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Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Sun Oct 15, 2006 12:37 am

Since my last question about cheese seemed to elicit so much angst, I feel duty bound to throw out another to stir the pot. I do know the difference between a Yugo and a Mercedes, but what about certain brands of foodstuffs?

There are some items that fly below my radar. Take, for example, the lowly saltine cracker. I have a friend who will buy nothing but Premium saltines. On the other hand, I don't much care about the brand as long as it tastes okay. And I'll spend a buck while he'll spend over two bucks.

What do I care about brands of ordinary table salt, baking soda, or ketchup? With few exceptions store brands of many items are just fine. Will Fisher peanuts do as well as Planter's peanuts? They're all pretty much the same to me.

Are there some items that also fly under your radar?
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Sun Oct 15, 2006 11:17 am

Larry Greenly wrote:Are there some items that also fly under your radar?


With foodstuffs ... perhaps inadvertently, but not intentionally.

I sell process and packaging equipment to food manufacturers. I see what goes on out there and there usually are reasons why something which looks the same is different.

Now, a higher price does not always guarantee better quality, e.g. Napa wines and brand name drugs, but a lower price, especially a considerably lower price, should make you wary. There are so many ways to cut corners to bring prices down, be it the ingredients, be the process itself, be it the packaging. These shortcuts might not be detrimental, but they do affect the overall quality of the product. If you're happy with the cheap stuff, then don't worry, be happy.

I remember I went into one plant where a certain piece of equipment wasn't working quite right. We removed a part of it while the process was still going on. All this dashpot oil fell into the product stream and the product was subsequently packaged. Worse yet, although we had all this goop on our hands from removing machine parts, the owner reached into the product stream with his, took a scoop of product, showed it to me, and then returned the product to the stream. This was eventually eaten by someone. Plants with more stringent sanitation and supervision usually cost more to run and this impacts the price to the buyer.

I don't usually worry about this too much as I ate dirt as a kid and have built up a resistance. :roll:

Caveat emptor!
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Stuart Yaniger » Sun Oct 15, 2006 11:28 am

Gary, be assured that it's just the same in the wine biz. :(
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Sun Oct 15, 2006 11:48 am

Gary Barlettano wrote:Now, a higher price does not always guarantee better quality


Starbucks comes to mind. They must have learned the Smirnoff lesson. Decades ago Smirnoff doubled its price so their perceived quality was better than every other brand. But with the exception of some boutique vodkas they're all pretty much the same.

By definition, vodka must be ethyl alcohol filtered through charcoal and cut with distilled water. Ergo: tasteless. Even Consumer Reports says Old Mr. Boston vodka is as good as the expensive name brands, so I buy the cheaper vodkas. Now when it comes to the other liquors (whiskey, tequila, gin, etc.), I buy the good (read, expensive) stuff.

Point well-taken on the manufacturing process: I've read Sinclair's The Jungle. But many store brands are made on the same lines as the name brands. Unless Cheerios is on sale, I'll buy the Kroger (Smith's supermarket) brand because the taste is so close or identical. I buy Barbara's shredded wheat for $2.29 at Trader Joe's instead of Nabisco's, which is $4 or $5. It tastes the same to me.

Speaking of Cheerios, I did buy a bunch a couple of days ago. What a sale! Eight boxes of the big 20-oz Cheerios (and other kinds) for $10. That's only $1.25/box.

In fact, that brings up another question. Why is cereal so expensive? Some brands are over $5 for a few cents worth of grain.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Sun Oct 15, 2006 12:05 pm

Stuart Yaniger wrote:Gary, be assured that it's just the same in the wine biz. :(


Better know it! I don't sell them, but I know a few folks who sell bottling, capping, filling lines etc. As vulgar as it may seem, wine is just another beverage and just another product the integrity of which depends wholly on the producer. But we do love it so, don't we?
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Sun Oct 15, 2006 12:35 pm

Larry Greenly wrote:In fact, that brings up another question. Why is cereal so expensive? Some brands are over $5 for a few cents worth of grain.


I really don't know about the margins, but the cereal industry is highly competitive and spends a lot of dough to bring the perceived novelty to the market. Scads of R&D, for instance, go into that box of Tweeties or Frosted Coney Island Whitefish or whatever before they ever hit the streets. In fact, I have heard tell of truckloads of sample product and templates for packaging being hauled away at night and buried in restricted dumps so that the competition doesn't get wind of the next new taste sensation to rot our teeth. Formulating and reformulating, testing and retesting cost time and money.

The equipment to make and package cereal is not cheap either. A single packaging line can cost upwards of $2.5MM and most plants have four, five, six and more of them. A lot of cereal has to be churned out, too.

R&D, marketing and manufacturing all take their pound of flesh out of that box of cereal. I'm not saying it's all worth it, but it is what it is.

Of course, one can always just go to the local mill and get whatever grain one likes for a fraction of the cost ... just watch out for those mealy bugs!
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Sun Oct 15, 2006 12:40 pm

You should watch the hilarious movie, The Road to Wellville, about Kellog's cereal and spa ventures.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Robin Garr » Sun Oct 15, 2006 2:40 pm

Larry Greenly wrote:Are there some items that also fly under your radar?


I wouldn't eat that cr@p. ;)

Okay, seriously, Larry, good question! I do think that for many of us "foodies," cooking - and eating - are about nuance and subtlety, and even small differences mean a lot. Even if some of it is the placebo effect, it's worth remembering that placebos can work surprisingly well.

I can think of a few grocery brands I use - plain white vinegar, on the occasions when I use it, is just distilled acetic acid diluted with water, isn't it? And even with cider vinegar, which has its uses, I'm as happy with Heinz as I would be with an artisanal vinegar made from hand-harvested Northern Spy apples grownon historic trees in the Adirondaks. :) I love Gulden's Spicy Brown mustard, which is a little more name-brand than French's, maybe, but still a grocery-store brand. One of my best secret ingredients is (ssshhh!) Heinz Chili Sauce. And I always keep a blue box of Morton's iodized salt around for bulk jobs like salting pasta water, although I also keep sea salt, kosher salt and pink Australian Murray River flake salt.

I'm willing to get Kroger's brand all-natural, all-peanut peanut butter, and if I'm not going to make my own mayo, I'm good with Hellman's. But even there, I wouldn't get generic dollar-brand PB or mayo.

Maybe it IS a snob thing, but while the subtle differences at the high end may be small (or, in the case of Parmigiano, they may be large), it's generally worth it to me.

I think being a wine geek accentuates this, frankly. I *know* there's a difference between a quality artisanal wine and Kendall-Jackson. There is no doubt in my mind. I believe the same is true of food, and if it pleases me to try to eat as home as well as I can dine at a fine restaurant, then - as long as I can afford it - I'm willing to pay extra for what I perceive as quality.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Stuart Yaniger » Sun Oct 15, 2006 3:03 pm

One of my best secret ingredients is (ssshhh!) Heinz Chili Sauce.


Invaluable for cooking Chinese. It's a background layer in my ma po tofu. And a basic ingredient for Singaporean chili crab.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Robin Garr » Sun Oct 15, 2006 3:05 pm

Stuart Yaniger wrote:Invaluable for cooking Chinese. It's a background layer in my ma po tofu. And a basic ingredient for Singaporean chili crab.


Bingo! I didn't know about the chili crab, though. What surrogate do you use for the shellfish?
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Sun Oct 15, 2006 3:13 pm

Stuart Yaniger wrote:
One of my best secret ingredients is (ssshhh!) Heinz Chili Sauce.


Invaluable for cooking Chinese. It's a background layer in my ma po tofu. And a basic ingredient for Singaporean chili crab.


We used to have a "Sweetish Meatball" recipe which called for both Heinz Chili Sauce and Welch's Grape Jelly. It was a hit no matter where we went.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Jenise » Sun Oct 15, 2006 3:45 pm

I'm not snooty about brand names or price, but if something tastes a little better or cooks a little better than I won't settle for less be it a store brand or otherwise. But I don't buy that much ready-made product, but those which I do buy I'm generally fairly convinced that a certain brand is better: Jif peanut butter, Stretch Tite cling film and Diamond Crystal salt. Don't mean to be a snob, but other than corn oil for the very infrequent deep fry I can hardly think of anything where the "whichever's cheapest" rule applies.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Sun Oct 15, 2006 4:02 pm

[quote="Robin Garr]
I do think that for many of us "foodies," cooking - and eating - are about nuance and subtlety, and even small differences mean a lot. Even if some of it is the placebo effect, it's worth remembering that placebos can work surprisingly well. [/quote]

Don't forget I'm a foodie, too. I'm a food judge, restaurant reviewer and writer about food stuff--and non-smoker, so I do have tastebuds. And I don't scavenge food from dumpsters. :wink:

I grant you the quality differences in many things like cheese. I prefer Roquefort over Cheez Whiz (what's your favorite brand of aerosol cheese? :lol: ). But on lowly things like saltine crackers, if I can't tell the difference, why should I buy the expensive stuff? You beat me to the vinegar example. Acetic acid is acetic acid (we're talking about white distilled and perhaps cider vinegars). On the other hand I have a wide range of vinegars, some of which are expensive, because there are differences with aged sherry vinegars, balsamics, etc.

Morton's Salt or ShurFine Salt. Who cares? You use it to salt water. I keep my fleur de sel and other high-end salts for flavoring.

I also buy the cheap bleach if it's the same strength. Sodium hypochlorite is sodium hypochrolite.

The point is that I'm not a slave to Madison Avenue*. If I perceive a positive difference, I'll go with the higher price brand, but Kroger saltines taste just fine to me at less than half the price of Premium saltines.

*Although I discovered Sapphire martinis by asking for one at a restaurant just because I had seen so many print ads pushing them. I buy Bombay Sapphire for martinis and whatever gin for gin and tonics.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Robin Garr » Sun Oct 15, 2006 4:41 pm

Larry Greenly wrote:Don't forget I'm a foodie, too. I'm a food judge, restaurant reviewer and writer about food stuff--and non-smoker, so I do have tastebuds. And I don't scavenge food from dumpsters. :wink:


Oh, I wouldn't forget that, Larry! Point taken, and I should have spelled out from the first. In these public threads, though, I generally preach to the choir rather than treating a reply as one-on-one.

I do agree with some of your points ... I think I spoke of Kroger-brand peanut butter, for instance, and specifically Morton's salt. I would say that I'm far from a "Madison Avenue" consumer either, but that said, I tend to err at the other end of the spectrum and buy natural or imported or fancy-schmancy alternatives from Whole Foods or specialty shops, maybe in part just because they make me feel like I'm going the extra mile to eat well.

I don't think this is entirely unreasonable, though. As others have pointed out in this thread, TANSTAAFL applies, and some products sell cheap because they <i>are</i> cheap.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Sun Oct 15, 2006 5:44 pm

There's discussion on the FLDG!

Actually, I agree with everyone's points on both sides of the fence depending on the product. But as you well know, price is not the only indicator of quality. I'm sure if you ate at my house, you'd like my store brand of hummingbird tongues.

And BTW, you haven't told me your brand of fancy-schmancy aerosol cheese.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Carrie L. » Mon Oct 16, 2006 9:13 am

You're right, Gary -- I have made them a few times as our contribution to Superbowl parties or what have you, and there are never any leftover.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Carrie L. » Mon Oct 16, 2006 9:24 am

Robin, your mention of Heinz apple cider vinegar just hit on something in the recesses of my grey matter. I went and found this month's Cook's Illustrated where I remembered they tasted apple cider vinegars. Only two were recommended: Maille (this is the brand of Dijon mustard I'm partial to), and Spectrum Natural organic. All others, including White House, Heinz and six others I'm unfamiliar with were "recommended with reservations." I use Heinz also, so it was interesting to read the tasting notes...

The best panelists could muster for this ubiquitous American vinegar was to call it simple and mild: "No harm, no foul." Several decried it as "very acidic without much apple flavor" and complained about its "harsh, astringent" and bitter aftertaste," which wound up with a "shocking finish."

Hey, at least it is only 7 cents per ounce. What's the excuse of Verger Pierre Gingras brand (also "recommended with reservations") -- a whopping $1.19 per ounce??
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Robin Garr » Mon Oct 16, 2006 9:52 am

Carrie L. wrote:The best panelists could muster for this ubiquitous American vinegar was to call it simple and mild: "No harm, no foul." Several decried it as "very acidic without much apple flavor" and complained about its "harsh, astringent" and bitter aftertaste," which wound up with a "shocking finish."


You know, this goes right to the point I was making with Larry: When we don't pay attention, sure, the inexpensive alternatives are generally palatable, and you can certainly make dishes with them. But <i>if you pay attention</i>, the quality difference matters ... and you pay for it.

Point is, it's not just snobbery to insist on the best ... but it also makes sense to be a skeptical consumer and find out whether the more expensive brand really matters.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Stuart Yaniger » Mon Oct 16, 2006 10:00 am

Robin Garr wrote:Bingo! I didn't know about the chili crab, though. What surrogate do you use for the shellfish?


Depends. Usually some yam-based analog, but I've done it with abalone mushrooms, tofu, and shredded marinated gluten.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Larry Greenly » Mon Oct 16, 2006 11:04 am

Robin Garr wrote:When we don't pay attention, sure, the inexpensive alternatives are generally palatable, and you can certainly make dishes with them. But <i>if you pay attention</i>, the quality difference matters ... and you pay for it.

Point is, it's not just snobbery to insist on the best ... but it also makes sense to be a skeptical consumer and find out whether the more expensive brand really matters.


Well, there you go...we agree.

I remember Cook's stating that $4 365 Balsamic Vinegar is as good or better than the $20 stuff. So a bottle of 365 is what's on my shelf.

(edited to fix busted backquote)
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Mon Oct 16, 2006 11:10 am

Carrie L. wrote:You're right, Gary -- I have made them a few times as our contribution to Superbowl parties or what have you, and there are never any leftover.


Do you still have the recipe for this, Carrie? They fell into the domain of my sainted mother and first ex-wife, hence I have never made them myself.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Robin Garr » Mon Oct 16, 2006 11:18 am

Larry Greenly wrote:I remember Cook's stating that $4 365 Balsamic Vinegar is as good or better than the $20 stuff. So a bottle of 365 is what's on my shelf.


Good example, and one worth mentioning in this thread: In my experience, Whole Foods' house brand, "365," consistently offers very good value. Their olive oil, for example, seems to me to be a dead ringer for Colavita, and a fine alternative for everyday OO.
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Gary Barlettano » Mon Oct 16, 2006 11:45 am

Robin Garr wrote:
Larry Greenly wrote:I remember Cook's stating that $4 365 Balsamic Vinegar is as good or better than the $20 stuff. So a bottle of 365 is what's on my shelf.


Good example, and one worth mentioning in this thread: In my experience, Whole Foods' house brand, "365," consistently offers very good value. Their olive oil, for example, seems to me to be a dead ringer for Colavita, and a fine alternative for everyday OO.


An appropriate suspicion. Custom marketing or branding or labelling is quite common. I go into plants and see the same products going into similar packages with different labels on them. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's products are good examples of this. They want a certain quality level so they go out and have someone else make products to their specs. Sometimes the branded products are equivalent to the vendor's own products; sometimes they ain't; sometimes they are even better! I can't spill the beans about who does what for whom, but in about 75% of the cases it's easy to sort out by looking at the packaging. Is the bag made of the same film? Does a box or bottle have the same shape and closure?
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Re: Angst or under your radar?

by Carrie L. » Mon Oct 16, 2006 11:54 am

The recipe I use is in my college alma mater's alumni cookbook back in CA. (I'll have access to it when we get back there early Nov.) This one from AllRecipes.com sounds very similar, except that my meatballs have some breadcrumbs and I would ALWAYS brown and cook them first, then just put them in a slow cooker with the sauce to warm them through.

Sweet and Sour Meatballs I
Submitted by: Tammy Moore
Rated: 4 out of 5 by 42 members Prep Time: 10 Minutes
Cook Time: 5 Hours Ready In: 5 Hours 10 Minutes
Yields: 7 servings

"This is a slow-cooker recipe for meatballs made of ground beef combined with onion and egg. They are simmered for 4 to 5 hours with chili sauce, grape jelly, and lemon juice."

INGREDIENTS:
2 pounds ground beef
1 egg
1 onion, chopped
1 pinch salt
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle chili sauce
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup grape jelly

DIRECTIONS:
1. In a large bowl, combine beef, egg, onion and salt. Mix together, then shape into little balls.
2. In a slow cooker combine chili sauce, lemon juice and grape jelly. Stir in meatballs and cook on high for 4 to 5 hours.
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