retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times Magazine yesterday published its annual food issue, offering a number of interesting pieces about America’s approach to food:

• There is a profile of British chef/author/restaurateur Jamie Oliver, who is bring one of his pet projects to Huntington, West Virginia, part of an area that has been designated as the least healthy part of America, based on data compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Nearly half the adults in these five counties (two in West Virginia, two in Kentucky and one in Ohio) were obese, and the area led the nation in the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. The poverty rate was 19 percent, much higher than the national average. It also had the highest percentage of people 65 and older who had lost their teeth — nearly 50 percent.

“All of which makes Huntington the perfect setting for the next Jamie Oliver Challenge … this British celebrity chef has made it his mission in recent years to break people’s dependence on fast food, believing that if they can learn to cook just a handful of dishes, they’ll get hooked on eating healthfully. The joy of a home-cooked meal, rudimentary as it sounds, has been at the core of his career from the start, and as he has matured, it has turned into a platform.”

Oliver made a well-publicized effort to change the way British school children eat, to missed results – while some got it, others pushed back: “What’s really happening is about more than old habits dying hard or the love of frying. The reason the world is still waiting for the Messiah is that most people don’t actually want one, no matter how many fresh fruits and vegetables he’s carrying. Oliver expects some of the same pushback in Huntington, whether it comes from recalcitrant teenagers, petty bureaucrats or parents who don’t like being told they’ve failed. It remains to be seen whether the contest between being threatened and resentful versus forthright and true can trump the American intoxication with show business: will this much-maligned area let a Member of the British Empire play Pygmalion and win?”

But here’s where Oliver’s approach to cooking and food is refreshing: “Oliver cooks and eats all kinds of meat and feels free to use butter, cream and cheese, in sane amounts. He is not a diet cop; he’s about scratch cooking, which to him means avoiding processed and fast food, learning pride of ownership, encouraging sparks of creativity and finding a reason to gather family and friends in one place. If you can make pancakes or an omelet, a pot of chili or spaghetti sauce and know how to perk up some vegetables, you can spend less and eat a more healthful meal that’s delicious.”

• Columnist Mark Bittman has a piece about online grocery shopping, and where he’d like to see this technology go:

“The one time I tried shopping online I was sent a free watermelon — how does that happen? — but that didn’t make up for the even-less-than-supermarket quality of the food. This is my fantasy about virtual grocery shopping: that you could ask and be told the provenance and ingredients of any product you look at in your Web browser. You could specify, for example, ‘wild, never-frozen seafood’ or ‘organic, local broccoli.’

“You could also immortalize your preferences (‘Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car’; ‘Show me no animals raised in cages’; ‘Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home’), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (‘When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary’). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle. You might even, I suppose, be able to ask the store to limit the amount of impulse purchases that you make — forget that second pint of Ben & Jerry’s or those Cheez-Its you have trouble resisting.

“These are services I’d be willing to pay for. And suppose this online grocer also sold precut or preseasoned vegetables, meat, fish and so on that were made with high-quality ingredients. (Surely I’m not alone in believing that the worst carrots are selected to be formed into “baby” carrots or that premarinated meats feature not only inferior meats but also inferior seasonings.) Maybe I could order my precut broccoli to be parboiled for two minutes, shocked, tossed with slivered garlic and packaged with a lemon. It would be ready for me to refrigerate until I’m ready to eat, and then, in five minutes, I could sauté, dress and put it on the table.”

• And Michael Pollan had a short piece in which he published readers’ suggestions of rules for eating well, many of them passed down through the generations. Among the best:

“Never eat something that is pretending to be something else.”

“Eat foods in inverse proportion to how much its lobby spends to push it.”

“After spending some time working with people with eating disorders, I came up with this rule: ‘Don’t create arbitrary rules for eating if their only purpose is to help you feel in control.’ I try to eat healthfully, but if there’s a choice between eating ice cream and spending all day obsessing about eating ice cream, I’m going to eat the ice cream!”

“It’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor.”
KC's View:
Supermarkets should plaster this last one above every grocery store door in America. It is the perfect summation of what supermarkets should be about – their message, their products, their philosophy of business.