Sunday, October 14, 2007

hot pink organic food

Vanilla Cupcakes with Organic Lemon Raspberry Frosting

These cupcakes I baked last week served as a useful reminder that even the best marketing tactics cannot reverse the damage of poor product design. I could create the earthiest looking package, printed with nutrition facts in enormous text and maybe an endorsement from Alice Waters, and still you would be hard-pressed to believe that these cupcakes are all-natural, made with organic fruit. In fact, you might just wonder whether Alice Waters has lost her way.

The real story doesn't matter - the one where I pureed the organic raspberries and zested the organic lemons in my kitchen, and whisked the fruit mixture into my bowl of handmade buttercream frosting until I achieved the perfect balance of sweet, creamy, and tangy.

These cupcakes are hot pink, and that says it all - assume artificial flavoring, high fructose corn syrup, Red 40...processed. Welcome to the era of the savvy consumer - we know how to spot fake food when we see it, and we're not afraid to judge.

Which poses an interesting dilemma for the natural food business, I realize. Do food scientists and marketers in natural foods actually have to design their products to look "natural"? (Is it not enough for the product to be intrinsically so?) Can an all-natural cupcake ever be topped with an all-natural hot pink frosting, or are such natural baked goods restricted to the earth-toned glazes of maple, chocolate, and vanilla?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

the airport parfait

Chicago O'Hare

I have had a particularly good week spending time in three of my favorite U.S. cities (including San Francisco) and working on an exciting new product for work. The highlights:

Magnolia Sandwich at Darwin’s Ltd. in Cambridge, MA
Each Darwin’s store names its sandwiches by its neighboring streets, so the “Magnolia” at their second location is really the same as the “Hubbard Park” at their first, which I have paid enough homage to in a previous entry. Darwin's also sells chocolate bars made in Somerville, MA (3 mi away), shortbread cookies from Arlington, MA (4 mi away), and sandwich bread baked in West Concord (18 mi away). How’s that for local flavor?

Delirium Tremens beer at Publick House in Brookline, MA
My friend Chris poured me my first Delirium two years ago. Since then, I have only been able to remember it by the picture on its label, and will probably refer to it as the “pink elephant beer” for the rest of time. To think- me -a victim of critter marketing! (The critter phenomenon has been a much-discussed topic among wine marketers ever since Yellow Tail "the kangaroo wine" took the U.S. market by storm in 2001). But honestly, besides the all-too-prevalent Chimay, I can recall no other Belgian I have enjoyed besides Pink Elephant Beer.

Goji-Granola-Pomegranate Frozen Yogurt at berryline in Harvard Square, MA
Pinkberry clones have penetrated the East Coast! As, apparently, has Berkeley grub - Goji berries at a student “froyo” shop? (Though I was also visiting the Berkeley of the East.) I have been eagerly following the spread of sour Korea yogurt up the California coast after my initiation to Pinkberry in West Hollywood, L.A. in April. I wonder if they've popped up in the middle of the country...

Banh Mi and Che in Little Vietnam, Chicago
Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich made on French baguette and traditionally filled with pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, and some type of meat (usually chicken or pork) marinated in a "special sauce". It is also notoriously cheap (e.g., 5 for $10). Five years ago, I had my first banh mi with my friend Dan in the Vietnamese neighborhood of inner Boston - this week, we met in Chicago's Vietnam Town and shared banh mi, noodles, and che. (I was completely delighted by che – a soupy, pudding-like dessert with various unidentifiable colorful ingredients suspended in thick coconut milk.)

Sushi at Sakura Restaurant, Mt. Prospect, IL
Fortunately, I have been traveling with a team that shares my passion for all things Japanese and edible. One of my team members managed to find a sushi restaurant in the middle of the country that ranks among the best and most authentic I’ve had on either coast. How’s that for market research?

Anyway, back to the title of this post. So the base of my personal food pyramid is a combination of three simple foods – yogurt, fruit, and granola, i.e. I cannot go too many days without having some form of the "yogurt parfait".

On Tuesday, I bought a “Yogurt with Fresh Seasonal Fruit and Granola” at Boston’s Logan Airport, which consisted of a considerable amount of yogurt weighed down by soggy granola and a half of one strawberry, cut in half again - $4.50. At Chicago O’Hare, for $3.79, I picked up a cleverly designed two-part piece separating the granola (Kellogg's Low-fat Granola with Raisins with 90% certainty – I can recognize the mass-produced stuff when I see it) from the sugary yogurt mixed with reconstituted frozen strawberry syrup and papery, flavorless blueberries. Yuck.

Smart Granola Packaging for Bad Granola

So yes, it’s been a great week of travels, but I’m also kind of looking forward to making my own breakfast at home on Friday morning. Even better, paying CafĂ© Fanny a visit on Saturday.