Why I Think I Hate the Instant Pot…

By now the dust has probably settled on the instant Pot craze (and I mean that literally as I’m sure about 75% of them are likely sitting on the top shelf beside the slap chops and magic bullets).  Although they were hotter than a Hatch’em over the holidays, it goes without saying that it won’t top the list of intelligent gifts on February 14.  Valentine’s day, the first commercial aftershock of the Earthquake called Christmas, is hardly about anything practical and it would be an utter disappointment to be so unthoughtful.

When it comes to my feelings about the Instant Pot, I guess the biggest question is whether it’s a good thing for humanity’s relationship with what we eat or just another example of culinary sacrilege equivalent to Nutrigrain bars and TV dinners. On one hand, the Instant Pot has at least refueled an interest in cooking.  People are keen to actually purchase raw ingredients even it means throwing them all in a magic pot for a ridiculously short amount of time to see what happens. On the other hand, the demand for needing things completed instantly has almost gotten pathological.

Rosie the Robot Maid

First of all, why haven’t they made a live action Jetson’s movie?  I’m sure Emma Stone could team up with Damian Lewis, Seth Green or Benedict Cumberbatch in all-ginger starring cast depending on whether she wanted to pad her acting resume with a drama, comedy or oscar winner film respectively. Perhaps the plot could involve a spine-tingling adventure in which the couple tries to determine how two redheded parents could possibly have blond and silver-haired offspring.  Perhaps the role of Rosie the Robot maid could be  split cast between the Instant Pot and the iRobot Roomba 980.

I think many people dream of one day having their own Rosie in the future and the Instant Pot is a surrogate.  Perhaps as we get closer to a Rosie in every home we will see a closed loop system in which Alexa (who based on what I’ve heard from some is not the most intuitive of virtual friends) tells the Roomba 980 what to throw into the Instant Pot so one can arrive home with a delicious meal waiting.  As I mentioned, such an automatic process makes me question what we are doing with our relationship with food.  It seems to me that using the Instant Pot might be more important than what comes out of it, especially when you have the ability to use annoying hashtags like #instantpotential or #instantpotoninstagram to brag to your instagram friends. Making spinach dips, stir frys or roasted chickens in the Instant Pot, however, seems a bit counterintuitive to me as preparing them are normally quick and/or easy anyways.

jetsons
Rosie Looks a Little Angry..maybe she’s afraid the Instant Pot will steal her job.

 You’ll have to wait a minute cause it’s an instamatic.

The words above are one of the many brilliant lyrics penned by the late Gord Downie. From the song “So Hard Done By”, I think it speaks of the ongoing conflict humanity has with time and the need to wait for anything.  Just like money, time is a commodity and we decide how to spend it.  I get irritated at people who tell me they don’t have time for the gym or television or buying their own groceries.   Like money, how you use your time is a choice and there is usually enough for most things so let’s no don’t disguise choice, good or bad, as a by-product of not having enough time in a day.

What does this have to do with the Instant Pot? Simple…people crave any perception that they are saving their precious time even if they aren’t. You can’t tell me that roasting a chicken in an Instant Pot actually saves any time.  You still need to prep the bird and clean up the pot after.  The only variable is how long it takes.  These are two different concepts.  It’s kind of like Amazon prime.  It takes the same amount of time to order regardless of which means we use; the difference with prime is we get it earlier.  Let’s not mistake saving time with a lack of patience or the desire to get something immediately.  They are two difference concepts.

so hard done by
Lyrics for “So Hard Done By” taken from http://tragicallyhiptour.blogspot.ca/2011/04/so-hard-done-by-lyrics.html

The Dan Brown Phenomenon

Dan Brown burst onto the scene in 2003 with the Da Vinci code, his sophomore effect in the successful Robert Langdon series.  I’m not a huge fan of Dan Brown’s writing per se but I think his brilliance was taking the concept of religious symbolism and instead of writing a textbook what would sit on a shelf (likely beside an instapot), he transformed his theories into a fictional novel. Despite a weak plot and poorly developed characters, the Da Vinci code has sold around 80 million copies and has people looking at their dollar bills a little more closely.  I call the ability to disguise something as another for the purposes of  increased exposure and/or profit the Dan Brown phenomenon.

Let’s be real…the Instant Pot is nothing more than a glorified pressure cooker.  This technology has been around since the 17th century and the science really hasn’t evolved much since.  It is the sole reason, after all, why Top Chef contestants can cook short ribs to near perfection in under an hour; a process which usually takes at least three. Despite the fact the ability to cook food faster by simply adding pressure has been around for almost 350 years,  all of a sudden people are fascinated at the fact they can cook a chicken breast easier and faster than microwaving a hungry man dinner.

da vinci code
The Genesis of the Dan Brown Phenomenon 

The Instant Pot: The Universal Remote Outside the Family Room 

Maybe proponents of the Instant Pot will argue that it’s not the ability to pressure cook that makes it the best thing since sliced bread (although I believe the Lux model might actually slice bread as one of the features). They will instead argue that its multi-functionality is the key to its brilliance. The ability to steam rice, warm soup, saute veggies, set the pot to porridge setting and even make yogurt all in the same device seems revolutionary.  This has likely lead to kijiji sites across the country lighting up with hundreds of only-used-once crock pots on sale due to “downsizing” for $20 o.b.o. My only issue is, much like losing the universal remote, you are screwed if anything happens to the all-in-one device and you may end up in a situation where you may actually have to remember how to turn on an element to boil some water….providing you have any pots or pans left in your dwindling reservoir of kitchen items.

universal remote
The Instant Pot of the Family Room

My Take

I’m still on the fence about the Instant Pot.  On one side, i think it has sparked a re-interest into getting people back into the kitchen with the intention of trying to cook using raw ingredients.  This has been coupled by a sizable social media community posting cool and innovative ways to use the device suggesting that cooking may actually be fun again. The device has infused a sense of pride in both those with curious culinary minds who want to truly play with their food and those who are kitchen amateurs and can take pride in the fact they cooked spaghetti with “homemade” sauce in one pot.

On the other hand, the Instant Pot is another example of the constant propaganda intended to give us immediate satisfaction with minimal effort. It’s a glorified vending machine and  another step toward Rosie the robot and the near complete automation of food preparation.

In the end, it’s not really about saving time but instead about feeding our need to satisfy our ever increasing impatience. The Instant Pot will eventually join the graveyard of kitchen gadgets with the likes of Gotham pans and George Foreman grills. Until then, people will continue to exercise creativity in efforts to abandon primitive cooking practices including using a stove top and a skillet, ultimately saving a few minutes while only washing one pot.  Personally, I’ll continue to roast chickens, make stirfrys in a wok and buy my yogurt for $1.99 in a tub at the grocery store.  If I do ever get an Instant Pot, it will likely be on kijiji, partially because I can feed my impatience knowing I can get it right away.  Even Amazon prime would take a day or two …even if I eventually figured out how to use Alexa to help me order it.

 

 

 

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Medieval Times, #metoo and Mourning the Way we Eat

After being hyper-vigilant for a few years, i fell off the blogging bandwagon for most of 2017.  I can probably blame a universal shift or some other cosmic phenomenon but it’s mostly because I got jaded and lazy. I won’t spend much time on the laziness but will focus my efforts on the former.  I’m prone to jadedness…some say it’s in my DNA.  Perhaps it’s that I’m a disciple of Darwin and his theories of natural selection and the theory doesn’t seen to working at the moment.

I’m not about to go off on a general social commentary but I will bring my observations and feelings back to what I love to write about…food.  What we eat and the industry surrounding it has not been immune to the utter stupidity that has infected the world over the past half decade.  Whether it be social media, the deprioritization of what we eat as part of a dining experience or the utter ignorance of everything wrong in one of the most corrupt industries in current society, the relationship between who are and what we eat is at an impasse. Unless we really evaluate what we are doing and rethink things, we may end up severing a relationship that has been evolving for thousands of years.

To this day, one of the most important books I have ever read has been “You Eat What You Are; People, Culture and Food Traditions” but Thelma Barer- Stein.  I first read it during a university course as part of my nutrition degree.  It opened my eyes to the wedded yet delicate relationship between humanity and what we eat.  It used to be quite simple; you ate what was around and developed a culture around that.  With the advent of transportation, increased exposure to foods from all over the earth and a rapid fusion of many cultures in a span a few decades that strong cultural history is being forgotten, opening the doors to those with creative business minds to redefine and reinforce new ways for consumers to belong to their definition of food culture.  Unfortunately, Dr. Barer-Stein left us in 2017 but I would have loved to sit down with her just for a few minutes to get her reaction to how, in a matter of a few years, managed to destroy our relationship with what we eat in the same fashion as what we have done to our precious environment.

Social Media

Social media has been one of the biggest catalysts in the destruction of our relationship with food. At one point establishments survived based on word of mouth and quality of their menu as opposed to their elaborate social media platforms which are endorsed by hipster zombies who know how to use hash tags.  Speaking to a friend, reading a review in a newspaper by a food critic (with proper prose and complete sentences) or getting you hands on a hard copy of a Zagat review has been replaced with uncensored bias reviews written in broken English by people revered for the quantity as opposed to quality of what they post.  Yelp, for example, rewards those who post glowing reviews about every Tim Horton’s in town, citing things like “The coffee was priced similar to the other Tim’s across town” or “I saw they had maple dip donuts which is amazing because we live in Canada”.

Instagram is probably worse. True..a picture does speak a thousand words but unfortunately these photos are usually selfies representing  “look what I have and how cool I am” versus “look at how good this looks”.  Take the Starbucks unicorn frappuccino for example.  Anthony Bourdain called it “the perfect nexus of awfulness. Just add pumpkin spice to that mix, and you can nuke the whole county”. I couldn’t agree more. In addition, I would argue it was one of the biggest reasons for truancy in 2017. High school students flocked to their local Starbucks instead of math class to get their hands on one and the main driver was bolstering their social media status.  Being one of the first to post yourself looking like a giraffe sucking back heavily dyed 400 calories (complete with 10 g of saturated fat..the same as a Big Mac) and adding a clever hash tag like #iskippedschooltodrinkthisshit or #sweetthensourjustlikeme elevated your profile to new heights (at least for a few hours or until somebody posted a new puppy or something).  In other words, food has become an accessory in a fashion similar to a designer purse or a pair of Hunters.

bourdain frapp
Unicorn Frappuccinos and Social Media- The even more perfect nexus of awfulness.

Medieval Times

In the restaurant industry, food has slowly fallen from the centre of attention.  At one point, people went out to have a good steak or the best eggs benny in town and actually communicated with those around them.  Now it seems an experience out has become synonymous with heading to the CNE for Medieval Times in which you enter a rambunctious environment and watch a bunch of costumed knights put on a show while you wear a crown and slurp cold tomato soup from an iron bowl before tearing dry chicken off a leg bone with your teeth. Now, instead of jousting horses, you can go to most restaurants and be surrounded by similar barnstormers.  Whether you are into pretentious aristocrats with fake accents or sullen hipsters with the menu tattooed on their arm, you can choose your own adventure.  What’s even better is that in most cases the environment is so loud that you don’t even have to have a conversation with the person or people you are with. This is a definite advantage when you have to hang with annoying friends or family members or maybe with a match.com date that just isn’t working. Listen, I not saying that I don’t appreciate spending my money on a good overall experience which includes great service and a cool vibe but it can’t come at the experience of the food.  I don’t think too many people have left medieval times saying the show sucked by the food was great.  We can’t be lead to believe that the reverse mentality should exist for a place where sustenance should be the primary objective. Furthermore, we have succumb to the mentality that, unlike medieval times when servers were servers, it is acceptable for us as patrons to accept and encourage the sadistic attitude of those we pay as part of our bill.  In other words, the acceptance of the current culture puts yet another barrier in the  longstanding and evolutionary relationship between humans and the food we eat.

med evil
The Supporting Actor of the Show

#metoo

I want to clarify that I’m not against all social media.  In many cases it can be used to unify like minds, promote a business or allow for free expression.  The #metoo movement has been one of the best examples of an important use of social media…sort of.  The core of the movement is long overdue as sexual harassment by whatever definition you choose to use has been running rampant for years.  Part of the magic of facebook and other outlets is to allow the unification of people with commonality regardless of their position on the social ladder. A 50 year-old business executive who hit a glass ceiling because she wouldn’t engage in relations outside her job description has as much clout as a 19 year-old waitress who was inappropriately touched or verbally by a restaurant manager. Unfortunately, special interest groups (including Hollywood and yes, I do refer to Hollywood as a special interest group) have hijacked the cause. I’m not suggesting that making millions of dollars is an invitation to be sexually harassed.  My point it that turning the Golden Globes into a funeral for the male species fueled by speeches of presidential intention don’t speak for the thousands of men and woman who may live in a constant environment of exploitation not to live in a mansion on the hills but instead in order to  pay their rent in a one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store.

I have a 17 year-old daughter who worked for a local restaurant.  A number of months ago she discussed a sexual  harassment issue with management.  A cook in the kitchen easily 40 years her senior continuing made references about how he would like to have babies with her.  When it didn’t stop she brought it up with management and the solution was “he was warned”. The behaviour stopped but she was fired 6 months later. It was shortly after she was promoted to a serving position by one of the managers although she was not yet of the alcohol serving age.  She was doing well until the owner came in and complained.  The pattern continued…every time he would come in he would complain and harass the staff about an underage server right in front on my daughter. I still remember the night she came home and told me she was fired.  I asked her why and she said they told her she was moved to a job she couldn’t handle and her old spot wasn’t available.  When I went in to discuss it was a manager I was told it was because she missed work too many times (she called in sick once because she was…ummm…sick and other the time was because our dog of 5 years acutely went blind, fell down the stairs, shattered his front leg and had to be put down).  The termination letter stated even a different reason for her dismissal.  My point is, sexual harassment or not, employees in food service are treated like cutlery and other inventory and it has to stop. In general, they are at the highest risk of exploitation given the history of the industry, the need for gratuities to survive and the hierarchy and balance of power that exists. Simply making Mario Batali a celebrity sacrificial lamb and wearing black designer suits and gowns while you sip expensive champagne while ignoring the hundreds of other who wear short black skirts because they are pressured to and SERVE expensive champagne speaks to the Hollywood hypocrisy that plagues most social moments that exist. I really hope we see a dedicated movement in the restaurant business which recognizes harassment and even goes as far as to promote a harassment free menu and environment with the same awareness and passion that has been used for gluten and peanuts.

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Season 75
And get Oprah Winfrey to sing my euology….

My Take

Much like our relationship with the environment, if we do not reevaluate our interconnection with what we eat in short order (pardon the pun) then good food will become as scarce as clean air and water.  We need to show some gratitude for the food we eat and the people who serve it to us. I’m not suggesting we bow our heads and say grace (although I’m sure some marketing genius will find a hipster way to do it soon),  I certainly didn’t take a selfie of me gorging on Grandma’s jelly salad or give her a slap on the ass on the way past the Thanksgiving table.   Maybe we can use social media presence to promote the businesses and people who work hard to respect the food we eat and the people who make and serve it instead of using it to pad our inflated virtual egos.  Maybe it’s time to realize that Hooter’s was founded in 1983 and yes, things have changed since then. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that hikes in minimum wage and automatic 18% gratuities do not give us permission to treat food service staff like subordinates (although I’d ask the same in return). Finally, in the words of the late Thelma Barer-Stein, maybe  it’s time to think about eating what we are and not whatever the output of the latest, flashy marketing campaign tells us to.

 

 

 

Hey Hipsters: Give the Ice Cream Back to the Kids for Sweet Jesus Sakes

Ice cream used to be a kid’s food.  As a child I would eagerly await the warm weather so that we could make the pilgrimage to one of the Dairy Queens in Sudbury (which at the time were nothing more than stands and were only open in the summer).  Otherwise, I would store change under the mattress in the event that the Dickie Dee ice cream bike decided to grace our street with it’s presence.  My mother didn’t necessarily approve (perhaps because there was a good chance the driver was a pedophile) so I was careful not to order the phantom because the carcinogenic purple dye stuck on my tongue would be a dead give away when I got home again. The rare time I traveled past the Hungry Bear in French River or the Espanola turnoff (depending if I was heading south or west) there was an off chance we would stop but  was usually few and far between and usually centred around my mother’s craving for a scoop of Tiger Tail.

Dickie_Dee
And who said diversity wasn’t prevalent in the 80’s?

Unfortunately, in a manner synonymous with walkers infiltrating cities across America, hipsters have decided that ice cream in now in their wheel house.  Maybe it started earlier than I thought.  Years ago, Dennis the Menace was scrapped as Dairy Queen’s “spokesperson” and replaced by savvy commercials and sultry lips beckoning those with the wallets to come and bring the kids if you want.   A bigger testament to this theory is what has happened in Toronto.  Grown adults are now forfeiting coffee houses and Netflix marathons to stand in line for hours to pay asinine amounts for ice cream.  In most cases, kids are nowhere to be found.  Take Bang Bang Ice cream for example.  In addition to the possible sexual connotations of the name, I previously blogged that was there one night I got in line only to find soft-core cartoon porn projected onto the wall while a hipster dad in front me in line (who presumably only went to grab the kids an ice cream sandwich) had to cover his hipster kid’s eyes.  In other words, their ice cream came with a side of ass.  A second example was a recent trip to Sweet Jesus, the newish soft serve joint.  Shunned by some zealots for its anti-Christ antics like an emblem featuring an upside-down cross or a website that ironically features satanic looking children with tattoos, pet monkeys and gold chains, a key characteristic of this place is a disgruntled and tattooed ice cream artist taking your order instead of a 16 year kid who has their first job and splotches of melted product all over their shirt.  The flagship location is a few blocks away from the Rogers Centre and I sat watching the parade of people waiting to score a treat.  From the other direction a dad and his daughter (who was maybe 12) arrived.  The look of befuddlement on the dad’s face was priceless.  I could read his mind as he looked down at his daughter’s equally puzzled face.  Essentially he was thinking that all he wanted to do is get his daughter a cone after the game and the limiting factor was an hour wait because of a bunch or grown adults were waiting in line.  I’m sure if the girl was confused or upset or both but they quietly departed perhaps in search of another post-game treats that wouldn’t be impaired by Toronto’s urban “walkers”.  Maybe these places should have a kid’s express lane where parents can bring their kids for a quick and porn-free ice cream experience.  Trust me…the hipsters don’t mind waiting….it makes them cooler and gives them opportunities to discuss their social angst, explain their tattoos and show off their baggy jean shorts.

For Adults Only...at $6.50 a pop too
For Adults Only…at $6.50 a pop too

 

 

I fully acknowledge that this is likely another trend that the hipsters have plowed through similar to tacos, burgers and anything with kale but I’m hoping it is short lived.  We have already removed a good portion of our children’s ability to be kids with social media stimulation and fears to let them explore their own neighbourhoods.  Let’s give them their ice cream back for Sweet Jesus sakes.

I Can Save More Than Walter O’Brien’s IQ on a box of Froot Loops

Some people are addicted to television. For some it’s booze. Others it’s food.  For me, it’s all three.  From a television perspective, I watch the spectrum but I’m partial to dramas.  From gritty HBO shows to cheesy cable crime fighting, I’m a sucker for it all.  One show I’m partial to is Scorpion, the absolutely ridiculous account of the life of Walter O’Brien, a man who supposedly recorded an IQ of 197, the 4th highest in history.   Him and his band of social misfits (including the actor who played “Shit Break” in the  American Pie franchise) hang in a garage and await for various facets of the government to call them for help landing planes, breaking codes or minimizing the impact of natural disasters in urban areas.  There seems to be no job too difficult for the crew but I doubt even Scorpion’s team of geniuses can match the kind of magic people like April and Chastity can perform during a episode of TLC’s extreme couponing.

scorpion walter o'brien
A Striking Resemblance

Couponing has evolved from the days of clipping paper with the same skill set required as needlepoint to needing a post-secondary education in advanced mathematics to decipher deals driven by algorithms which consist of more variables than a quadratic equation. For the purposes of argument, I will focus on my trifecta of food cost savings; flyers, checkout 51 and  PC points.

Flyers

Flyers are the blueprint of the ultimate cost saving experience. A mere glance through  the colourful pages tells you where the cheapest bread, potatoes or Nutella are.  For some, they price match.  Personally, I am against the practice of price matching for two reasons.  First, I hate making people wait for me and the thought of rifling through pages of pictures like I’m looking at mugshots after witnessing a crime makes me very uncomfortable.  Second,  I hate when I’m wrong and the last thing I want to do is be corrected by a snotty 18 year old cashier when I try and price match the wrong jug of Tropicana orange juice. I cringe at the thought of her snarled nose as she tells me “Sorry sir, but that’s the three point forty nice litre jug you have, NOT the two point sixty three litre one”. Rumour has it that grocery stores will phase out price matching in the near future.

There is a list of grocery items I refuse to buy unless they are on sale which includes pop, yogurt and cereal.  I also have a strict rule that I will not pay more than $0.25 per roll of toilet paper.  I won’t pay triple figures for pasta or a box of Kraft Dinner and cheddar cheese needs to be less that $5 a block. For other items, it’s like playing the price is right; you just get used to the prices and can easily bust into a game of grocery game or Hi Lo at a moment’s notice. In order to enforce these rules, I often need a detailed itinerary to ensure maximum efficiency. This involves minimizing unnecessary driving and understanding which stores will have the highest chance of such items in stock.

Checkout 51

I got hooked on the Checkout 51 app about a year ago and have since banked just shy of $250.  The premise seems simple enough.  Every week, you get a list of products which, after purchase, you scan the receipt and receive a cash reward.  There are numerous advantages to this app. First, in most cases (unless otherwise stated), you can buy the products anywhere.  Second, there are often big name and well recognized products such as Tide, Kellogg’s cereal and hair/beauty products like Dove, Axe, Pantene etc.  There are also practical deals for things like..umm…lady essentials.  On the fun side, you’ll get the odd McDonald’s offer and even discounted BOOZE including a few bucks off select beer, wine and even spirits.

The bad news is the fact that many of the offers are limited in number and there are cases when I got home and was too late to scan my receipt. Damn them!  Also, you have to remember not to use your receipt as a facial tissue or a chewed gum depot before you have had a chance to snap a shot.  Another factor is the fact that many of the deals repeat themselves and before you know it, you have a arsenal of dish soap large enough to survive a zombie apocalypse.

The need for Walter O’Brien comes in again when you are offered further savings for buying multiple items.  For example, sometimes if you buy 4 back to school products they will throw another $1 into your account the next week and yes, I have gone to 4 different stores to get the 4 items to get the extra buck.  I never said I didn’t have a problem.

PC Points

The introduction of PC points was deemed an evolution in points programs.  This promised to be a smarter program which analysed your buying patterns and offered deals on that basis.  It’s a bit creepy and at the same time a bit random. I mean, I get offered points for dog food regularly but this week I can save on farmer’s market muffins and boxed meat;two things I never buy although I’ve been with the program for well over a year.

You accumulate points until you have at least 20 000.  Some people will redeem ASAP while others will let the points build with some expectation that at some point they may be able to buy the store or have enough t buy food for their kid’s university career.  For me, I save the points until I have to buy something I hate spending money on.  This year, I got a great Fraser Fir at Christmas time for free.

Once again, the services of Scorpion may be required to understand PC points. The issue is the way the points are awarded.  For example, last week  I could get 1000 points for every $4 spent on Tre Semme hair care.  With three girls in the house, this was a no brainer.  The problem was the product was on sale for $3.97.  So, by buying two I got 1000 points because I was six cents short of 8 bucks. The other problem is you can only redeem an offer once.  For example, you may get 100 points for every dollar you spend on beef.  If you want to get steak at Loblaw and ground beef at Superstore, you need to decide which would cost you more and go there first so you don’t waste you deal on the cheaper product. Another reason to have Mr. O’Brien on speed dial.

The Trifecta

One of the most gratifying grocery shopping experiences is when you complete the trifecta in which you find a flyer deal which is also on checkout 51 and offers PC points.  This happens about an often as an eclipse but is just as exciting. It goes something like this…you open up the No Frills flyer to see Delissio pizzas on for $4.44.  When you open the PC points app, you also see that you get 1000 PC (the equivalent of a dollar) for every $4 spent. Finally, you flip open Checkout 51 to see that you can get a buck off a pizza as well.  In the end, the pizza costs $2.44 and you feel like you won the lottery.

My Take

I’ll admit I have a problem but I get great joy when it comes to saving money on food. Sure, I sometimes buy things I really don’t need so I build up PC points or Checkout 51 dollars but in the end a little extra time can lead to big savings and bragging rights.  Yeah..that’s right.  I have sent pictures to friends with step by step pictures and text showing  how I earned three cents buying Dove antiperspirant with a flyer special, Checkout 51 and a sheet on stick on coupons I got from a buddy and  keep in my trunk for a rainy day.  In the end, I’m no Walter O’Brien (although I could use his help sometimes) but I think keeping my mind sharp with couponing not only saves me money on shampoo but saves me having to subscribe to luminosity.com to spare my cognitive decline.

 

 

 

 

What if Jeff Foxworthy was a Hipster instead of a Redneck?

I went to school at the University of Guelph which meant I got to know a lot of agriculture students, many of which are self-proclaimed rednecks. I also grew up in Sudbury.  As a result, I could relate when Jeff Foxworthy burst onto the scene in the early nineties with his signature “You Might Be a Redneck” franchise. To this date, I still laugh at them. The latest one I heard was “If you have just been interviewed about the tornado for the fifth time…you might be a redneck.”  I appreciate his humour in the sense that, like Jerry Seinfeld, he can make fun of the boring antics of Caucasians through astute observation.

This got me thinking what would happen if Jeff were a hipster.  I think he would have a field day with the antics of this outrageous urban subculture. There are definite differences between rednecks and hipsters. For example, ask both what PBR means and one would reference professional  bull riding while the other would ask for a beer.  I’m not pretending for a second that I’m some hilarious comedian but I do eat out a lot and have been immersed in this culture long enough to make some general observations.  So here is my attempt at “you might be a hipster”:

  1. If you read your tattoos to kill time on the subway…you might be a hipster.
  2. If your wardrobe is less diverse than Fred Flintstone’s…you might be a hipster.
  3. If at least one of your T-shirts has a picture of Fred Flintstone…you might be a hipster.
  4. If your happy hour starts at 10 pm…you might be a hipster.
  5. If your pre-set iPhone alarm contains nothing with the letters “am” in it…you might be a hipster.
  6. If your meaning of gelling with someone is comparing the product in your slick backs…you might be a hipster.
  7. If your primarily using your Bachelor of Arts to sculpt your mustache…you might be a hipster.
  8. If you live above where you eat…you might be a hipster.
  9. If you know the difference between crudo and carpaccio but not the difference between walk and don’t walk…you might be a hipster.
  10. If you can identify Nicaragua, Columbia and Kenya in a cup but not on a map…you might be a hipster.
  11. If you have “ubered” yourself for a ride home…you might be a hipster.
  12. If your definition of a car payment is $10 to a food truck…you might be a hipster.
  13. If you wait longer for a taco than you do a medical procedure…you might be a hipster.
  14. If you think “gimmie the skinny” means taking off your tie…you might be a hipster.
  15. If you need to register your beard with animal control on an annual basis…you might be a hipster.

I have no plans to quit my job and join the Plaid Collar Tour anytime soon but hey…it helps ease the pain.

Food Deserts: The Comestible Topography That Brought Unilever to Its Knees

I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s.   The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical  regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price.  Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as  the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford.  It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis.  This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice.  I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.

The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience.  As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof.  Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg.  A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film
Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare.  There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there  was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do.  Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited  the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished.  The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private.  When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.

(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)

I got thinking about this and  a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion.  There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.

1. Big Business versus Big Business

Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves.  We are not talking small mom and pop shops either.  The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada.  As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel.  Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.

2. Convenience versus Necessity

We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity.  It also comes at a price.  If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice.  I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf.  The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities.  In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.

3. Government Responsibility

The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato.  Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful)  public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption.  I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet.  I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible.  If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario.  Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.

food guide
Health Canada’s Answer to Food Deserts

4.  Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns

The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement.  Some question how real mayonnaise actually is.  On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole.  That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this.  I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line.  A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants?  A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point  is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog  (I think I’ll tackle this one separately)  but it is ” real” food for thought.

My Take

A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis.  As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing.  In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section.  This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities  will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.

I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains.  An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way  weekly flyer specials  from the parent company work.  Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created.  I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative.  Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could  test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.

In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert.  The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods.  The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.

 

 

 

Everything I Know About Hipsters I Learned from Watching the Walking Dead

I have recently jumped on the Walking Dead bandwagon.  For the past month or so I have religiously hooked up Netflix and plowed through episode after episode, taking periodic breaks to sulk whenever a major character gets killed off.  The show has taught me a few things.  First, it convinced me that in the midst of a zombie apocalypse humanity would not unify to preserve its existence.  Instead, the balance of power would become crucial and opposing human survivors with a functional capacity greater than that of a newborn would be more of a threat than a drooling pack of the undead. Second, the more I watched the show the more it made me understand hipsters.  I have struggled with the concept for a number of years but watching the show has brought a much needed clarity that allows me to comprehend and somewhat accept, if not empathize with, the hipster lifestyle.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters travel in packs

Zombies wander aimlessly through forests and streets with one purpose; to eat. Hipsters travel for the same reason.   They walk  urban streets  like amoeba through a digestive tract,  weaving around sidewalks and down alleyways in search of sustenance . In doing so, they remain rather unaware of their surroundings which in some cases includes moving motor vehicles, puppies and non-hipsters.  The latter can take advantage of this phemonemon by setting hipster traps. Whereas a zombie can easily be corralled  using a large pit or a wall of sharpened sticks, the hipster can either be distracted by noise (see below) or other strategies. For example, having a member of your party slow down in front the oblivious pack allows your friends to rush to the door of the destination and scoop the last table well before the hipsters can get there.  Such a strategy was employed by some of my family members outside of Beast  in Toronto during brunch and it worked like a charm.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are attracted to noise

Anybody who watches the show knows that zombies are attracted to noise.  Packs of them have been known to veer completely in the other direction with anything from the clinking of pots, the rattling of a fence or jumping up and down repeatedly  and screaming “over here!”  The same rings true of the hipster.  Although the noise does not need to be of an auditory nature, it needs to satisfy the impulsive nature of the hipster and may include things like a semi-lit neon sign, a sandwich board advertising a happy hour or the promise of a 45  minute wait in order to eat a beef cheek taco.

An example of a hipster distraction tool
An example of a hipster distraction tool
  1. Skin blemishes are key characteristics of both zombies and hipsters

Skin blemishes are a key identifier of both groups.  The presence of decay and discolouration, usually the result of partial death and the lack  of SPF 30,  is a sure fire way to pick out a zombie.  For a hipster, look for colourful sleeve tattoos, quotations or foreign language mantras peppered somewhere on the surface area of the skin.  This is not to say that these blemishes can’t become a clandestine feature of either group.  A good makeup job, some body spray and a little human love was enough to disguise a zombie in the motion picture “Warm Bodies” while a donning long sleeved plaid shirt nicely hides the floral arrangements and depictions of exotic woman on the forearm of a hipster. Unfortunately, all the Drakkar Noir and Abercrombie and Fitch in the world can’t camouflage the obnoxious behavior exhibited by each  which means an astute observer can easily see through the façade.

  1. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Although each zombie in a pack is a unique individual, little regard is given to that individuality of the zombie by outside observers. They all have distant looks on their faces. People tend not to discern between the old and young, male and female or still human like versus quite decayed.  A zombie is a zombie.  Hipsters are much the same. They all have looks of angst on their face. Externals do not differentiate hipsters based on the size of their ear spacers, their sleeve tattoos, what side of their head their hair is parted on or the colour of plaid shirt they are wearing. A hipster is a hipster.  To be fair, there is a subtle difference between the two groups in this regard.  Zombies don’t KNOW they are zombies and hipsters don’t THINK they are hipsters.

A Pack of Zombies
A Pack of Zombies with distant looks
A Pack of Hipsters
A Pack of Hipsters with looks of angst
  1. Both zombies and hipsters relish the “nose to tail” concept

Although they do it for different reasons, both zombies and hipsters adopt a nose to tail philosophy when it comes to eating.  Zombies are not particularly fussy in regarding their diet and will consume anything  they can get their hands on.  The hipster is slightly more discerning but will often include foodstuffs such as  jowls,  liver pates, animal glands and heart tartare. I suppose the difference is that a zombie takes little pride in consuming an entire organism while the hipster will tweet, facebook, yelp, zomato snapchat, Instagram or tumble such milestones not to mention the likelihood of a “Keep Calm and Eat Sweetbreads” shirt surfacing somewhere in their wardrobe.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are primarily nocturnal

The walking dead zombies are a bit atypical from those depicted in other television shows and movies in that they are not overly adverse to light.  That, said, one can argue that they prefer the evening hours for feeding.  This is true of the hipster.  Feeding hours usually begin after dusk and will proceed until the wee hours of the morning.  This is not to suggest that hipsters, like zombies, are adverse to eating during the day.  There is a ritual in which hipsters do hunt and feast outside of the dusk to dawn hours…it’s called brunch.

  1. You don’t mind watching them from a distance but you sure as hell don’t want to be there.

While watching a walking dead marathon, it quickly comes apparent that there is no rest for the human characters.  Just when you think Rick and the gang are safe, a hole in the fence or an evil human henchman foils the plan for long term safety, forcing the protagonists to flee and the cycle continues.  I sit there watching, grateful that I don’t have to spend my life, like an antelope,  looking over  my shoulder wondering if I’m about to get eaten. It is extremely uncomfortable but I can’t get enough.  I have the same feeling when I see a pack of hipsters.  There are fun to watch from a distance, but the thought of actually being involved in the dynamic is as frightening as an encounter with a walker.  Sure the smell of hair gel and musky cologne  may be slightly better than that of decaying flesh, but the same lack of personal space and relentless monotony of behavior  would simply be unbearable for any extended period of time, let alone 5 seasons.

  1. You can get rid of them by messing with their brains

Any object inserted in the right part of a zombie’s head  is enough to curtail any immediate threat .  Swords, shovels, sticks and arrows are all effective tools in this regard.  For a hipster, the use of such weapons would be illegal and unnecessarily cruel.  Instead, aiming your assault at their mental acuity is much acceptable. Engaging in general trivia including references to key historical events or geography  outside the hipster universe (such as areas in Ontario outside Parkdale) works nicely.  Also, referring  to the evening hours in military time (ie. Hey, it’s 2100 hours..don’t you think you should go home now?) or  listing menu items that include cents (ie $17.00 vs 17) may be enough to clear a room of hipsters with relative ease.

I think we are in the midst of a hipster apocalypse.  Although I wish Max Brooks would release a hipster version  as a sequel to his best selling “ The Zombie Survival Guide” , I think the walking dead has taught me enough about hipsters so that, if was cornered in a room with the last crawfish beignet on earth, I could survive the onslaught and live to see another industrial night.

How to survive a zombie apocolypse...a good disguise!
How to survive a zombie apocolypse…a good disguise!