Meal Kits: The Complexity of Simplicity

The Wall Street Journal: “Meal kits may make cooking easier, but getting a box of pre-portioned ingredients and instructions to a customer’s door is one of the most complicated logistics riddles in the food business. Companies have poured millions of dollars into solving such questions as how to stack fish and fennel in boxes. They’re also investing in systems to reroute shipments during snowstorms and algorithms to predict what customers want to eat during the summer months.”

“Meal-kit spending by consumers has grown three times as fast as spending in established food sectors such as restaurants and grocery stores since 2015, according to Nielsen … But companies that sprang up in garages or test kitchens are getting a close look at just how expensive and complicated it can be to deliver millions of boxes a month to customers’ homes or to supermarkets. Startups have had to devise workarounds for everything from heavy weather to diverting trucks around highway accidents, and company founders have lots of war stories, especially from the early days of their operations.”

“To help keep a lid on costs, Sun Basket, whose meal kits target health-conscious consumers, has gone so far as to set up a Midwestern distribution center in a converted limestone cave—a cheaper way to keep its products cold than spending millions to convert a conventional warehouse in the region for refrigeration. The temperature inside the underground facility remains stable regardless of whether it’s hot or cold outside, so the company spends less on electricity.”

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Store Check: Kitchen Arts and Letters

The New York Times: “Kitchen Arts and Letters doesn’t present as one of the world’s great bookshops. It has no library ladders or espresso bar, no smell of bookworm or brass polish, and nowhere to sit. It has only slightly more bookish allure than the nail salons and hardware stores that surround it on a commercial block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side … What the small storefront does house is a very deep knowledge of a very narrow subject: books about food. And that knowledge is rewarded by the kind of loyalty that induces customers to drop thousands of dollars at a clip, mostly based on the recommendations of Nach Waxman, its founder, and Matt Sartwell, the managing partner.”

“Rarely crowded, the store sees a constant stream of seasoned home cooks who know what they want … Curious culinary novices find their way in, and are tenderly guided through a series of diagnostic questions to a suitable starter book … those who have simple taste and want to cook for sustenance; those who already love to eat but never learned to cook; and those who are recipe-resistant but believe in mastering the kitchen through science.”

“But most of the store’s customers, though not present in the flesh, are the professional and aspiring chefs who routinely order whatever new volumes the owners are stocking, whether from Catalonia or the Carolinas. If they actually use the books, or even read them, is not pertinent; they act as a window into how the world’s most influential chefs are thinking, dreaming and plating … By determining which cookbooks to pull from the torrent of global publishing and send into our kitchens, they might be the most quietly influential figures in American cuisine.”

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Late & Great: Jonathan Gold

The New York Times: “In more than a thousand reviews published since the 1980s, Jonathan Gold chronicled his city’s pupuserias, bistros, diners, nomadic taco trucks, soot-caked outdoor rib and brisket smokers, sweaty indoor xiao long bao steamers, postmodern pizzerias, vintage delicatessens, strictly omakase sushi-yas, Roman gelaterias, Korean porridge parlors, Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle vendors, Iranian tongue-sandwich shops, vegan hot dog griddles, cloistered French-leaning hyper-seasonal tasting counters and wood-paneled Hollywood grills with chicken potpie and martinis on every other table.”

“Unlike some critics, Mr. Gold never saw expensive, rarefied restaurants as the peak of the terrain he surveyed, although he reviewed his share of them. Shiki Beverly Hills, Noma and Alinea all took turns under his critical loupe. He was in his element, though, when he championed small, family-run establishments where publicists and wine lists were unheard-of and English was often a second language, if it was spoken at all.”

He explained: “I’m not a cultural anthropologist. I write about taco stands and fancy French restaurants to try to get people less afraid of their neighbors and to live in their entire city instead of sticking to their one part of town.” Jonathan Gold was 57.

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Bowl Food: Comfort in Troubled Times?

The Wall Street Journal: “A good rule for modern eating seems to be: When in doubt, put it in a bowl. Gone are the days when bowls were used only for soup or cereal. These days, we put all manner of things in bowls that once had no place there, from poached eggs to smoothies. Even Prince Harry and Megan Markle chose to offer breakfast food to guests at their wedding in bowls rather than on plates … Capacious bowls feel like the right container for the Asian-oriented dishes that many of us now prefer, not to mention pasta.”

“A ‘wellness bowl,’ also known as a Buddha bowl, reassures the eater that they have all their nutritional bases covered. The ingredients are all visible, one after another, like bullet points on a to-do list: tofu, green vegetables, quinoa, some kind of obscure seeds … Our abandonment of plates for bowls suggests that we are reverting to the simpler times of one-pot cookery, liberating ourselves once and for all from fork anxiety. Today, the thing that we are most short of in the kitchen is not necessarily money but time. Sales of bowls have climbed in tandem with the rise of the Instant Pot and the pressure cooker, time-saving gadgets that produce tasty dishes too sloppy for a plate.”

“Both bowls and spoons have always been associated with children; spoons are the most benign utensils, lacking the sharp edges of a knife or the spikes of a fork. It is from a bowl that most of us take our first gummy mouthfuls of solid food. The rise of the bowl in our lives suggests that many eaters are in a permanently fragile state, treating every meal as comfort food. In a world of alarming news, maybe we all need something to cradle.”

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Slow Sizzle: Raising The Peak Steak

The Wall Street Journal: “There are cows that eat only grass and roam free. There are Kobe cattle, whose muscles are massaged for months to tenderize the meat they eventually produce. And then there are José Gordon’s oxen. An animal lucky enough to be part of the restaurateur/rancher’s herd in northwestern Spain gets to laze about in mountain pastures redolent of thyme and other fragrant herbs. It is stroked with metal brushes. It might even get a pedicure … the cattle in Mr. Gordon’s herd are allowed to live for years, sometimes close to their life spans of nearly two decades, before being turned into steaks for his restaurant.”

“Mr. Gordon, proprietor of Bodega El Capricho in Spain’s Castille-Leon region, believes he knows when an animal in his herd has finally reached its peak condition and is ready for the abattoir. He decides this by the look and feel of the animal. It’s a matter of instinct, Mr. Gordon says. A few weeks too long or too short can mean less-than-perfect meat … The current king of Mr. Gordon’s herd is 16-year-old Divino, a majestic animal of 3,700 pounds, nearly triple the weight at which most beef cattle go to market. Mr. Gordon has nicknamed him El gran jefe—the big boss—for his haughty manner.”

“Such care doesn’t come cheap. Mr. Gordon estimates each animal costs nearly $3,000 a year, in a combination of its feed, hoof care and vet bills, which is at least twice the cost of traditional ranching. A steer like Divino, who will probably go to slaughter this year, will have cost more than $30,000 to raise. Mr. Gordon says he breaks even on most animals, charging €120 a kilo (about $63.50 a pound) for a premium chuleta steak that he says is more delicate than regular beef … Mr. Gordon admits he loses money with some of the animals he keeps longest.” He comments: “I believe that what I do is mystical, magical. It goes beyond profitability. This is my work and my world. I would never change it.”

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Stout Sells Out: How Big Beer ‘Goosed’ Sales

The Wall Street Journal: “The popular image of the brewing industry is of a war between Craft and Big Beer. It’s small, independently owned breweries facing off against multi-billion-dollar corporations hawking bland-tasting beer with outsize control over the global market. These terms are useful for drawing battle lines in the beer world, but as Josh Noel explains in ‘Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out,’ the reality is slightly more complicated … Mr. Noel’s book recounts the rise of Chicago-based Goose Island Brewery, a vanguard name in craft brewing that was purchased in 2011 by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the biggest and baddest beer maker on the planet.”

Goose Island was founded in 1988 by John Hall, a box-company executive with a taste for European beers … Big Beer could not afford to ignore upstarts like Goose. Anheuser responded to the craft-beer boom by developing its own artisanal styles and buying stakes in a number of small breweries. But the threat to Big Beer seemingly abated when craft’s swift advance suddenly skidded to a halt … That downturn was one factor that led it to agree, in 2006, to the sale of a large minority stake—to a brewing company partially owned by Anheuser.”

“Goose sales spiked 60% within a year. In 2004 Goose had produced 50,000 barrels of beer; in 2011 that number had tripled. But its success became its own obstacle: Goose couldn’t brew enough beer to meet insatiable demand. So it ‘sold out’—agreeing in March 2011 to a 100% sale to Anheuser for $38.8 million … There’s a contradiction at play in the relationship between craft beer and big business. On the one hand, as Mr. Noel spells out, craft won the war by forcing the world’s largest brewer to change. On the other, it lost by being commandeered by that very same company.”

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Why America Screams for Ice Cream

Boston Globe: “From the tables of European royalty to a bag of 10 Hoodsies for $2.98 at Market Basket, the story of ice cream echoes that of the American experiment — democratization, fueled by technology, ingenuity, and mass marketing. In the three centuries since the first ice cream recipe was published in English, this frozen food has become an integral part of American identity. Ice cream forms the slushy bedrock of our childhood nostalgia; it’s what people are supposed to eat after a break up because it makes you feel better; it’s the thing that Americans replaced drinking with during Prohibition. It looks great on social media (31 million #icecream photos on Instagram and counting), and, of course, it tastes really good.”

“Ice cream is now a nearly $60 billion a year global industry, expected to grow to nearly $75 billion by 2024. Americans are no longer the world’s top consumers of ice cream — that crown goes to China — nor do we consume the most per capita (that would be Norway, that dark horse). But although we are eating less of it than we did even five years ago, Americans still love ice cream, consuming 13 pounds of the stuff per capita in 2016 and spending $6.6 billion on it in 2017. The ice cream industry in the United States has remained stable in large part because we’re willing to pay more for it when we perceive it as ‘premium’.”

Margaret Visser “writing in ‘Much Depends on Dinner,’ noted that ice cream has become ‘invested, in European and American cultures, with what amounts to mythic power.’ Though ice cream has become cheap, it has never been quite cheapened. It remains ‘a sound and tasteful alternative to the empty vulgarities of junk food,’ Visser wrote. It exerts a pleasant nostalgic pull, for that lost childhood, for an old-fashioned time past, for a golden era that doesn’t exist now and probably never really existed, for what Visser describes simply as ‘elsewhere,’ — the country, the holiday, the seaside. Or to put it another way, as Vora said, ‘Ice cream is just fun’.”

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The Future of French Fries

The New York Times: “A new type of fry starts in the ground. At its farm in Paterson, Wash., Lamb Weston grows half a dozen potato varieties on 20,000 irrigated acres, tracking even the most minute differences in hydration, temperature and other environmental factors. Potatoes with less water make for crispier fries. Too much water can make them limp … Workers monitor the fields from the Pentagon of potatoes, a room filled with computers that monitor soil conditions, crop maturity and irrigation. The plants are tested every week to measure their nutrients, a sort of blood test for plants. Using those results, workers can adjust how much water they give the crops.”

“Lamb Weston started testing a longer-lasting fry two years ago. Employees on a visit to China noticed dozens of delivery scooters outside a McDonald’s. They figured the trend would go global, and wanted to be ready … Lamb Weston had already developed a French fry batter that could keep fries crispy for 12 minutes. So food scientists at the company’s laboratory in Richland began tinkering with the recipe to extend a fry’s life even longer. When the fries drop into the hot oil, the batter, made mostly of uncooked starch, cooks instantaneously to form the crispy outer layer.”

“To protect the fries during delivery, the team created new packaging to keep out moisture while allowing for the right amount of ventilation … Plastic bags or tightly sealed containers turn into little saunas, making French fries soggy quickly. A paper bag, lightly folded over, is a better option … Back at the laboratory, food scientists duplicate different hazards, packing French fries in white paper bags next to cold milkshakes or moist hamburgers. Bags are left alone for 15 minutes, others for 30 or 45. Their heat is measured using infrared cameras … Testers check how they fare. They take bites of chocolate, crackers and other foods, using them as benchmarks to rate the fries’ crunch, sweetness and other attributes.”

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Cottage Cheese: Not Just for Punishment Anymore

The New York Times: “American companies like Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy company, have given their cottage cheeses makeovers, packing them into smaller, sexier packages and asking retailers to move them away from the sour cream and closer to the yogurt. New lines have interesting mixes of fruit and nuts, and some producers are experimenting with millennial-friendly additions like probiotics and chia seeds. Flavors are expanding beyond dusty stalwarts like pineapple to include kalamata olive, habanero chile or cumin. The goal, according to industry analysts, is to ‘uncottage’ cottage cheese — or, as one dairy executive put it, Chobani it’.”

“That’s where cheese makers like Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the founders of Cowgirl Creamery in Marin County, Calif., come in. The key is very fresh skim milk from a well-run local dairy … Overnight, luscious, tender curds slowly form. In the morning, cheese makers cut them into pieces no bigger than peas. They cook and stir the curds … to release some of their acidity. Then the cheese makers drain the whey and wash the curds three times. The last step is the dressing … Cowgirl Creamery uses crème fraîche, and calls its pleasantly tart product clabbered cottage cheese … ​It’s not inexpensive. A 5.3-ounce container will cost a little less than $3.”

“Rekindling the love affair may be wishful thinking. There are a lot people who just are never going to like cottage cheese … Even Ed Townley, the chief executive officer of Cabot, isn’t convinced that cottage cheese is poised for a comeback, even though his company makes about five million pounds a year … Perhaps cottage cheese could be whipped to smooth it out, or made more spreadable, like ricotta cheese, he said. And then there is the name.” Mr. Townley comments: “It conjures up this old-fashioned image where you think of a cottage. Bottom line, it’s not sexy. A very clever Turkish name or something would go along way.”

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Step Right Up: Hot Dog Water

Global News: Thousands of people packed Vancouver’s Main Street on Sunday to take in the annual Car Free Day festival. And among the food vendors, merchant stands and music was one stall that stood out, inviting the public to enjoy a chilled, refreshing, healthful glass of Hot Dog Water … The drink’s impressive marketing advertises it as gluten-free, Keto diet-compatible, rich in sodium and a source of electrolytes. It also promises to help the drinker lose weight, increase brain function and look younger.”

“A bottle of Hot Dog water would set the adventurous water fan back $37.99, while a Father’s Day special’ will get you the bargain price of $75 for two. Hot Dog Water lip balm, breath spray and body fragrance were also for sale.”

“Tucked into the fine print at the bottom of the Hot Dog Water sales pitch is this: Hot Dog Water in its absurdity hopes to encourage critical thinking related to product marketing and the significant role it can play in our purchasing choices.”

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