Artisan

I hate the word artisan as it applies to food. Everyone these days is selling artisan cheese or artisan bread or artisan chocolate. This adjective could be replaced with a blank space and the expectation of what the food is would not change at all. It is common knowledge that the FDA allows companies to abuse food descriptors like ‘natural’, ‘fresh’, ‘organic’, and ‘free range’. Even the word ‘blueberry’ doesn’t mean you are actually eating blueberries. It is past ridiculous.

But that’s not why foods being described as artisan rub me the wrong way. It’s because this is just a way to make your food sound more pretentious. It isn’t akin to the labels of ‘angus’ beef, or ‘applewood’ smoked bacon. These things, while overrated and essentially meaningless, at least actually exist. Angus is a breed of cow (yes, McDonald’s buys them) and applewood is just bacon smoked with wood from apple trees (as opposed to non apple trees). Artisan, however, is just a buzz word that doesn’t even bother pretending to offer a tangible benefit.

Dominos Pizza just introduced a new line of artisan pizza and apparently some people are upset with their use of the word. OMG what are all the honest to goodness food crafters going to do? I’m delighted this is happening because it will clue the public in to the fact that the word is absolutely meaningless. Besides, if people are confusing your gourmet pizza with Dominos because of the qualifying adjective, then you’ve got bigger problems.

Arrowhead Bottled Water

We’re all familiar with bottled water these days and Arrowhead is one of the more common brands out there. I happened to notice the label the other day and saw this.

Great, so Arrowhead is trying to be green, which I find ironic since the very concept of individual bottled water is about as ungreen as you can get. Still the company is trying to do their part. Then I read the fine print.

Arrowhead. Saving trees. Killing babies.

Mexican Chorizo

Mexican ChorizoMy girlfriend says she likes Mexicans because they’re funny. I’m not sure if that’s racist but I know one thing that isn’t funny – Mexican chorizo. It’s a pale imitation of the proper Spanish styled sausage and is more of a soft sausage mush with chorizo flavoring than the actual thing.

For a little background, chorizo is a sausage originating in Spain made from good cuts of chopped pork and pork fat. It is usually seasoned with salt, paprika, garlic, and some herbs and often has a smoky flavor. You can find small thin links of sausage or larger versions depending on the usage, but since it is cured it is usually sliced and eaten at room temperature- perfect for tapas with bread and cheese. When I was in Spain you could find chorizo in all manner of grocery stores and cafes. Growing up in Miami, I am accustomed to the many Cuban dishes that use the small sausage for its strong seasoning. I can make a mean picadillo using chorizo as the secret ingredient.

Proper Chorizo

So when I moved to Los Angeles I was delighted to see all the food trucks selling chorizo tacos or huevos con chorizo or papas. I had no idea that Mexican culture had embraced the sausage to such an extent but I was sorely disappointed when I tasted the local flavor. Mexican chorizo is heavily sauced and minced into unrecognizable portions then mixed in with other foods. This didn’t taste anything like what I was used to and for the last few years I would eat chorizo sparingly, blindly hoping that I would stumble upon something halfway authentic.

The answer came recently when I wanted to pick up some chorizo for a garbage plate party. Garbage plates are… well, maybe they warrant a separate post, this time on the positive side of the spectrum. But back to the point, standing in a Mexican grocery store because the Cuban market I took for granted had closed, I was surrounded by packages of large uncooked sausages labeled ‘chorizo’. I was bewildered at what I was looking at. I realize that you can probably buy authentic chorizo uncooked instead of cured but it was more than that. These sausages were phony. They started with the worst cuts of pork and tendons, which of course required the meat to be finely ground, had the salt and garlic but usually skipped the paprika, and tossed in some food coloring to compensate. Mexican chorizo is commonly made from cheaper ingredients and runs about a quarter of the price of even American made spanish styled sausages.

Mexican Chorizo

So now I need to begin the task of finding out where I can buy good chorizo again. I am seriously considering having it shipped from Spain. Maybe I can get my brother to bring a bunch with him when he moves from there back to the states. And next time I am at a taco truck considering between my options of carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, and chorizo, I will know better. And Mexicans should too.

IPA

IPAThis post is about something very dear to me – beer. There are all types and qualities of beer but I have settled on ale as my favorite. The full bodied flavor balanced with malt and hops just has no equal. I prefer British style brown, red, and pale ales which have classically been considered bitter beers because of their use of hops. But these styles are not the kings of bitter.

India Pale Ales came into being in the 19th century. They were created as an export version of a pale ale meant to be shipped to, you guessed it, India. In order to preserve the beer on such a long journey the brewers had to use an excessive amount of hops which unfortunately made the beer overly bitter. But hey, if you wanted good beer and you were in India I guess you couldn’t complain about hoppiness. The problem is, at some point, people started drinking these export beers locally. A beer that admittedly tasted bad and was over-hopped started catching on. And thus the IPA was born.

East India Trading Company

Fast forward more than a hundred years. Americans are avidly brewing ales themselves. While there are many good American ales, many of them make heavy use of plentiful hops in the country and end up more closely resembling IPAs. I like bitter beers like Bass Pale Ale but the hoppiness and unbalanced bitterness of an IPA or your average American ale are not as palatable.

There are a lot of beer microbrews in California trying to do for beer what the region has already done for wine. You can imagine my opinion of all the local ales I have tasted since I moved to Los Angeles. And you can imagine my shock when I tried several American IPAs and found out they were a lot hoppier than normal American ales and even British IPAs. It is actually somewhat disgusting to try and drink an entire pint of one of these. I can’t think of a conceivable reason to over-preserve a good drink like this.

Man on the Moon

So that’s my rant. Ale good. Pale ale good. India pale ale bad. And Americans should stick to wine and booze.

Branding Rant #2: Sub-Branding

I feel like it’s a good time to revisit the lovely world of marketing, and what better way is there than sticking with the schizophrenic topic of food branding? Sometimes we see different marketing campaigns for the same product; other times we see the same marketing campaign for different formulations of a product. One thing is for sure – the game is about getting and keeping your attention. The kicker is, ‘getting’ and ‘keeping’ are two separate problems with many opposing solutions, sometimes with hilarious results.

Brand names are powerful. They stand for something. They keep you coming back because you enjoy and trust the brand. But they can get stale. Brands often undergo makeovers to keep things fresh, but sometimes companies want to sell something that is actually new but attach an old brand to it for instant recognition. This is where sub-branding comes in.

Let’s look at a simple example. When I mention Handi-Snacks, everyone will immediately think of one thing.

Handi-Snacks

Let’s ignore the cross-branding of including the word Ritz here. What you have is simple: the Kraft brand and the Handi-Snacks product. (Quick Aside: Note the labels of ‘Cheez’ and ‘Cheese Dip’, but never ‘Cheese’. That’s all legal maneuvering.) This is how it was in the beginning, but Handi-Snacks got too big for their own head and had to spill over into a new line.

Dunk 'Ems

That’s right. Now your favorite cheez snack is called Kraft Handi-Snacks Dunk ‘ems, a horrible perversion of punctuation and plurals. Why the need to distinguish exactly what type of Handi-Snack this was?

Pudding

That’s right. For the pudding line. Which interestingly enough, doesn’t have a sub-brand of its own. One would think they would leave the old product alone and just give the sub-brand to the new one, but maybe that’s just Monday morning marketing. Hey, at least it was for a good cause.

Pudding Canceled

Son of a bitch!

Ok, let’s change brands then. How about Tropicana? First thing that pops into your head?

Tropicana

(Quick Aside #2: I’m gonna go somewhere else with this, but imagine this marketing meeting: “What can we do to give our Tropicana brand more of a ‘tropical’ sound?” …)

Tropicana Tropics

o_O …

Anyway, back to the point at hand. Tropicana is juice. How can that be leveraged into a cool new drink?

Twister

Yes! Two or three juices mixed together in a twisted flavor? I’m feeling that. I like it so far. Is that all you got?

Twister Soda

Tropicana Twister Soda? Oh, ok, I get it. Interesting. I wonder what kind of twisted soda flavors they can come up with-

Soda Flavors

What the- Grape? Strawberry? Orange? Am I missing something here? Could they not just make Tropicana Soda? Were they worried they might weaken the brand any more than Tropicana Twister Soda would? Or is this just a case of sub-branding gone out of control?

Last one up is a famous orange soda.

Orange Crush

The Crush line expanded into flavors other than orange, and they handled the change fairly well.

Crush Flavors

Well, mostly. You and I can only guess what this is…

Crush Cream Soda

Anyway, at some point someone must have come along and thought the multiple logos were hurting the Crush brand. And after several power meetings this is apparently what they came up with (new next to old).

Crush Grape Sodas

WTF? An orange slice on my grape soda? This actually caught me off guard and forced me to do an ingredient check to make sure I knew what I was drinking!

By the way, while I have your attention, let me show you someone who’s done it right.

Sunkist

Nice little leaf gets the point across. You can have designer pictures underneath without getting in the way of the logo. Looks like a win to me. Anyway, try the Cherry Limeade. It’s my favorite new soda of the year. It tastes like candy.

Barbeque Pizza

Barbeque PizzaTwo things can come to mind when somebody says Barbeque Pizza. When I first encountered it I was in a college pizzeria that liked to put hip twists on old ideas. They had a barbeque chicken pizza which had a normal base (crust, tomato sauce, cheese) and then grilled chicken with a zig zag barbeque sauce drizzle. And it was good. And I was happy. And all was right with the world.

I don’t know who’s idea this was, but at some point companies started to replace the tomato sauce with the barbeque sauce. There are a couple valid reasons to use an alternative to tomato sauce. White pizzas were getting more popular and dessert pizzas naturally used chocolate instead. But as with any great moral dilemma of our day, it becomes hard to separate right from wrong in the gray area. I am here to put my foot down and say barbeque sauce is not a gray area- the stuff just isn’t meant to be eaten slathered on bread in those quantities.

My friend told me about a time he went to a pizza place and ordered a shrimp diavolo pie and brought it home. After taking a bite he immediately realized that this was not a normal pizza with added spice. Instead there was no tomato sauce at all- in place of the mild base was nothing other than tabasco sauce! How could this possibly taste good? It didn’t, and my friend threw the pizza away.

Pizza Sauce Rule

Next time you are in the mood for a cute new kind of pizza, make sure the Pizza Sauce Rule is in effect. It is okay to demand tomato sauce instead – I will even go so far as to say that it is your civic duty. Above all, know what you are getting into. As an informed eater, you will only have yourself to blame.

Branding Rant #1: Rebranding

RebrandingA friend of mine told me he doesn’t read blogs unless they have something to do with food. A drink is kinda like food, and marketing of drinks is kinda like drinks, so this should cover it.

Marketing is a powerful tool. At its core it is simply selling something. Even when you have a good product you need to worry about budget, theming, and reaching your audience. When you have a bad product things get more complicated and marketing may start to become deceptive. How often have we seen movies that looked good in the previews but failed to generate any pleasure to watch? Sometimes trailers only show the good parts (like all the funny jokes in a comedy) and sometimes they are misleading (like using fast cuts and heavy music to mask the fact that the film is in a foreign language).

A newer phenomenon, it seems, is using marketing to invent a product. I am not talking about infomercials that try to make you want a product that you don’t need. I am not talking about legitimately new items, either. I am talking about taking something that exists and reimagining it as a new product. Essentially, the only thing that makes this a new product is the marketing.

Woman Energy Drinks

Granted, some of this falls into niche marketing. But does that make it less ridiculous? These are real products that are pumping through assembly lines somewhere. At least they were, when the companies were still in business. More in the what were they thinking category?

Niche Drinks

Ok, that last joke was a little racist. But the point isn’t who has the better work ethic or who the superior race is- the point is that these are pretty silly business plans. It’s a sad reflection on society that these silly business plans often make money.

Vitamin water is the guilty party in this case. Marketing tells you to drink it because it’s as good for you as water, sometimes even with vitamins added. Sure, there’s some added flavor, but that’s not a big deal. Look, it’s pure! It’s water! The company is named Glacéau – that’s fancy, pretentious, and owned by Coca Cola all at the same time!

Thing is, it’s actually not a bad drink. I honestly enjoy drinking some vitamin waters. But there’s nothing new about the product. Kool-aid is flavored water. Tang has vitamins in it. Giving me a juice drink with the word water on it is fallacious. A new empty product was just invented.

Drink Comparison

To be fair, some Kool-aid does have vitamins. And some changes color too! But man, doesn’t it make you miss the days when marketing just consisted of putting eyes and a smiley face on the product you were trying to sell? Unfortunately, kids, I fear Kool-aid man is on the lam these days.

Kool-aid Man

Godspeed, old friend.