Archive for the 'Food' Category

If you’re going to claim facts…

Posted in Food on April 10th, 2010

…it helps to know what you’re talking about.

I know, I know, that’s so old fashioned, I’m such a Luddite…

I just finished reading Candyfreak by Steve Almond. Nonfiction, a fast read, amusing, sometimes a little outrageous, mostly having to do with this admitted candyfreak’s tour of a few of the remaining independent candy factories that make regional candy bars (now that most big-name candy bars have been swallowed up by Hershey, Mars or Nestle).

And I hit a passage on p. 135, where he’s noting that one of these small companies survives by devoting most production days to candy bars and other items sold under other companies’ names. At which point, Almond lets go with this:

…it bears mentioning that this product is but one in a tsunami of pseudo-candy bars, variously called PowerBars, Granola bars, Energy Bars, Clif Bars, Breakfast Bars, Snack Bars, Wellness Bars, and so on, all of which contain roughly the same sugar and fat as an actual candy bar–with perhaps a dash of protein sawdust thrown in–but only half the guilt, and stand as a monument both to shameless marketing and the American capacity for self-delusion…

That’s only a part of the lengthy sentence, but it includes the part that struck me.

To wit, I thought to myself, “bushwah.” (Not the term I used, but the “bu” and the “sh” are right.)

So, apparently unlike Almond, I did a little research–very little, since it doesn’t take much. I happened to have Clif Bars, Zone Bars, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Odwalla Bars, and Quaker True Delights on hand, and it didn’t take long to look up a selection of Hershey and Mars and Nestle bars online. (Mars and Nestle make it varying difficult to get to nutritional information, so most of what I got is from Hershey.)

Candybar calories, fat and sugar

Here are a selection of calories, fat, and sugar content for candy bars (typically the regular-size bar):

  • Almond Joy: 220 calories, 13g fat, 20g sugar
  • Hershey: 210 calories, 13g fat, 24g sugar
  • 5th Avenue: 260 calories, 12g fat, 29g sugar
  • KitKat: 210 calories, 11g fat, 22g sugar
  • Mounds: 230 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Mr. Goodbar: 250 calories, 17g fat, 23g sugar
  • Payday: 240 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Reese’s: 210 calories, 13g fat, 21g sugar
  • Snickers: 280 calories, 14g fat, 30g sugar (apparently the best-selling candy bar, and notably the one with the most calories, most sugar and, other than Mr. Goodbar, most fat)
  • Butterfinger: 270 calories, 11g fat, 29g sugar

“Roughly the same”?

  • Clif (Oatmeal Raisin Walnut; others are similar): 240 calories, 5g fat, 20g sugar.
  • Zone Fruitified: 200 calories, 6g fat, 15g sugar
  • Nature Valley Apple Crisp Granola: 160 calories, 6g fat, 11g sugar
  • Odwalla Berries GoMega: 210 calories, 6g fat, 16g sugar
  • Quaker TrueDelights: 140 calories, 3.5g fat, 10g sugar (or, another variety, 4.5g fat, 8g sugar)

Notice something here? None of these bars has even half the fat of a Snickers or Almond Joy, and none has significantly more than half the fat of the lowest-fat of this group.

As for sugar–well, yes, the Clif bar has as much or about as much sugar as Almond Joy or Mounds or a couple of others. (But that sugar doesn’t come from high-fructose corn syrup, and there’s roughly one-third the fat.)

Sure, Trader Joe’s 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar has 280 calories and 19g fat (but only 13g sugar)–but nobody would mistake it for anything but a high-fat candy bar!

Self-delusion? Maybe Almond is protesting too much… Nothing wrong with a good candy bar now and then, but the better energy bars and food bars really are different products.

Advertising against freshness? Really?

Posted in Food on March 21st, 2010

I just saw the same ad twice in today’s paper–once in the national “magazine” as a full-page ad, once elsewhere.

From Del Monte.

Urging people to avoid fresh fruit in favor of canned fruit.

Because, you know, that fresh fruit might go bad, and there’s another dollar down the drain. Where with canned, you get all that wonderful goodness with no chance of spoilage…

I honestly don’t know what to say. Well, I do, but this is a polite blog, so…

[I had an organic navel orange for dessert with lunch, grown less than 50 miles from here. I had organic grapefruit, from the same ranch, with breakfast--so sweet it was like lemonade. Both purchased from the grower at yesterday's farmer's market. Tell me to eat canned fruit instead? Right... Now, if decent fresh fruit simply isn't available, or it has to be flown halfway around the world, that's one thing--but as a general argument, Del Monte should be ashamed of itself.]

Diversity and the beholder

Posted in Food on August 20th, 2008

Calm down. It’s a food post.

Our local weekly had brief notes on all the candidates for council this fall–an unusual election in which there are no sitting councilfolk running for re-election.

One (of quite a few) apparently moved to Mountain View fairly recently, and this person has a complaint.

Namely, that downtown Mountain View doesn’t have diverse dining choices.

Now, if you’ve been in downtown MV–which I’ll take as being Castro Street and two blocks either side of Castro–this may seem like an odd complaint. Just from memory, I know of:

  • Several Chinese restaurants, mostly region-specific, with one or two pan-Chinese.
  • Several Indian restaurants at various price points.
  • A couple of Thai restaurants.
  • Several Vietnamese restaurants–some Pho places, some not.
  • Some Japanese restaurants
  • At least three good Mexican restaurants (probably more), various cuisines
  • At least three Italian restaurants
  • A couple of mediterranean places–at least one halal kebab grill, at least one mostly-Greek
  • A good brewpub with an expansive menu–burgers, excellent fish, salads, what have you
  • An “Irish” pub and an adjacent “Irish” nightclub
  • A good “East coast” pizza place and a good California pizza/calzone/grill place
  • A very-high-end California/continental restaurant.
  • A fairly high-end fish place
  • A tapas & large-plate place
  • And I’m sure I could go on for a while. I believe there are at least 80 restaurants in the six-block stretch.

Ah, but there was another sentence explaining what this person meant by “diversity.” She said there weren’t enough places serving traditional American food.

And, you know, I think I know what this person means by “traditional American food”–and it is indeed in short supply in downtown MV, although readily available with a minute or two’s driving, to such an extent that snobbish San Franciscans delight in claiming that the Peninsula has nothing but this kind of restaurant.

What we don’t have in downtown MV:

  • Denny’s
  • IHOP
  • McDonald’s
  • Burger King
  • Sizzler
  • Macaroni Grill
  • Applebee’s
  • Cheesecake Factory
  • Olive Garden
  • Chili’s
  • and all the rest…

Not saying anything negative about those, but it is true: Castro and adjacent streets are low on chain outlets, other than (of course) overpriced over-roasted coffee places (both Starbuck’s and Peet’s).

Too bad the candidate doesn’t come out with her true platform: “Downtown Mountain View needs more Chain Restaurants! We need more predictable food!”

Somehow, it doesn’t sound like a winning platform. There are loads of these chain outlets all around downtown–but the more distinctive places seem to be doing just fine in the heart of downtown. I have problems feeling bad about that.

Stone fruit

Posted in Food on July 22nd, 2008

It’s that wonderful time of the year…the weather’s pretty much settled down to “summer conditions” (which here means most days have highs in the mid-70s, maybe into the low 80s: our hot spells are still considered atypical) and it’s stone fruit season!

Last year was a disappointment. I seem to remember there being very few cherries, and most of those not very good. Our apricot tree produced just a little fruit… But we managed, with peaches, plums, etc.

This year, so far, much better:

  • My wife had to hand-pollenate the apricot trees (near-absence of bees earlier in the year), but that worked. She thought the apricots were all going to ripen while we were on vacation, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, there was loads of fruit ripening in late June and early July. Too much fruit, really–and I missed a few days of great Blenheim apricots because of ALA Anaheim. Still, for a couple of weeks, we were getting more first-rate apricots (the only kind that really taste like apricots, the ones picked directly from a tree) than we could eat. A few neighbors got bags of apricots… And we’ve seen one or two trees in the neighborhood that make us sigh: Heavy with fruit, in one case ripening now (two weeks later than ours)…and apparently nobody using that glorious fruit. Sigh. (Our second apricot tree isn’t doing well: One bearing branch.)
  • The Bing cherries from California growers were good, but they’re gone. The Bing cherries from Washington are here now, and they’re great. (Not as cheap as in some years, but plentiful and excellent.) Dunno how much longer we get them–two weeks? Three?–but I’m enjoying them while they’re here.
  • Rainiers, on the other hand… There were some decent local ones at the farmer’s market in early July, but the California season’s been over for a while. We have yet to see any northwest Rainiers that we’d buy–apparently they’re just not holding up to shipping very well. (Too many of them bruised.)
  • Peaches. Ah, peaches. They’ve ranged from very good to the kind you can smell six feet away and are just incredibly satisfying.
  • As usual, some new-to-us varieties of nectarines and other stone fruit–mango nectarines, black apricots, what have you. Some of them excellent. Some not so much.

If you love apples and don’t care about buying local, I suppose you always have good fruit available. Neither of us do well with apples. So for us, the absolute best fruit season is stone fruit season…and I hope it stays around at least a month more.

“Hidden” wines–maybe not all that hidden

Posted in Food, Stuff on January 16th, 2008

‘brary web diva points to a new blog about wine, from a former library worker. One of the first posts at that blog discusses the many “hidden” Gallo wines.

As a wine drinker (and as one whose family home was eventually purchased by Gallo to make part of a parking lot, allowing my parents to move to a nicer place), I’ve been aware of the Gallo-created regional brands such as Anapamu for some time, and certainly aware that Gallo–and especially Gallo of Sonoma–makes a lot of excellent wine, along with some cheap stuff (the really cheap stuff such as Carlo Rossi never saying Gallo on the label). Gallo’s also picked up a surprising number of well-established wineries through the years, including Mirassou.

I also knew one “trick” to identify some, but by no means all, Gallo brands that don’t say Gallo: UPC codes starting with 85000. (“Modesto on the label” is a particularly bad way to locate the best Gallo wines, since most of them have Healdsburg on the label, that being the headquarters for Gallo of Sonoma.)

Turns out there’s a much easier trick. Gallo’s not trying to hide its brands. This page leads to descriptions of all Gallo-owned wines, broken down by category.

So, for example, Gallo doesn’t hide the fact that Burlwood and Copperidge (and Liberty Creek) are hotel/restaurant brands; you may have been poured Copperidge at Midwinter receptions (or at Embassy Suites, for example). Nor do they hide the fact that they import Black Swan, Ecco Domani, Red Bicyclette and others. And in the premium category (other than the ones with Gallo on the label, some of which are world-class wines), there are the ones I knew about–Rancho Zabaco/Dancing Bull, Anapamu, Marcelina–and a couple I didn’t realize Gallo had acquired (e.g., Louis M. Martini).

Yes, the page also lists the cheap stuff…but only ones that are more-or-less varietal wines, not the fortified and fruit stuff. So you’ll find Carlo Rossi and Peter Vella, but not Thunderbird. (Ripple? Gone. Not missed.)

Another food post

Posted in Food on September 10th, 2007

Three-quarters of a mile from my almost-former-place-of-work (I’m terminated as of 9/30 and in any case the remainder will be moving to new smaller quarters) is a block with two food facilities. One building (and big back lot, with a decent-size parking area) is a sports bar that’s mostly a restaurant during the day. I think I’ve written about it before: good food, inexpensive, particularly noteworthy for the $2 freshly-made “cup” of soup that’s most restaurants’ bowl-size.

The other building is a big rectangle with five food places: A Subway with maybe half a dozen seats (almost entirely takeout); Bueno Bueno, a very good burroteria (like taqueria but their specialty is burros) with no inside seating at all (but two outside tables); a small corner place that’s been through four different iterations in the three or four (?) years we’ve been here, most recently the second iteration of a Japanese restaurant; a fairly good-size sit-down place that was Indian when we moved here, has been a Hawaiian lunch-plate place (and a couple of others), and is now a wrap/falafel/gyros place.

And a big sit-down space, probably 150 or so seats in all, that was always New Ma’s, a Chinese Muslim restaurant that served very good food and frequently had busloads of tourists *from* China visiting. (By unfortunate happenstance, the first time I tried it must have had an assistant cook on a really off day–but after staying away for a year, I went back and found the food quite good, as did my wife.) No sweet & sour pork, of course, or pork of any kind; all meat Halal; they did compromise enough to have a beer & wine license.

About a year and a half ago, New Ma’s closed for remodeling. The process turned the light, airy space into more of a nightclub space–black walls, heavy curtains, flat-screen TVs up on the wall. Eventually, after what seemed like way too long (and with an incongruous permit application for a full liquor license), it reopened–sort of. As a Japanese restaurant with almost no menu. They said “Oh, we’ll have Chinese too, next week.” By “next week” it was closed.

Then it reopened as an Italian restaurant with the emphasis on 5-9 p.m. happy hour. Tried it once for lunch. Wholly dispiriting “buffet” (four items, I think) or half a dozen menu items. The only thing I could plausibly imagine eating was the burger. It was OK, but seriously overpriced. That restaurant lasted for oh, three or four weeks.

Now…well, last week the doors opened again, this time as a different Chinese restaurant, with its name followed by “@ Green Lantern” (Green Lantern was the name of the shortlived Italian restaurant), and with the Green Lantern “grand opening” banner above the Chinese restaurant “grand opening” banner. Oh, and the building still says “New Ma’s”–the other rapidly-changing spaces always manage to replace the building-mounted signs, but maybe the management(s) here know something…

So, to get to the second part of an absurdly long lunchtime post, I tried the place today…after all, I’ll still be here three weeks…

Huge menu, but the lunch specials were the usual list, most of them $6.25. Ordered one. What I got: slightly gloppy hot-and-sour soup (plenty good enough for many suburban areas, way below what you’d expect in Mountain View) with a standard metal soup spoon. Then, a platter of the chosen entree (really too much for one person) and a cup of white rice. Fork and knife: No chopsticks, no separate plate for dining, no hot tea offered. The food? Again, adequate for some suburban areas (I think), but gloppy and dreary by local standards. $6.25. I won’t return.

At which point I thought about the little (50-60 seats) shopping-strip Chinese restaurant I went to last Friday, and will probably go to every week or two from the end of this month until we move out of Mountain View (if we do that, which we might if job possibilities continue to, um, pan out so well–we can take some money out of our house), and what I got there for $0.30 less:

  • Cup of light, non-gloppy egg flower soup (with porcelain spoon)and
  • Nice little salad and
  • Plate of fried wonton strips.

after which, you get

  • Slightly oversize dinner plate with a rational-size serving of your chosen entree, fresh, not gloppy, nicely prepared
  • Plenty of vegetables added to the entree if needed–and the broccoli, at least, is just properly cooked, still bright green and al dente
  • A good-size scoop of either white or vegetable fried rice
  • A crisp, light, small egg roll
  • A small serving of vegetable chow mein

and, of course, both chopsticks and fork–and tea unless it’s a hot day and you indicate you don’t need it.

Oh, and with the check:

  • Orange slices
  • Fortune cookie

Let’s see. Big-deal big restaurant versus inconsequential little neighborhood restaurant. No contest. At all. China Cafe (the one near home) actually belongs in Mountain View. The new place might just belong in Modesto…I give it a month, two tops, but I won’t be around to find out.

[We have Saturday dinner fairly frequently at China Cafe, even though it's a slightly shorter walk than we might prefer, 0.7 miles each way. All of the dishes we've had are lively, fresh, well-prepared, "ungloppy"...]

Hmm. Wonder how the neighborhood Chinese places are in Fremont or Livermore or, maybe, McMinnville or Portland…

Tri-tip: A Food Question

Posted in Food on June 10th, 2007

The question’s simple enough, aimed mostly at people outside the U.S. “far west”:

Have you ever heard of tri-tip? Do supermarkets in your area sell it?

Here’s the background. Two Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a biannual get-together of a distantly-related family (she’s doing genealogical research, located these folks, answered some questions from them, got invited). In the Altamont pass wind-farm country (near Livermore). The primary barbecue was tri-tip–marinated and seasoned.

Last Sunday, my wife and I went to my brother’s first-anniversary party, at his house in Livermore. He provided the barbequed meat and drink. The meat was tri-tip, marinated and seasoned.

We were in Santa Maria year before last, and of course I had tri-tip for dinner, since Santa Maria tri-tip is a key local dish.

At the get-together and again at the first anniversary, people familiar with the meat industry said that tri-tip is unknown outside of the West–that it gets used for hamburger or sold as parts of different cuts elsewhere. It’s a tricky cut: It really needs thin-slicing and typically marinade to avoid being too tough to eat. But it’s also a great barbecue meat when it is marinated and thinly sliced. (One of my favorite lunch spots, years ago, used to serve a tri-tip sandwich once in a while: Great.)

So: Is this a Western urban legend? Do you get tri-tip in New York or Texas (well, Texas may count as “the west”) or Illinois or Great Britain or Australia or Toronto or Wisconsin?

(We’re finishing a trifecta today, really unusual for a not-terribly-sociable couple: Going to brunch today with a dear long-time friend…once again, in Livermore, but this time in a restaurant. I suspect tri-tip won’t be on the menu.)

Beyond that: We seem to be well into stone fruit season, and the local farmer’s market is rich with great peaches, superb plums, wonderful apricots, and magnificent cherries. We’re hoping to get a few Blenheim apricots from our own tree, but the birds may beat us to it… I do love stone fruit season, particularly as it ends the several-week near-drought of fresh local fruit!

Choosing your patrons: A cautionary tale

Posted in Food, Libraries on June 4th, 2007

Shortly after we moved to Mountain View nine years ago, we started walking to dinner every Saturday night–either some place really close (0.7 miles each way), some or one of many further away (about 1.2 miles to Los Altos, about 1.5 miles to downtown Mountain View).

For a while, there was really only one “nearby” restaurant: a local pizza parlor that also happened to produce really good food–calzones with no grease on the plate, pizzas with vibrant flavors, a small assortment of very well made Italian dishes. Local (not part of a chain), and a “neighborhood pizza place” to the extent of sponsoring youth soccer teams and having a banquet room where various kids-league teams would hold end-of-season dinners.

We went there anywhere from once every two weeks to once a month–more often in the winter (when the longer walks are less desirable), a little less often once we discovered that the Chinese restaurant in the same neighborhood center was really quite good.

The last year or so, we started encountering situations where we really couldn’t enjoy our meal: In addition to the big group in the banquet room, there would be another big group in the main dining room, with parents making no efforts to keep their kids from shouting. So, for a while, we’d call before going, ask if there were going to be multiple parties coming in during the time we were planning, and plan accordingly.

That started breaking down a couple of months ago and finally broke down entirely last Saturday. First we’d call and the person answering the phone either didn’t understand my question (being only marginally English-speaking) or just said “No problem.” We’d arrive, the place would be intolerably loud with parties that had made reservations, and we’d go eat Chinese food.

Last Saturday, we called. The person wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question. We went over. Walking in, we asked; the hostess said “Just one party, and it’s in the banquet room.” Good enough. We ordered.

And the kids started trooping in. By and large, the kids moved along to the banquet room, but some of the parents wanted to stand around with their kids, and one of the kids was literally whooping every few seconds. (Eventually, that parent took the kid outside…and then came back a couple of minutes later, and the whooping resumed.) But as it turned out, this time the kids weren’t the main problem–or at least not the underage kids.

This time, apparently many of the parents didn’t want to be with their kids. So they stood three-deep around the “bar” (beer and wine, but they weren’t ordering anything), talking loudly and MORE LOUDLY and EVEN MORE LOUDLY as more of them gathered. (There was about 3 feet between the bar and the booths; we retreated to the most distant booth, 6 feet away, but that made no difference.)

We could not and did not enjoy the meal. We finished it, paid (yes, with a good tip), and left. And my wife said “We’re not going back. Ever.” I can’t disagree.

The owner has obviously chosen to give precedence to big groups–and not to make any effort to remind them that it’s also a restaurant and that others may not be as excited as they are. I think that used to be different. As my wife said, it’s probably the right decision–for the 12 weekends/24 days a year when there are team banquets. But if enough regular customers feel the way we do, it may not be such a hot decision for the other 288 days. Used to be, we’d see half a dozen or more couples and family groups there when we were there. This time? One other couple, and they didn’t look real happy either. (This is actually passing strange, since the owner also recently switched from one-sheet paper menus to nice multipage menus with an expanded menu–seemingly trying to attract the same diners he’s driving away.)

I noted that, the previous Saturday when I’d planned to have lunch at the Chinese place, there was a sign on the door: “Banquet in progress. Takeout only.” Those owners decided that they really couldn’t handle both at the same time, and didn’t attempt to. Unquestionably, they would have answered a phoned question correctly…and we would have come back another day.

Library implications? Maybe. Meredith Farkas posted about her husband’s experience seeing a favorite magazine go bad because it shifted its attention and resources to the web. (An excellent post, by the way, which you should go read if you haven’t already.) Part way through, Farkas adds this note:

(Aside: As I’m writing this, I realize this offers another lesson that librarians need to heed. While it’s important that we provide better services for teens and those in their early 20s, we shouldn’t do it at the expense of services to the rest of our patrons. We do not want to lose that core audience any more than we want to lose the Gen Y folks.)

Yep. Don’t look for a denunciation of gaming in libraries here because such a mass denunciation would be as absurd as saying that every library needs a gaming librarian (which I’m sure nobody would actually say). But I do wonder: Are those wonderful at-the-library gaming tournaments, particularly ones with such quiet pursuits as DDR, driving out older patrons who have loyally supported the library? If so, will they come back or will they just give up–and vote against the next tax override?

I don’t know the answer. Well, that’s not true: I do know that there is no single answer. I’m sure some libraries, maybe even every single one that does these gaming nights/tournaments, have set things up so that the noise and disruption from one activity doesn’t upset the browsers and readers in the rest of the library.

But I also know that it would not be an answer to say “We need the gamers, so we’ll just have to let the old folks go.” And, just to clarify, I haven’t heard anyone say that either.

Oh, and Meredith? That magazine isn’t the only one. PC Magazine has dropped almost all specs and details from its printed reviews, substituting glossy columns and big pictures; effectively, the print magazine is now sort of a sideshow to the web version. Except, of course, that I’m not interested in the web version…and will think long and hard before renewing the print version. (After all, I get the web version free anyway…)

Quick summer’s-end post

Posted in Food, Stuff on September 4th, 2006

Yeah, I know, September 20, and if there were still “typical weather patterns” we’d probably get a few hot days this month, but realistically, Labor Day marks the end of summer around these parts.

Particularly because it nearly marks the end of stone fruit season. (It’s also getting cool enough that I’ll probably start wearing a jacket on the way to work…)

Since I did a few posts about fruit last summer, I thought I’d offer a few updates. (I’m not linking to the earlier posts. This is Labor Day, and I’m doing as little labor as possible.)

Last year was the Summer Without Cherries, particularly the summer without decent Bings.

I’m delighted to say that this year’s cherry crops were reasonably plentiful and first-quality. First from California growers (buying them mostly at two local farmers’ markets, one a true California Farmers’ Market, the other more ambiguous), then from Washington State after the California season was done.

Great Bings. As cheap as $1.99 at Safeway, $3.99 at the purist farmers’ market. First rate in both cases.

Great Rainiers–and I always thought all Rainiers came from Washington, but that’s not true: We had weeks of first-rate Rainier cherries from local growers.

The season’s gone (a couple of weeks ago, what was left in the stores was too pathetic to buy), but I did my share to keep growers and farmer-sellers happy during the season.

Last year, I was enthusiastic about Apriums (Apria?), apricot-plum hybrids. Turns out that, after one good experience, we never really got good ones–but once we found the local farmers’ markets, we got really good apricots. True this year as well. A good thing, because our own apricot tree gave us almost nothing (and may not be doing well), and the second tree’s too young for fruit. We even got some acceptable apricots at Safeway, but of course the farmers’ market fruit was better.

Plums? A great year for plums and pluots, with some Santa Rosa plums and dinosaur-egg pluots simply spectacular. Those are still hanging on–yesterday’s breakfast featured some plums, some pluots, some truly first-rate white-flesh peaches, and some gold kiwifruit that was better than the kiwifruit’s been for a while–but, as with the peaches, they’ll be fading away.

We’re also finding more and better organic produce, both at the three certified organic stands at the Mountain View farmers’ market (which, unlike the ambiguous one, runs year-round: This is California!) and at Safeway. Of course, organic no longer means “small operation” by any means, but…

So, despite the disrupted vacation plans and still slightly enigmatic work situation, I have no complaints about the summer. We’re still here, we’re supporting local produce whenever possible (“local” meaning “within a hundred miles or so”–while the area we live in used to be prime cherry orchard territory, there’s just not much of that left in our immediate area.

Trader Joe’s and the Word Paradox

Posted in Food, Media on March 20th, 2006

Trader Joe’s now officially exists: They’ve opened a store in New York City. And Slate has a story to clue in the Most Important People in the World.

The “Insider’s guide to Trader Joe’s” offers a set of “tips and warnings,” generally worthwhile. Including two sets of “fan favorites,” stuff that TJ does particularly well. (About 80% of what’s sold at a typical Trader Joe’s is exclusive to Trader Joe’s, according to one story I’ve read–and I believe it, since other than booze, wine, and beer, there are few national brands on display).

Reading those lists of favorites, I was struck by what I call the “Word paradox”: That is, “only ten features in Word really matter”–but your list of ten may have zero in common with my list of ten. That is, of the six categories I care most about at TJ, only two are mentioned among the sixteen categories mentioned in the Slate lists.

Here’s what we rely on TJ for, noting that we do most of our grocery shopping at two other stores, a medium-size Safeway and Andronico’s (a tiny little chain):

  • Dried fruit, e.g. three different varieties of dried cherries, three different kinds of dried cranberries…and dozens more that I don’t buy. Nobody does it better. Yes, TJ’s even has unsulphered dried apricots, if you don’t mind the looks.
  • Vitamins & supplements, the purest around (“vitamins” are mentioned in the article).
  • Nuts and sunflower seeds in a staggering range of varieties (including the world’s largest cashews) at very good prices.
  • Kauai coffee (yes, 100% coffee grown on Kauai), similar to Kona (which TJ’s also sells in a 100%-pure version), but about 1/3 the price–I’ve never seen Kauai coffee elsewhere, and TJ doesn’t roast the heck out of their coffee (except for their special blends designed for Starbucks/Peets customers)–”coffee and tea” are also mentioned–and, oh yes, unbleached #4 filters at 100 for $1.60 or so
  • Chocolate–in my case, the three-packs of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate 1.75oz bars (58% cocoa solids, just the right balance for my taste), from Belgium, for a staggering $1.29 for three bars. There are, to be sure, many other varieties.
  • Clif bars at reasonable prices ($1/bar), although that’s becoming a little more common.

But that’s us–the things we want that either aren’t available elsewhere, are done better by TJ, or are a lot cheaper for the same quality. (I don’t think anything we buy except coffee filters and Clif bars falls into the third category.)

Oh, sometimes TJ’s own wine label (or set of labels) is excellent for the money (not two-buck-chuck, but stuff under the Trader Joe’s label). Sometimes not. Frequently it’s not available, because they can’t get the quality they want at the price they want.

I respect TJ’s commitment to avoiding additives and fillers where feasible, and to using reasonably minimal packaging (except for some produce, and we don’t buy fresh produce there). It is a strange place to shop; no question there.

In passing, I note that Slate also had a slightly snarky take on Whole Foods and the whole question of “organic” food when you’re not in an area that grows it locally. We don’t shop at Whole Foods, but the points in the article are very well taken. We do pay attention to where our produce comes from–and even in California, that’s an issue–and increasingly to whether “organic” is an overriding concern. Safeway’s introduced a huge range of organics under its O brand, and apparently plans to beef up the organic fresh produce selection in the future; right now, most of the organic produce we get is at Andronico’s (which has a nasty tendency to overchill its produce). Given the choice between organic produce from Chile and non-organic from 50 miles away? For fruit known to retain a lot of pesticides, we’d probably wait for the California season to emerge; otherwise, we’d take the non-organic. But, as the Whole Foods article notes, most organic food in the U.S. comes from California anyway, so we don’t often have to make that choice.

Now, if California only produced ruby grapefruit…but I guess we’ll keep buying that from Texas, transportation and all.


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