Sampling or Shoplifting? It’s a Slippery Slope

image via Colors Magazine

image via Colors Magazine

 

 

Spear one cheese cube with a toothpick and you’re sampling. Are you pilfering if you snare a dozen? Is it shoplifting if you dump the plateful in a produce bag for later?
How much is too much? Exactly what constitutes a free sample?
Those were the questions at the heart of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The plaintiff, 68 year-old Erwin Lingitz, went into the Cub Goods supermarket in White Bear Township, Minnesota to pick up a prescription. He helped himself at two un-hosted displays offering free samples of lunch meat, and then packed some up for his wife who was waiting outside in the car. He was arrested by store security as he exited the store.

An attorney for the supermarket chain itemized his haul: “Plaintiff had approximately 14-16 packets of soy sauce along with one plastic produce bag containing 0.61 pounds for [sic] summer sausage and another plastic produce bag containing 0.85 pounds of beef stick in his pockets,” She also claims that the store’s manager had spotted Mr. Lingitz on previous occasions filling plastic produce bags “with 10-20 cookies from the kids’ cookie club tray, which specifically limits the offer to one free cookie per child.”

The supermarket called it theft, arguing that “The plaintiff violated societal norms and common customer understanding regarding free sample practices.”
Mr. Lingitz called it a violation of his civil rights
and filed suit against Cub Goods for $375,000 in damages. It was potentially a landmark case for retailers and cheapskates alike since there is currently no legal definition for free samples. 

The store had defended itself arguing that free samples are governed by “a common-sense rule.”
A few try-before-you-buy grapes is on one side of it, while stuffing a T-bone inside your raincoat is clearly on the other side. The question is, where does 1.46 pounds of ‘free’ lunch meat fall on the side of common sense?

Mr. Lingitz ultimately withdrew his lawsuit, so there was no watershed moment. We’re still left wondering where the legal line exists for free samples. In an interview with the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press, Lingitz’s wife, Frankie defended her husband with her own ruling: “Something is either free or it isn’t. You can’t arrest somebody for thievery if it is free.”

Mr. Lingitz is hardly standing alone on that slippery slope between sampling and stealing.
Who among us has never popped a grape in their mouth in the produce aisle? A website called Free Money Finance will show you how to save $2,000 a year in grocery bills and grow your net worth by eating free samples.

 

Posted in diversions, food business | Leave a comment

Big business, civil justice, and just how hot should the coffee be.

image via OC Weekly

image via OC Weekly

 

Hot coffee spills are a perennial darling of product liability lawyers.
Every so often a case comes along that grabs headlines, captures the imagination, and reopens the conversation about frivolous lawsuits, tort reform, and how you like your coffee. The latest baits the public with a few new twists: the litigant is a cop, the coffee was given at no charge, and he’s suing everyone –Starbucks, the barista, the store manager, and the coffee cup’s manufacturer.

Each time we get a new one of these cases, the talk inevitably turns to Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, the 1994 product liability lawsuit that is the stuff of legends. In its much-told popular version, an elderly New Mexican woman bought coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, spilled it on herself, and then successfully sued the fast food company for $3 million. This version of the events became the punchline to a thousand jokes and inspired one of the more memorable Seinfeld episodes. It also became a flashpoint in a national debate over frivolous lawsuits and a rallying cry for tort reform that nearly torpedoed the 7th Amendment.

The bare bones of the lawsuit are true: there was a spilled cup of coffee and an absurdly large payout.
Less known is that Ms. Liebeck was seriously burned. Third degree burns covered 6% of her body. She had to be hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafting surgeries and other treatments over the next two years. She might have been clumsy or sloppy or even negligent when she popped the lid off to add cream and sugar, but that coffee was HOT!

It was one scalding, blistering, piping hot cup of coffee.
When you buy a hot beverage you can reasonably expect it to be hot; in fact hotness is part of the value being provided. It can even be hot enough to demand caution on the part of the drinker. Just how hot is at the seller’s discretion. Your home carafe probably holds the coffee at 150º or so, while a restaurant is likely serving it at more like 175°. There’s no legally sanctioned serving temperature, and when there’s litigation the courts generally look to loosely defined industry standards.

McDonald’s had served Ms. Liebeck a 193° cup of coffee—that’s dangerously hot by anyone’s standards. She wasn’t looking for a big pay day but just wanted to be reimbursed for direct costs related to the accident. She wrote to McDonald’s asking for $20,000 to cover hospital bills and some lost wages, and the company countered with a lowball offer of $800. After a few more rounds of letters, and with no settlement in sight, she filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 in compensatory damages and more in punitive damages.

Why punitive damages? Because McDonald’s was knowingly selling a beverage at a temperature that is unsafe for contact with human flesh.
McDonald’s was well aware that its coffee was dangerously hot. It had already seen 700 claims relating to hospitalizations and medical care for second and third degree burns sustained by both children and adults, but deemed the issue ‘statistically insignificant,’ occurring in a mere one in 24 million coffee sales. The corporation’s quality assurance manager and its human factors engineer both testified that while serious injury occurs on a regular basis, from a business standpoint it was more efficient to just settle claims than to alter the brewing process. The original offer to Liebeck of $800 no doubt fit into that calculation.

After hearing this tale of corporate indifference, the jury in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants needed just four hours to reach its infamous decision.
The jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. It’s a jawdropper until you realize that it reflected a mere two days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues, and was not even enough to push the coffee issue into the category of ‘statistically significant.’ In other words, they’re still brewing and serving coffee at dangerously high temperatures and still fighting off claims with cash settlements.

Mobile coffee technology has evolved in the intervening years.
The safer, sculpted travel lid with a sipping hole has replaced the old-style flat pull-tab lid as the norm in to-go cups. Cup holders are now standard for every seat in the car, and all those lattés and cappuccinos are cooling things down because milk is steamed at much lower temperatures than coffee is brewed. Still, the burns occur and the lawsuits persist.

  • Read about the current state of coffee spills in the recently published Handling Hot Coffee.
  • Hot Coffee: The Movie is available for streaming on Netflix.
  • Follow along as Officer Matt Kohr aims to break new legal ground as he sues Starbucks, International Paper, and the guys who made and served his coffee.
Posted in coffee, diversions, food safety | Leave a comment

What’s Better: Highly Rated or Highly Ranked?

1_foam_finger

Who’s really number one?

Restaurant rankings are a relatively new measure of gastronomic greatness.
Reviewers always rated restaurants, often using the shorthand of 3 stars or 2 forks, thumbs up or down, going back a century to the first Michelin guides. Then Zagat came along with its 30-point rating scale that moved us away from entire classes of restaurants toward individual glory, and a decade ago we got theWorld’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list that made household names out of Spain’s elBulli and Copenhagen’s Noma, and has quickly become a dominant player in global media coverage of the industry. Most of the user-submitted review sites like  Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table, and Trip Advisor use a combination, aggregating and averaging the individual ratings to create best of and top ten lists.

Ratings and rankings are not interchangeable.
Both methods have their proponents, and both have their inherent flaws.

Ratings ask you how much you like it.
In theory, everyone is using a common scale of measurement, and applying that scale to different dining experiences with consistency. Of course the reality is something very different: reviews reflect the critics’ quirks, biases, and grudges. Their health, the weather, their mood, even the outfit they’re wearing can affect how a meal strikes their fancy on any particular day. Ratings don’t require a unique score for each restaurant and there’s a tendency to cluster the scores in a very narrow distribution. Researchers have also found that response styles differ systematically by culture, for instance Indians tend toward more extreme scores, both good and bad, while most Asian respondents are more moderate, and French reviewers tend to be be more positive than the less-generous Dutch.

Rankings ask you to compare it with all the others.
In their simplest form, rankings can feel very natural. We all have a basic impulse to make comparisons—it’s easy to distinguish a preference for pound cake over angel food, or to say that you like In-N-Out burgers better than Five Guys. But what if you’re choosing between pound cake and blueberry pie and rice pudding and mango sorbet and chocolate chip cookies? Or a French brasserie, an Italian trattoria, a steakhouse, and those same burger joints? Rankings can get difficult in a hurry.

It’s much more taxing to rank a group of restaurants than to rate them. Psychologists say that when you get past three choices most people start to get sloppy and even arbitrary with rankings. While the cognitive effort required to rate a group of restaurants is linear—the same mental process is independently repeated for each—the work of rank-order reviews rises almost exponentially since each additional choice has to be compared to every other one on the list. Once a list tops seven entries, the whole process can go off the rails.

Good food is subjective.
The ratings and rankings of restaurant reviews have their place, but there’s no substitute for a place at the table. Dining experiences are shaped by individual genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. Reviews can create expectations and even guide the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste in the same way.

 

Posted in diversions, restaurants | Leave a comment

Do a Farmer a Favor. Shop Online

 

 

Old School                                                 New School

Market51 Overstock_FM_Logo_Cropped

 

 

 

This is the year you’ll visit an online farmers market (at least you should).
I know; it seems counterintuitive. Farmers markets are as old school as it get. They’re quaint and homespun, all about time-honored tradition and sensual, earthy pleasures. Could anything be more IRL?

Here come the corporate interlopers online distributors.
Virtual markets promise organic produce, heirloom varieties, and artisan-made foods delivered to your doorstep. Small startups like Backyard Produce, Good EggsFarmigo, and Full Circle have been aiming for their own regional footholds, and now the e-commerce giant Overstock wants to take it nationwide. Famous for peddling marked down closeout home goods and last year’s model electronics, Overstock is launching an online farmers’ marketplace and aiming to take it national.

The farmers market movement could stagnate without an online marketplace.
Industry watchers speculate that we might have reached ‘peak farmers market.’ Farmers markets blew up beginning in the 1990’s when fewer than 2,000 of them were scattered across the country. The number of markets doubled and then doubled again, now standing at 8,268, and farmers have seen double and triple-digit growth in lucrative direct-to-consumer sales. Today, even though consumer demand remains high, sales have stalled in recent years. New outlets like farm-to-table restaurants and specialty grocers have picked off some of the sales, but some think that the farmers market boom may be leveling off because of mismatched supply and demand.

Key urban markets have run out of farmers.
Urban farmers markets used to be a weekend morning phenomenon where farmers would set up once a week in an out of the way parking lot. Now there are weekday markets, night markets, winter markets, downtown markets, and pop-up markets. While city residents can support the concentration of markets, the high-priced farmland of regional ecosystems can’t support enough producers. The problem is especially acute in cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while in the less densely populated regions of the Midwest and Southwest, there are plenty of farmers but fewer urban outlets within their reach.

Overstock just might be a good thing for local farmers.
There’s a tendency to be reflexively dismissive toward Overstock, but you shouldn’t. The company has other community-focused ventures under its belt like Worldstock, a fair trade world artisans’ division, Main Street Revolution, an Etsy-like business selling American-made products from individuals and small businesses, and the Pet Adoption feature, which lets animal shelters across the country to piggyback on the shopping site as a free service to connect consumers to adoptable pets.

It’s a national network, but the goal is to ship locally.
Overstock has taken a grass roots approach to the enterprise and is building a national network of growers and producers. Ahead of this season’s launch, they started the process by cold-calling small farms listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s local foods directory, focusing on small and family-owned operations and avoiding those practicing larger-scale organic production in which farms win a label by adhering to minimally-required organic standards. So far they’ve signed up enough farms to serve about a third of the country’s zip codes with truly fresh, local shipments, and hope to achieve national coverage within a season or two. Customers outside of a locally-served range can select certain non-local seasonal produce and less fragile foods like grains, cheese, jam, and meats.

You might wonder, “Why buy from a national, online retailer if it’s coming from my own zip code?”
Farmers and consumers both enjoy the sense of community and connection found at farmers markets, but too many small growers are lacking nearby consumer options while others are spread too thinly by the explosive growth of outlets in their regions. For the farmers, marketing their wares, trucking produce in and out, and staffing the booths is an expensive, gas-guzzling, time-consuming process; shipping through an intermediary can actually be more profitable. Online shopping can also be a cost-effective choice for consumers. Obviously it’s a time saver, and shipping is at most a few dollars and nearly always free.

An online farmers market is also surprisingly green.
It’s true that a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the produce to you, but a giant retailer like Overstock is probably already cruising your block, bringing a set of deeply-discounted 480-thread count sheets to someone in the neighborhood. The incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the route is less significant than if you get into your own car and make the drive to the market. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute found that an online purchase with home delivery can save 35 percent in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions over a traditional market outing.

Online shopping can never take the place of stroll around the outdoor stalls of fresh produce on a sunny day.
But it can be a source of fresh, seasonal, and local produce. It can sustain local food systems and keep consumer spending in local economies. And it just might open up the marketplace to provide the opportunities and support that small farmers need to survive in today’s globalized economy.

 

Posted in agriculture, food business, shopping | 1 Comment

It’s Bubba Yum Yum, The Potentially Fatal Paleo Cookbook for Babies.

Pebbles Flinstone and Bamm Bamm Rubble via Hanna-Barbera

Pebbles Flintstone and Bamm-Bamm Rubble via Hanna-Barbera

 

The world has seen its share of silly, dubious, and downright dangerous fad diets, but usually the kids are spared.
Paleo, though, is no mere diet; it’s a way of life. If you’re not familiar with the paleo (a.k.a. caveman) diet, its followers mimic what they believe were the eating habits of hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era, before the advent of agriculture and domesticated animals. That means pasture-raised meat and nuts and roots are in; milk, beans, potatoes, and cereal grains are out. The movement recommends going barefoot, getting dirty, aligning sleep to sun cycles, and workouts that involve less running and more heavy lifting.

Paleo enthusiasts like to point out that humans back then didn’t suffer from problems like diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease. They argue that it’s because early man had an inherently healthier diet, a leap of logic that ignores a slew of pesky factual details. At the top of that list would be the paleolithic life expectancy marked by ungodly rates of infant mortality and bodies riddled by infectious diseases and parasites. Few adults made it out of their 30’s leaving little time for any age-related ailments. Still, the diet has made it into the mainstream with a big boost from celebrity adherents like Megan Fox, Uma Thurman, and Tom Jones, NBA players Grant Hill and Steve Nash, and a good-sized chunk of the NFL.

051822-45247694-753f-11e4-b46b-0f98bfb215c4safe_imageNow comes Bubba Yum Yum from a notable pair of paleo-proponents: famed Australian chef and fluoride-denier Pete Evans (left) and the autodidactic toddler nutritionist Charlotte Carr (below left; that’s her son Willow with the let-me-out-of-here countenance). The book is currently cooling its heels in a kind of publishing limbo, its release date held up to allow further review by the medical community and public health agencies. Promotional materials describe the book as “a treasure trove of nutritional information and nourishing paleo recipes that are guaranteed to put you and your little one on the path to optimum health.” Some in the press have described that path as leading to “loss of appetite, dry skin, hair loss, bone pain, fissures in the corners of the mouth and failure to thrive.”

The book contravenes most national health guidelines with ingredients like undercooked eggs and added salt. It excludes highly recommended protein sources like beans, grains, dairy, and soy. In its most controversial passage, the book asserts that a recipe for a beef bone and liver broth is the best available alternative to breast milk.

It’s not all dubious evolutionary science and crackpot theories.
Paleo-style eating appropriately emphasizes whole foods, lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. And who couldn’t benefit from less processed food? Even so, the likelihood of a release date is waning as health professionals pile on to accuse Bubba Yum Yum’s authors of ignorance and irresponsibility. The head of the Public Health Association in the authors’ native Australia went even further: “In my view, there’s a very real possibility that a baby may die if this book goes ahead…”
Don’t expect to see that as a blurb on the back cover.

 

Posted in food knowledge, health + diet, kids | Leave a comment

When Life Gives You Lemons… The Snow Edition

 

tumblr_mykc4es5oX1sjyt65o1_500

via ReBloggy

 

You’ve shoveled, plowed, and salted it, but there’s still plenty of snow on the ground.
49 states began this month with snow cover, and in some places a new foot and more has fallen since (yes, Hawaii, I’m talking about you). As picturesque and pleasing as holiday snow can be, the honeymoon is over for most of us in January; by March we just want it gone.

Maybe the problem isn’t the snow. Maybe it’s us.
It’s possible that the snow hasn’t overstayed its welcome; perhaps we’ve just run out of imagination in dealing with it. Instead of thinking of snow as an inconvenience or a nuisance, maybe we should treat it like just another backyard surplus, like an overgrown rosemary bush or too many zucchinis in the garden. In which case, it’s time to rifle through the old recipe box and see what we can come up with.

Food.com has a recipe for Snow Cake that calls for 2 cups of freshly fallen snow to be folded into a batter of sugar, shortening flour, and milk.

The Massachusetts Maple Producers Association offers Sugar on Snow, a kind of maple candy made by pouring heated syrup over packed snow. It forms glassy sheets of chewy taffy that they claim pairs best with sour pickles.

Paula Deen recommends Snow Ice Cream, an easy three ingredient mix of vanilla, sweetened condensed milk, and snow.

Traditional farmhouse cooks swear by Snow Pancakes, claiming that new snow makes  for an exceptionally light and fluffy version.

Wherever there’s snow, you can bet that someone’s making a sno-cone: Hawaii has shaved ice, Filipinos have the halo-halo, in Guatemala it’s called granizada, and in Taiwan it’s the bao bing.

Falling snow is as pure as most drinking water, and usually cleaner than rainwater, which picks up more pollutants and particulates as it makes its way from cloud to ground. Certain dangerous algae can exist in snow at extremely high altitudes, but most snow is perfectly safe to eat and if it’s cooked in a recipe, that should take care of most micro-organisms.

 

Posted in cook + dine, diversions, recipes | Leave a comment

California’s Inmate Population is Housed Less Humanely than its Chickens.

via Getty Images

via Getty Images

 

Since January 1 of this year, California’s Proposition 2 has required all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens that live in more spacious quarters.
Any producer, whether in-state or out-, that wants to sell eggs in California has to raise its laying hens in enclosures large enough to allow the birds to freely stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs and wings.

California consumes more eggs than any other state.
It’s a large producer but still imports more out-of-state eggs than any other state, so the Prop 2 regulations effectively created a new national standard. Six of the big midwestern egg-producing states tried to invalidate the new rules and charged California with restraint of interstate trade. At this point most of the lawsuits and appeals have been dismissed, and producers are either conforming to the standards or selling their eggs elsewhere. In the meantime, the attention drawn to the issue has prompted some major egg buyers like Burger King and Starbucks to go beyond the requirements by vowing to switch to eggs from completely uncaged hens.

It’s more than a little hypocritical.
Chickens and inmates are both key to the California’s egg production, with prisoners processing around 35 million eggs a year from inmate-raised hens. Like its chickens, the state’s inmates live in confinement that can be inconsistent with acceptable standards of health and welfare. While we applaud the passage of Proposition 2 for improving housing standards for chickens, it also serves to highlight the inadequate and even inhumane housing of prisoners.

It was no small task for California to reimagine henhouses.
It involved input from architects and engineers, environmental scientists, climatologists, agronomists, and poultry specialists. They ran simulations and field trials evaluating chicken behavior, psychology, and physiology, ultimately increasing the minimum amount of space per chicken by 73%.

Clearly, laying hens have the full attention of regulators. Less so for the prisoners who tend to the chickens.
Their right to humane treatment is constitutionally protected, but relying on the old chestnut of cruel and unusual leaves a lot of wiggle room for pretty deplorable conditions. Currently, a prison cell can truly be smaller, relative to an inmate’s size, than a laying hen’s cage, relative to a chicken’s size.

You might be wondering why inmates are raising chickens in the first place.
Forget about license plates; prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and is especially welcomed in agriculture and food processing, including upscale and artisan food production. Inmates have packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans, and grown chardonnay grapes for award-winning wine bottlers. They’ve produced raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raised the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.

Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are fond of these arrangements. Depending on the circuit in which an inmate is incarcerated, the worker may or may not be subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act, and businesses can pay pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. Whether you believe, as the courts do, that this is part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society, or you see this as codified exploitation and discrimination by an unjust prison system, the irony of inmates liberating their post-Prop 2 chickens is undeniable.

Litigation, advocacy, and public education worked wonders for California’s chickens.
Let’s see what they can do for another group of the state’s confined residents.

 

Posted in agriculture, food policy, workplace | 1 Comment

Wall Street Goes for a Ride on a $100 Million Grilled Cheese Truck

Grilled Cheese Truck 003

 

In January, The Grilled Cheese Truck, Inc. became the world’s first publicly traded food truck business (ticker symbol: GRLD).
Its early valuation of $108 million is based on 18 million shares that started trading at around $6. For less than the price of a Plain and Simple Melt off the lunch truck’s menu, you can now own a piece of the company.

By all accounts The Grilled Cheese Truck makes a pretty darned good grilled cheese sandwich, and who doesn’t love grilled cheese? But before you put your lunch money into a brokerage account, let’s do a little reality check on what it means to have a $100 million valuation in something called ‘the mobile gourmet grilled cheese space.’

The company owns four licensed catering trucks, a whole lot of cheese, and not much else. In the SEC documents filed ahead of the public offering, GRLD claimed assets worth $1 million while owing nearly $3 million against them. If those were my trucks, I’d be looking out for the repo man. Their track record in sandwich slinging is even more dismal. The financial statements they filed showed that their best stretch was the third quarter of 2014 when the company lost more than $900,000 on sales of $1 million. For the first nine months of the fiscal year, GRLD reported a total loss of $4.4 million on $2.6 million in sales.

Once you get past the woeful fundamentals, GRLD still isn’t looking so hot.
None of its sandwiches showed up last April (a.k.a. National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month) when Women’s Day paid tribute to the 10 greatest grilled cheese sandwiches. Nor were they cited by Zagat on its list of 30 Awesome Grilled Cheese Sandwiches around the U.S. The Grilled Cheese Truck didn’t even make the cut when Mobile Cuisine named the 2014 Grilled Cheese Food Truck Of The Year and its four runners up.

Before you plunk down cash for shares, you might want to talk to some Cereality franchisees, or more accurately, former franchisees. Every one of their businesses has failed. Like grilled cheese sandwich trucks, the cold cereal cafés were based on a single, universally loved dish that most people already prepare at home. A decade ago more than 6,000 potential investors lined up for the opportunity to buy into a franchise concept that USA Today described as “so absurdly simple, self-indulgent… well, how can it fail?” Well, it did, after each owner had ponied up franchise fees and startup costs ranging between $145,650 and $461,300. Cereality is currently in retrenchment mode, down to just two company-owned outlets; one an airport kiosk and the other located inside a hospital cafeteria.

When it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches, I’d pass on Wall Street and stick to lunch. But if you really want a wild ride, Cereality is still looking for a few new franchisees.

Posted in food business, sandwiches | Leave a comment

Domaine versus Domain Name: This is why the new .wine websites are bad for wine

image via Hypographia

image via Hypographia

 

Dot Wine is coming.
The internet has gotten too big to be contained by .com, .net, .org, and .gov, so the organization in charge of internet addresses is pushing a major expansion in domain name suffixes. For years we’ve been making do with just 22 suffixes, plus a few dozen country-specific ones like .uk and .fr for Britain and France, but now the floodgates have been thrown open and everyone can choose from thousands of new keyword suffixes like .coffee, .vote, .football, and .wine.

The next step for the new suffixes, known as top-level domains (TLDs), is that internet name registries will bid for them at auction. The winning registries then own the rights to issue URLs with those TLDs. This has winemakers in an uproar.

Up till now, TLDs have basically come in two flavors.
There are open TLDs like .com and .net that anyone can register, and there are restricted TLDs like .gov and .edu that are limited to governmental and educational entities. Under the new plan, brands can apply to own their own limited domain suffixes so we’ll start to see TLDs like .pepsi and .nike, but the vast majority, including .wine, .vin, .napa, and .chardonnay will be open. The problem for winemakers is that the language speaks volumes.

The wine industry is very particular when it comes to names.
There are varietal names, vineyard names, winery estate names, and geographical appellations, and each describes a very specific combination of grape varieties and winemaking practices, topography, climate, soil, traditional methods, and sourcing of ingredients. In some European countries, these names are based on classification systems that date back many centuries—France’s goes back to 1411—and even the relatively new and evolving standards for America’s wine regions are considered critical to the industry’s integrity, quality, and reputation.

That’s why winemakers on both sides of the Atlantic are fighting the new TLDs.
They fear that the new domain names will open the door to misrepresentation. Think of how true Champagne has continued to exist in a world of lesser sparkling wines. Everything about Champagne from pruning to vineyard yields to the degree of pressing to release dates has been codified in its name, and that name has been legally protected for hundreds of years, extending into more than 70 countries and reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. But the new TLDs allow anyone and everyone to register a .champagne URL. It essentially gives cyber permission for the makers of any old rotgut- fizzy or otherwise- the imprimatur of centuries of history, terroir, and reputation.

Old World (and some New) winemakers want protection for their geographic indications.
They argue that names like ‘Napa Valley,’ ‘Champagne’, and ‘Bordeaux’ should be treated in the same way as trademarks. Third parties aren’t allowed to buy up the TLDs for ‘Olympics’ or ‘Tylenol’ or ‘Sony’, but as it stands, anyone with the auction fee can saunter in and claim ‘Côtes du Rhône’ as their own.

The right side of the dot is pitting nation against nation and ancient traditionalists against new world rivals.
Most European winemakers are pushing for protection, most Australians and Canadians want a free-for-all, and there’s a split decision from the U.S. wine industry. Critics of protection like to trivialize the argument as tedious squabbles over all the silly circumflexes and and hyphens in old chateaux names. They like to point out that nobody will ever confuse a .vin Chardonnay with a .vin Chevy just because the French wine suffix can double as an acronym for vehicle identification number. They assert that geographic indications are not settled international law and that proponents should take up the fight in venues like the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Cyber-squatters are already lining up to buy the most illustrious and treasured of the appellations.
These are disinterested third parties who simply smell money in the domain name dustup and are looking to lock up ownership of wine-related TLDs. And who knows what happens then. The squatters can sit tight and charge extortionary usage fees; they can ‘flip’ ownership at a vastly inflated price to legitimate wine industry constituents; or they can dismantle a centuries-old institution, selling the related URLs to anyone and everyone with a case of plonk and a GoDaddy account.

What’s in a domaine name?
History, terroir, reputation, quality.
What’s not in a domain name?
Transparency, accountability, oversight, legal protection, global international agreement.

Learn about the new domains from the issuing agency: the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers.

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture, food business | 1 Comment

The Terroir of the Shopping Mall Food Court

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Alaskan food court favorite Hot Dog on a Stick

 

Mall dining is much more than a shopper’s pit stop.

There’s an uninspired sameness to mall stores.
Close your eyes and you could be in any mall, anywhere, with the same overstuffed department stores at each end and the predictable mix of national retailers and ear-piercing kiosks. But if you’re looking for a sense of place, you just need to head to the food court. In between the ubiquitous soggy pizza and cinnamon buns you’ll find surprising expressions of regional preferences, and even, dare we say it—terroir.

Terroir, which is usually used to describe wines, is that ineffable sense of place that comes from the sum of the effects of a local environment. It takes in geography and geology, climate and heritage, class and culture. Instead of Mosel Riesling and Loire Valley Muscadet, shopping mall terroir is embodied in regional affinities for grilled subs, bubble tea, and cheese steaks

Terroir is where you find it.
While many restaurant chains are named for localities, they can be surprisingly popular outside of their namesake regions. Boston Market and Uno Chicago Grill are both more beloved in Mid-Atlantic states than in hometown malls, while Moe’s Southwest Grill and Ted’s Montana Grill are Southeast favorites. The Great Lakes embrace Texas Roadhouse in greater numbers than native Texans, while Jersey Mike’s Subs are all but shunned in the Garden State but have become a favorite on the West Coast. California Pizza Kitchen and South Philly Steak & Fries both are true to their names, and everyone everywhere loves A&W All-American Food.

Cupcake and donut bakeries are disproportionately represented in New England malls. Mid-Atlantic shoppers take more bagel and bubble tea breaks than anyone else, and in the Great Lakes they like to sit down with a bowl of soup. Southwesterners like to nosh while they shop with gelato and roasted nuts. They line up for buffets in the Plain States, and a single mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania is home to five separate Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel outlets.

Mall food courts are so much more than Cinnabon and Sbarro. See what you’re missing with Thrillist’s coverage of lesser-known delicacies: REGIONAL FAST-FOOD CHAINS THAT NEED TO BE EVERYWHERE, IMMEDIATELY.

 

 

Posted in fast food, local foods, travel | Leave a comment

Eating Your Way to a Good Night’s Sleep

 

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Forget that glass of warm milk at bedtime.
It might feel as cozy as a tuck-in from Mom, but it’s doing more harm than good when it comes to falling asleep.

The right foods before bed can contribute to restful sleep. Sleep-friendly foods are rich in tryptophan, the notorious nap-inducer found in Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. The wrong foods have amino acids that keep the tryptophan from crossing into the brain where it’s converted into the sedatives serotonin and melatonin.
A glass of warm milk is one of those wrong foods.

Ideally you’ll start a good sleep diet hours before bedtime. 
The best begins as soon as you wake up in the morning when a little protein in your breakfast kickstarts your blood sugar levels, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Regular meals throughout the day, each including some more protein, keep things on an even keel and have you reaching less often for afternoon pick-me-ups like coffee and candy, which can have lingering stimulative effects up to 12 hours later.

When nighttime rolls around, a well-chosen bedtime snack can help you get a restful, restorative night’s sleep. According to the sleep specialists at the Mayo Clinic, you want to avoid garlicky, spicy, fatty foods before bed. Here are the three most highly recommended bedtime snacks:

  • Popcorn, preferably air-popped, washed down with cherry juice
  • Oatmeal with sliced banana and just a splash of nonfat milk
  • Low- or nonfat yogurt with a sprinkle of almonds or sesame seeds

The meal of your dreams:
Monastrell Restaurante in southern Spain serves a special “sleep menu” that is purported to cure insomnia. The chef claims knowledge of a secret ingredient prized during the Roman empire for its soporific qualities. Courses include grilled octopus, pumpkin lasagne, turbot with lemon calamari, lemon sponge cake, and olive oil sorbet.

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Why, oh why do companies give the public access to unmoderated, real-time Twitter feeds?

Oops, they did it again. This time it’s Coca-Cola.
The company has pulled its #MakeItHappy brand campaign after it was used to tweet excerpts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf into sweetly innocuous cartoon images of kitty cats and happy hamburgers.

The #MakeItHappy campaign launched with an ad during the Super Bowl. 
Designed to combat the bullying and negative language found on social media, the beverage giant asked Twitter users to forward negative messages tagged with the #MakeItHappy hashtag. An automated algorithm would transform the words into cutesy ASCII cartoons and @CocaCola would retweet the images to its millions of followers with the message We turned the hate you found into something happy.

Coca-Cola, with its 100,ooo+ employees, seems to have launched it unmanned into cyberspace.
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Nobody at the company noticed when the famous ‘Fourteen Words’ slogan of white supremacist movements was turned into a happy little puppy that tweeted out “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”j8hqjk6ljn2sprtonorr  It was, however, noticed by the media pranksters at Gawker who created the Twitter handle @MeinCoke and fed a line-by-line reading of Hitler’s manifesto into the #MakeIt Happy algorithm, and then watched Coca-Cola’s official twitter account as it rendered Hitler’s words into smiling bananas and sunglass-wearing palm trees.

This is hardly the first Twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets: Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.

Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef? When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is!

Even Starbucks, a company that parlayed its usually spot-on social engagement to become the best loved online brand, has had its own stumble in cyberspace. The coffee seller created the seasonal hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out holiday greetings with a direct feed to a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum. Before it could be shut down, the unmonitored, uncensored tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup.

Missteps like these are not limited to the food world.
Screen_Shot_2014-11-13_at_9.51.33_PMThe New England Patriots celebrated reaching 1 million Twitter followers by thanking fans with custom digital jerseys—basically a photo of the back of a Patriots uniform with a Twitter handle where the player’s name usually appears. Patriots fans gleefully retweeted the automated images of irreverent and unsavory Twitter screen names until one fan’s hateful, obscenely racist Twitter handle finally shut it all down.

While the Patriots’ stunt was naïve and a bit misguided, what’s Bill Cosby’s excuse? The comedian’s website recently posted a link to a photo meme-generator and the message: Go ahead, meme me! Twitter followers were in no mood for poking fun at Jell-O pudding commercial or his penchant for wearing loud sweaters, and #CosbyMeme was quickly populated by darkly humorous evocations of Cosby’s decades of rape allegations. Who didn’t see that coming?

Twitter can be a powerful tool for brands to interact with their customers, but it also puts power in the hands of the public where it can all too easily backfire. Disgruntled customers and bystanders can shape or even hijack a promotional campaign to disastrous results. When a brand like Coke loses control of its own product’s narrative, things can go downhill in a hurry as the tweets are shared with their millions of Twitter followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….

 

 

Posted in cyberculture, fast food, social media | Leave a comment

Chef Watson: The Supercomputer that Cooks

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Watson promotional images via Thornberg and Forester

 

A head of lettuce, a can of beans, a single potato, and a few stray onions—it looks like mighty slim pickings to you, but factor in a half a dozen pantry staples and Chef Watson can come up with 3,628,800 menu suggestions.

You might remember Watson from TV’s Jeopardy!
In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer made headlines when it trounced the game show’s most formidable human contestants in a million dollar tournament. The current Watson is smaller, faster, and smarter by a factor of 24. Its natural language processing and computational creativity benefit a wide range of industries, running financial markets, improving retail shopping experiences, and diagnosing cancers in hospital oncology centers. And now Watson is coming out with a cookbook.

It’s much more than a gimmick.
The scientists at IBM Research worked with chefs from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. They created preparations and combinations that the world has never seen, but that still steer clear of wacky. Most recipes are twists and fusions that borrow from a global kitchen of ingredients and techniques like Portuguese Lobster Rolls, Peruvian Chile-Potato Poutine, Creole Shrimp and Lamb Dumplings, Indonesian Rice Chili con Carne, and Vietnamese Pork and Apple Kebabs.

Could the talented chefs at the ICE have come up with these dishes on their own? Perhaps, given enough time for research and experimentation. But human creativity is defined by the limits of personal experience and biases, known and conventional food associations, and the brain’s finite bandwidth. By contrast, Watson is able to instantly sift through vast amounts of culinary data while simultaneously evaluating the potential of an infinite number of ingredients and combinations in a process known as cognitive computing.

Watson was fed an encyclopedic data diet of recipes, food chemistry, molecular compounds, chemoinformatic flavor profiles, hedonic psychophysical taste models, behavioral psychology, cultural preferences, and nutrition. The ICE chefs originated the creation of each recipe by prompting the system and steering it through its algorithms and analytics. They then sifted through thousands of outputs looking for dishes that were appealing, workable in a home kitchen, and contained an element of surprise through new and unique flavor combinations. And finally, the chefs did something that a computer can only simulate—they tasted their creations.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will be released on April 14 and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon.

You can participate in the Watson project by applying to beta test the Chef Watson app that IBM is developing in conjunction with Bon Appétit.

 

Posted in recipes, Science/Technology | 1 Comment

Regulating junk food will make the tobacco battle look like a walk in the park.

via US Department of Health & Human Services

via US Department of Health & Human Services

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.

–from  the opening address of the sixty-seventh session of The World Health Organization’s AssemblyGeneva, Switzerland, May 2014.

Tobacco and junk food—here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.

Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?

You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.

It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.

The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.

Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.

Posted in food knowledge, food safety, Health | 1 Comment

Actually, Grandma Isn’t All That Good a Cook

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                              [grandmothers and their cooking- images via Gabriele Galimberti]

 

According to a CNN/Eatocracy poll, Grandma’s cooking is pretty hit-or-miss.
21.5% report ‘wonderful’ food coming out of both of their grandmothers’ kitchens, but most rate at least one of their grandmas in the range of ‘decent’ to ‘yuck.’

Does it even matter?
Nonna, Bubbe, Grammy, Abuela– Grandmother in every language is synonymous with warm and squishy feelings. It’s associated with the soft focussed nostalgia of childhood celebrations, family gatherings, and traditional dishes. So what if Grandma over-cooks and under-salts everything?

Grandma probably doesn’t know from whole grains, goat cheese, and fresh ginger. She started cooking when lettuce meant iceberg, the best coffee came ground in a can, and yogurt was strictly for health nuts. But she also wasn’t cooking with mono- and diglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, and the multitude of flavorings, preservatives, and texturizers found in today’s food. We call it ‘whole food’ when we cook without processed and refined ingredients; grandmothers just call it food.

Scientists theorize that feeding grandchildren has essentially transformed human evolution.
The grandmother hypothesis looks at the role of grandmothers in the early history of our species. It says that healthy, long-lived grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren, freeing their daughters to produce more children at shorter intervals. This meant that grandmothers with the greatest longevity ended up feeding the most grandchildren. Those descendants, who also carried the longevity gene, went on to enrich the gene pool of our ancestors. Recent simulations run by the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah suggest that 60,000 years of Grandma’s cooking has added 20 years to our lifespans.

With In Her Kitchen, the Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti celebrates the breadth of grandmothers’ cooking. He visited 58 countries, documenting family matriarchs and their traditional meals in a multitude of cultures and contexts. Each is photographed with a symmetrical arrangement of ingredients paired with a second image of the completed dish. Click through the images for a brief biography of each woman as well as recipes for each dish.

All those proud grandmas in their kitchens; you can’t help but smile. Who cares if any of them can really cook?!

 

 

Posted in cook + dine, diversions, home | Leave a comment

Holy Cow! Faith-Based Farming

 Joseph Ritter von Führich - The dream of the St. Isidor

Joseph Ritter von Führich – The dream of the St. Isidor, patron saint of farmers

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.
                              –Paul Harvey

The modern food movement has found an ally in God.
Organic farmers and faith-based farmers have discovered their shared mission in matters of growing, managing, and even consuming food.

Divine and earthly imperatives intersect at the farm.
That’s where creation, mission, community, land stewardship, and social justice all converge, and and for some, theology and spirituality are thrown into the mix. There are shared concerns for animal welfare, the environment, hunger, and poverty. Religious texts like the Bible and the Koran have as many food references as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and faith-based farmers recognize that Jesus wouldn’t want us factory farming any more than Michael Pollan.

Farming has always been imbued with meaning, both sacred and secular.
Plants grow and bloom on their own, and the human hand of agricultural reinforces the knowledge that we’re not just in the world but also of it. We’re part of something larger that will continue without us, and while we can tame it with knowledge of genetics and soil microbes, we don’t fully own it. You can call it philosophy, karma, or the hand of God; that’s just perspective.

Many faith-based farms welcome visitors.
There are classes, retreats, camps, farm stands, and celebrations where you can nourish body and soul.

Koinonia Farm has been growing Georgia pecans and peanuts as a ‘demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God‘ since 1942. It’s the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and other ministries for social justice.

You’ll be up even earlier than the chickens during an overnight visit with the monks at South Carolina’s Mepken Abbey. There are 3am prayers and meditation before the workday begins on the mushroom farm.

There’s a goat named Bagel and the organic pickles are kosher at Adamah Farm, housed at a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut. Or you can study Yiddish while helping with the kosher wheat harvest (for Passover matzoh) at the language-immersion farm camp started by a graduate of Adamah’s fellowship program.

The big daddy of faith-based farms has to be Castel Gandolfo. Every Pope since Pius XI has gathered eggs and bottled olive oil as the overseer of its 50 acres. Later this year, Pope Francis will be the first to open its vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and eight-hundred-year-old olive groves to the public.

Posted in agriculture, sustainability | Leave a comment

The Surprising Names Behind the Brands You Trust

 

 

The average American supermarket carries nearly 40,000 products.
It sounds like myriad options until you realize that most of them—estimates run as high as 90%—come from fewer than a dozen companies. Acquisitions and consolidation have left us with Unilever-Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, ConAgra-Hebrew National kosher salami, and PepsiCo-Sabra hummus, and all but 15 of the nation’s organic food processors are in the hands of multinational giants.

The melding of brands matters.
When you buy Sweet Leaf organic tea you’re a customer of a company that funds initiatives to block GMO labeling; the parent company of your Morningstar Farms veggie patties is party to the mass destruction of rain forests. Stealth ownership of brands means that your carefully spent grocery dollars are ending up in the hands of the top 10 food and beverage producers who together emit more greenhouse gases than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined. If you care about poverty and hunger, child labor, living wages, women’s rights, and climate change, then you should care about who really owns the brands that are lining the shelves of your supermarket.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign rates the social and environmental policies of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. The top 10 companies are megacorporations whose products are sold virtually everywhere on the planet. Millions of people, most in poor countries, rely on them for employment in agriculture and production. Their policies and business practices shape national economies and influence lifestyles for billions of global citizens. Oxfam evaluates the companies according to seven criteria: corporate transparency, women’s rights, labor practices, farming practices, land use, water use, and pollution. While some companies are doing better than others, overall it’s a fairly bleak portrait of the food system.

Oxfam’s campaign highlights the massive reach and global influence wielded by just 10 companies. If these industry leaders can be prodded to use their power responsibly, they could play a major role in the world-wide fight against hunger, poverty, inequality, and climate change.

Posted in food business, food knowledge, shopping | Leave a comment

We’re Hungry and We Want It Now

We’re fussy, we’re fickle, we’re inconsistent, and unpredictable.
We say we want healthy but opt for decadence. We chase the new but choose the familiar. We demand quality but reject premium price tags.
Somehow, restaurant operators need to parse all the contradictions and inconsistencies to give us what we really want.

Restaurant Business Online has come out with one of their periodic snapshots.    
They compiled data from numerous business intelligence sources (including Consumer Reports Magazine, Technomic, The National Restaurant Association, and Pizza.com) to capture our ever-changing dining preferences at this singular moment in time.

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

infographic via Restaurant Business Online

 

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Oh, Is It Just You This Evening?

We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him.
Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

A scene from the 1984 movie The Lonely Guy dramatizes those fears. Steve Martin, the titular solo diner, requests a table for one. You can hear a pin drop as the restaurant’s service grinds to a halt. Busboys stop clearing, diners’ forks freeze in midair, and out of nowhere a theatrical spotlight bears down on the poor sap as he follows the smarmy maître d’ to his table.

It’s the middle school scar that never fades. 
Contemporary media continues to fuel the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1 and on Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation I feel sad when I see an old person eating aloneIkea’s 2014 April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed so close to the stereotype it left many wondering if it was really a put-on.1

One woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a Bite. The website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And then there are forever alone tables, partitioned cubicle-style cafeteria seating that are popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

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In fact dining alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert. We need to take a page from the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher who, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captures the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone… She suggests that ‘snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality.’ In other words, sometimes you can be your own best dining companion.

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The National Kitchen Audit

 

image via NPD Group

image via NPD Group

 

Every three years a massive study reveals what’s in our kitchens.
In 1993, the NPD Group, a market research company, first asked American consumers to tell what’s in their pantries and on their countertops. The published reports have taken us through the era of George Forman grills and South Beach diets to coffee pods and Greek yogurt. And through it all there’s a block of cheddar cheese lurking in everyone’s refrigerator.

Here are the latest findings from the 2014 Kitchen Audit:

Pod-based coffeemakers are now found in 23% of kitchens, up from 9% just three years ago. And they’re using them regularly—80% in the past month, even though 55% of these households held on to their electric drip coffeemakers. Other dedicated appliances like rice cookers, slow cookers, juicers, and waffle makers have also found a place in more kitchens.

You’ll find soda in 54% of kitchens, and home soda makers in 4%; that rises to 10% if there are children under age 6 in the household.

Sriracha hot sauce was barely a blip in previous audits. Now it’s found in 9% of total households, and an impressive 16% of households with a cook under the age of 35. This reflects the influx of new flavors shared by Asian-Americans, the country’s fasting growing ethnic group, plus the much larger Hispanic population, which opened us up to bolder, spicier flavors.

There’s a slew of new pantry staples.
Sea salt, formerly a specialty food item, has officially crossed over into the majority of kitchens. 
Nut products are becoming a standard way of adding meatless protein to diets; hazelnut spreads like Nutella are now in 14% of kitchens (up from 8% in 2011), and nut milks, especially from almonds, reached 10% (up from just 4%).
Of course the reigning king of the high-protein meat alternatives is Greek yogurt. In three short years its market penetration more than tripled, and it can now be found in 29% of all household refrigerators.

Instant and prepared foods are losing ground.
Home cooks are using microwave ovens less frequently. Canned foods are slipping (lima beans and mushrooms dropped out of  20% and 6% of pantries, respectively), and the dry cereal manufacturers are in full panic mode. There’s still a ready-to-eat box of in around 90% of American households, but unless there are small children, we’re just not eating it like we used to.

The biggest surprise revealed in the audit is that we’re cooking.
Consumers- especially millennials- say that they want to be hands-on in the kitchen. They still like convenience (remember all those coffee pods?), but the buzzwords are fresh and customized. Think of bags of pre-washed and trimmed salad greens with homemade dressing or tacos constructed at home with a takeout rotisserie chicken. More people consider themselves good-to-excellent cooks, and 53% of that self-identified group is cooking at least some elements of a meal from scratch- with recipes even- at least once a week.

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