't be made illegal. That is going way too far - if you like this stuff or don't care what's in it then have at it. And of course sadly, this kind of food is all some people can afford or have access to.

But what needs to be regulated is the food companies' deceptive marketing practices that mislead and misinform the public- and especially children - about their products. I'm not in favor of going after big companies with lawsuits simply because they have deep pockets, but in a few cases it may be the only way to get their attention and to establish some leverage against their money and power.

But according to Mr. Popeo, any attempts to put restrictions on food companies will simply kill free enterprise and limit individual choice. Well, I certainly don't want anyone - advocacy groups, government or food companies dictating what I can and cannot eat. But this country is in a terrible state - what numerous health professionals and organizations are calling a crisis - largely because many consumers are ignorant about nutrition, conditioned by pervasive and insidious advertising and confused by the conflicting information about food and health produced by the media. And kids in particular are being brainwashed - pure and simple. Something has to be done.

Out With Idealogy, In With Common Sense
This isn't an idealogical agenda - it's common sense. Look at the health care crisis that is now exploding in the US and in other parts of the developed world as a result of eating too many empty calories. Teenage type 2 diabetics - unheard of before the 1990s are now common for crying out loud! If obesity continues to grow at its current rate, health care costs will bankrupt the entire country in the next decade or so.

Okay, so maybe its going too far to heap ALL of the blame for this dire situation on food companies like McDonalds, Nabisco or Nestle's, but they are a big part of the problem. Using a drug pusher's defense - we're only selling people what they want - doesn't change that. Wouldn't it be great if we could take some of the $10 billion a year they spend on advertising junk food to kids and use it to provide nutritional education programs to kids and parents? Or start up edibile school yard projects so that kids can learn about and grow real food? Or provide more choice in school cafeterias such as organic and natural foods?