Designer Label Foods
Last week I asked for guesses on how much this jar of granola costs.
The answer, chers amis, is $16.
Sixteen American dollars for this jar that looks like it holds about three cups of granola.
It’s $13 for a refill.
On the one hand, that’s great. It means that I too could sell granola for $16. How wonderful that there are people in this world who value granola enough to pay a premium for it. If the market can support it, why not pay yourself decently to provide people with breakfast? On the other hand, it’s ridiculous. $16 for a medium-sized jar of granola? The last guy I saw asking for money on the subway said the government gives him that much to feed himself for a month.
Both sides of that argument are valid, the same way that both JC Penney and Hermes are valid. Along with fast fashion, we’re now seeing the rise of designer food.
In many ways, designer food is like designer clothing. Both cater to high-paying clientele by building brands associated with quality, status, and prestige. In the cases of both food and clothing, those associations with quality are often accurate, and sometimes they're not. Everyone knows the brand names, and people define themselves based on the brands they do and don't consume. Players in both fields toe the paradox of popularity: You want your brand to be known because you want it to be associated with quality and prestige, but once too many people have access, it is no longer edgy, trendsetting, or exclusive. You have to make a choice: meet the demand, and you sacrifice the quality of your product, which in turn is a risk to the integrity of your brand. (Just ask my aunt about the declining quality of designer women's pants.) Go that route and your products become mass market. Sales skyrocket, but those who made you popular move on to the next thing in order to stay on the inside edge. Stonyfield organic dairy chose this route by opting to sell at WalMart . The other option is to stay small, maintain the fine craftsmanship of your work, and refuse to cave to the pressure to expand to meet the market. Then, at least if you're in America, people will probably call you snobby and niche and accuse you of not giving a shit about the poor.
Despite these similarities, designer food is not like designer clothing at all. I just wore my grandmother's Escada jumpsuit and her Bruno Magli shoes to a rehearsal dinner; you can't pass on designer food to your grandchildren. As intimate a part of our lives as clothing is, it still stays on the outside; food goes on the inside. Clothing is necessary but it's not sustenance. And so, even though I know full well that food has always carried class divisions, something feels especially not-right about this business of designer food.
The name-brand food thing is insidious in a way that name-brand clothing is not, and in a way that fast food is not. Maybe I just don't have an adequately ardent affair with my sewing machine, but as far as I'm concerned, home cooking is much higher and holier ground than home garment production. Anything that takes home cooks further away from the kitchen is problematic, and while fast food is most certainly one of those things, it is at least glaringly obvious in all its un-nourishing glory. Nobody is about to suggest that Aunt Jemima does a better job in the kitchen than a beloved relative who showers them with love by stuffing them to the gills with fresh hot pancakes that they made from scratch. But now that you can buy very fine prepared food* instead of cooking, that argument gets a little weaker.
What is most troubling is that this invasion of higher-quality outside foods is part of a larger assault on our confidence as home cooks. The proliferation of media that show us flawlessly presented dishes nudges us quite persistently towards the notion that our food should look like that too. And when we believe that it's not worth it to cook at home because someone else can just do it better and it won't look the way it does on TV / on that awesome blog / in the cookbook so I am just going to be disappointed and ashamed of my lack of culinary prowess -- Guess what? We stop trying. And then we never do get any good at it. And our kids don't grow up seeing us cook, or banging on pots and pans. Collectively, we lose the skill. When that is a widespread phenomenon in our society, we lose touch with some very essential parts of our humanity.
This is a crisis, and probably one that sits at the core of many other crises. While there is no quick fix and I plan to address this topic in far more depth in the future, here is my one small step for humankind today: I am sharing a recipe along with the photos of what happened when I tried to make it look good in photos. And I pledge to do less of the trying-to-make-it-look-good-in-photos thing. Though I know that's a trend right now too. But what can ya do?
Roasted Tomatoes Stuffed With Herbed Rice Pilaf
This is a great way to use leftover rice, especially a small amount that isn't really enough to serve again on its own. It tastes best when made during tomato season (late summer/early fall) with fresh tomatoes. I recommend serving them with cooked greens.
Yield: Four Servings
4 large tomatoes (beefsteak work well)
1 cup cooked rice
2 tbsp. olive oil (approx.)
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano
1/2 cup white wine, if you have it on hand
1/4 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese** (optional)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 oz. feta cheese for topping (optional; I recommend using either feta or parmigiano)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Using a paring knife, cut into the tops of the tomatoes, kind of like if you were getting ready to carve a pumpkin. Use a spoon to remove the seeds and hollow out the inside. You can leave some flesh in there; you're just making room for rice. Set the tomatoes aside.
Set a medium-sized skillet over medium-low heat and pour in the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic, herbs, and walnuts, and saute until the garlic turns golden-brown. Add in the rice and stir to combine. Cook for another five minutes or so, just to heat the rice, and pour in the wine if using. Cook until the wine evaporates, stirring occasionally, and turn off the heat. Add in the parmigiano, if using. Season to taste.
Use a spoon to stuff the rice into the tomatoes. Place tomatoes on baking sheet and top with feta, if using. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the skins of the tomatoes are starting to blister.
*when I say "prepared food," I mean cooked food, meals and baked goods that you might otherwise make at home. I don't mean cheeses, cured meats, wines, beers, or sourdough breads. While these are all things that can be made at home, they require a level of mastery that is not necessary for, say, poached salmon and roasted potatoes.
**Yes, "parmigiano reggiano" and not "parmesan" for a reason. The former is a protected word, like champagne -- when you call a cheese by that name, it must be the real deal or it's against the law. "Parmesan" is a sneaky loophole of a word that (outside of the EU) lets people sell you sawdust and cellulose and call it cheese.