Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Trader Joe’s and the Word Paradox

Monday, 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.


Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

This morning I carted two canvas bags in to work: A red Time Life Books/African Americans/Voices of Triumph bag and a blue Midwest Library Service 30th Anniversary ALA Dallas 1989 bag.

Sidebar: Anyone at Safeway or Andronico’s who pays attention can pretty well spot the two of us as library people. We use canvas bags for our groceries–and all of the canvas bags come from various state library conferences and the like. Who else would have that collection of bags?

Both bags were about three-quarters full of lemons. Meyer lemons. Huge Meyer lemons, mostly orange-size.

Another sidebar: If you don’t know about Meyer lemons, too bad–and, unless you’re in Santa Clara or San Mateo County in California or dine at certain hotshot restaurants, you may not know about them. They’re not really a commercial crop–they don’t ship worth a damn–and, in fact, the benighted California Department of Agriculture apparently tried to eradicate them because of some disease that Meyers carried, that didn’t hurt them but did hurt commercial lemons. Fortunately, the effort failed, at least some areas, although Meyers are still really not a commercial crop. What Meyers are are big, sweet, lower in acid, flavorful. Apparently they’re a centuries-old cross between lemons and either oranges or some other citrus fruit. Used in desserts by quite a few top chefs…

As usual, I set the red bag down on a counter in RLG’s “kitchen,” and sent out a general-staff junk mail noting that Meyer lemons are here. I’ll replenish the red bag from the blue bag (so people who don’t get here by 7:30 a.m. have a chance at them). This place is pretty deserted this week, but I’m guessing the hundred or so lemons will still be gone by the end of the day–and that “hundred or so” is at least 30 pounds worth of lemons.

That scene’s been repeated once a week for the past three weeks, and will be repeated weekly for most weeks over the next three months, give or take, although there may be only one bag some weeks. It’s an odd perk of working at RLG: Free, bright, shiny, clean, sweet, organic Meyer lemons (well, semi-organic: my wife fertilizes the Meyer shrub/tree but we’ve never used pesticides or other sprays on it).

What we have here is a supply:demand situation made possible by the odd soil and weather conditions in the Mountain View/Los Altos area (and some points north and south on the Peninsula): To wit, one Meyer shrub (I guess it’s a tree, but it looks more like a shrub) will produce better than a thousand lemons over a four-month period. Fortunately, the lemons really are good and people find lots of uses for them. (We keep three or four a week, but we really don’t use a lot of lemons.)

My wife does the picking (she knows which ones are ripe). We cooperate on the cleaning (she rinses, I dry): Presentation is part of assuring demand, and we’re not about to bring in a bunch of dirty lemons. I do the hauling, and since I get in to work a lot earlier I also send out the announcement.

This year’s unusual for two reasons, which probably interact. The summer was a little hotter than usual, and a few hundred immature lemons shriveled–having the effect of thinning the crop. Then the first sustained “cold” spell (that is, weather in the 50s dropping to 40s at night) didn’t hit until much later than usual–and lemons (at least Meyers) don’t fully ripen until it gets cold, but they keep growing. The result: Some lemons are almost the size of small grapefruit, and the smallest ones are two or three times the size of usual supermarket lemons.

No moral. We’re not touting our beneficence; it would be a shame to have all those lemons rot or thrown out, and we know the folks at work like them. (Other people bring in oranges at the right season; we’re not doing anything special.) Just a little story about big sweet lemons.

A sweet Halloween epiphany

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

We live in a neighborhood with lots of kids (all of them pretty well-behaved, possibly because there’s a great local school system, possibly because it’s a real neighborhood, possibly because the working parents care about their kids).

So, of course, even though we don’t do Xmas decorations, we do at least minimal Halloween decor (just a big spider web and a skeleton, but we’ll look for those 5-foot spiders next year…), and we do have an adequate supply of candy to last 6 to 9 p.m. or so. (And we have a stupid “scary sounds and stories” CD, obviously digitized from an old stupid scary sounds LP with no extras–it’s one 57 minute cut, but it was cheap; we play it when kids are at the door.)

And, being sensible folks, we buy candy that we like; in this case, one of Target’s medium-sized bags each of M&Ms, KitKat bars, and Reese’s Cups. (“Medium-sized” equals 28 to 36 snack-size servings.) My wife–who doesn’t much care for candy, really–sometimes likes M&Ms, sometimes Reese’s; I have a fondness for KitKat, but only eat them in early November…

But my wife has also taken to eading Lindt bittersweet chocolate bars, one bar over the course of a week or so, and I’ve found my perfect level of chocolate–Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate (from Belgium, 58% cocoa solids, three 1.75oz. bars for $1.29; I eat one-quarter of a bar each workday, 57 calories worth).

So last night, we do the usual (the wife wears an all-black outfit and has a witch’s hat; I hang around in the background; we put a flashlight-lighted plastic pumpkin in the front window), drawing a pretty good crowd. The kids really go for KitKat, digging through the other two candies in some cases (offered in another plastic pumpkin)… But we wound up with maybe five KitKats, three Reese’s, and six or eight M&Ms. So I figured I’d have one KitKat last night and keep two for later (we take the rest in to work…where they disappear rapidly). She figured she’d have one Reese’s and save two or three for later.

A funny thing happened to both of us. We didn’t enjoy the treats. They were just too sickeningly sweet.

Who woulda thunk it?

The great oatmeal quest

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

So we went up to Reno to celebrate my 60th birthday, as alluded to in another post. Stayed at the Eldorado, with a 24-hour restaurant (Tivoli Gardens) that used to have an absurdly long and varied menu and still has a fairly long and varied menu.

First morning after getting there, my wife was under the weather, and didn’t finally make it down for “breakfast” until something like 1:30 p.m. All she really wanted to eat was oatmeal.

Most of Tivoli Gardens’ menu is either available 24 hours a day or available from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Oatmeal, as she guessed it might be, is an exception: The menu says it’s available from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. I don’t know: Maybe there’s something mystical about making oatmeal.

She asked. They said “You’re about two hours late.” The best they could do was Cream of Wheat, which is not really in the same ballpark. She coped.

Next morning, we were still a bit late to breakfast: We got there around 9:30 or 10. She ordered oatmeal. They were out: “ran out a little while ago.” She ordered something else.

Final morning in Reno, we made it in pretty early: Around 8:15-8:30. She ordered oatmeal.

They were out. Less than two hours after they started serving oatmeal.

Either there’s something special about oatmeal and Reno, or all they fix is one little pot at 7 a.m., or maybe they don’t really serve oatmeal at all.

Oh, the next morning we were in Sonora, at the Best Western Sonora Oaks. Had breakfast at the Pine Tree, a restaurant on the motel’s grounds. She ordered oatmeal. They brought her oatmeal. Good oatmeal, too, she says.

[What? You’re waiting for the big moral? Deeper significance? Did you notice the name of this here blog?]

Almost back

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

The even-lower-than-usual frequency of postings can be explained simply enough:

We went on a little vacation to celebrate my 60th birthday. (We don’t buy each other gifts; for birthdays, the one whose birthday it is gets to choose where to go out for dinner. For a decade mark, we made an exception–or, rather, I chose Harrah’s Steak House in Reno, instead of a Mountain View/Los Altos/Palo Alto restaurant.)

I may log about some aspects later, including an open letter to Reno as to why we’re unlikely to return unless some things change…(cough cough hack hack)

Meanwhile, I’d like to say I’m back and blogging, but that’s only half true. I’m back, and expect to be blogging with a little more frequency (my usual “target” is 2 posts per week), but it may take a while. Some stuff began just before the vacation, and I need to work out how it’s going to play, before I decide what can and can’t be written about…

Food porn

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle Magazine was a “Food and Wine” issue–and this time, nearly the whole issue was one long story by Michael Bauer, the head restaurant critic, regaling us with his latest meals at each of seven four-star restaurants in the Bay Area, as part of a 13-restaurant orgy (ordering the “chef’s tasting menu and suggested wine pairings” at each restaurant). The experience resulted in upping the total number of Chron 4-star choices from four to seven.

“Even if you never step foot inside the French Laundry or Chez Panisse, there are myriad reasons why anyone who loves food–even if it’s no more glamorous than burgers and pizza–should care.”

Before descending into pure food-porn mode, Bauer explains some of those reasons–four-star restaurants are “the culinary equivalent of haute couture,” with what happens there drifting down to less exotic restaurants later on (so we’re all in for “infusions, foams and gelees” in a few years?). “What some might perceive as a frivolous indulgence is a glimpse of the future.”

And it’s a good deal too! “For example, a meal of about 16 courses and a dozen wines at Campton Place costs about $200. An 85-minute wrap, facial and massage treatment at the high-end spa Bliss is $215, tip not included. My recent four-star meals were not only just as restorative, but the memory of my delight at cutting into a foie gras torchon and releasing an amber stream of aged maple syrup will last for years.”

What? You thought I was kidding about “food porn”? And for those of you who believe San Francisco is hopelessly politically correct, note that Bauer’s example includes a foodstuff that neither my wife nor I will eat even if it’s offered free, given what’s involved in producing foie gras. (Yes, we’ve had it offered: We do cruise on fairly high-end ships.) That aged syrup spurting from the forcefed-goose-liver torchon: Wait for it at TGIFriday!

It’s not that we’re never going to be able to afford meals like this, so I’m looking on with jealousy: That’s not true, as it happens. It’s not even that I’ve never encountered one of these restaurants–back in the 70s, I had lunch once and dinner once at Chez Panisse, and walked away dissatisfied both times. (Maybe I’m just not cut out for high-priced restaurants where you Get What We Serve You, No Choices Offered.)

Two things struck me about this gastronomic orgy, one while I was reading it, one not until I was thinking about it this morning:

  • There’s not one of these meals that I would want to eat. Not one. That’s not surprising; the whole “tasting menu” thing leaves me cold in any case. (As a side-note, when we were on one of Radisson Seven Seas’ cruise ships, where one of the alternative restaurants offered a tasting menu, we heard that you could always get into that restaurant with no advance notice…and that few people ever returned.) I really don’t want a dinner composed of seven, or nine, or twelve, or 16 little bits of constructed food, particularly when (as in two restaurants here) nobody else at the table gets the same food prepared the same way. I’d like three or four courses (maybe five) that I can enjoy from beginning to end–and I really don’t want a different little glass of wine with each course!
  • The hallmark of California cuisine is respect for ingredients–meat served with wine reductions or light peppercorn sauce instead of overpowering sauces, vegetables served so you enjoy the taste and texture, and so on. It strikes me that most of these menus featured composed food: food with so many ingredients in such bizarre combinations that you’re admiring the culinary architecture, not the ingredients themselves.

Of course, I’m not a restaurant critic, always looking for the hot new experience. And I’ve known for a long time that I’m not a true gourmet: I appreciate good food, but I’m not excited about haute cuisine. Your mileage may vary; if so, Bauer’s article will certainly show you some of the hot places to go. You won’t find me there, though.

Apricots and ALA

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Remember this post?

The first few apria (or apriums) we had were surprisingly good. The next week’s batch were “ok for what they are.”

When we got back from Alaska, our new Blenheim apricot tree had about a dozen apricots, half ready to pick, half not quite there. (It’s a new tree: next year, we’re hoping for several dozen apricots.)

The bad news: when my wife went out the second day to pick the remaining apricots, they were all gone. She grumbled about that. Presumably a squirrel or very adept bird (they were all gone); hard to believe someone would have gone into our gated back yard to grab a few apricots.

The good news: The other apricots were apricots. Comparing them with the apria/apriums is a bit like comparing, say, top-of-the-line filet mignon with a “roast beef” sandwich from a vending machine. Half of one fully ripe, just off the tree, Blenheim apricot is enough for pure ecstacy.

[By the way, I’ll still delete “helpful comments” about how farmer’s markets and direct-from-the-farm services are the best way to get good produce, when they obviously come from someone who’s not a regular reader. The information may be good, but it’s still spam.]

They’re all gone now. Meanwhile, we’re getting some really first-rate pluots…and Bing cherries should be in full swing by the end of ALA. Ah, summer stone fruit season: A wonderful time of year.

“…and ALA”? Just to note that this is probably the last entry here for the next five days or so. I’m off to Chicago to swelter for a few days with a few thousand of my closest friends (and 20,000 to 22,000 library folks overall). I travel without technology, and have no intention of coping with the ALA internet center–so I won’t be dealing with email or weblogs during that time.

Which also means I won’t be moderating any comments that require moderating (which usually includes anything with URLs, and an unknown variety of other triggers) until I return.

I’m also not posting my schedule on the informal ALA wiki or here, partly because it’s very loose, partly because it just seems odd. If you’re trying to get in touch, though, here’s a few possibilities:

  • I’ll be staying at the Chicago Hilton from Friday afternoon through Tuesday late morning.
  • Friday, I hope to be at the LITA Happy Hour and probably at the WebJunction reception.
  • Saturday, I might go to the MARS “metasearch” session and the “Models of scholarly publishing” session (but will definitely be at a small YBP-related gathering)
  • Sunday, I plan to be at LITA Top Technology Trends in the audience, not on the podium and stick around for the LITA Awards Reception; later, I plan to be at the “Library bloggers” get-together that OCLC folks are hosting.
  • Monday, I plan to be at the RLG Eureka Users Group session and, in the afternoon, at the “Google and Libraries” program.

But those aren’t all definite, I’m not sure when I’ll do exhibits (but I’ll certainly spend the 4 to 8 hours exhibits typically require), I’m staying pretty loose on breakfast and lunch plans (which means dining alone or with whoever I run into), and my only current formal dinner plans are Saturday and Monday.

Otherwise–I’ll be back next Wednesday, or maybe Tuesday evening.

Good news for Michigan and New York wine lovers

Monday, May 16th, 2005

Susan Crawford (no relation) posts on a Supreme Court decision (and provides the PDF of the 73-page decision itself) that strikes down Michigan’s and New York’s ban on direct shipment of wine by out-of-state wineries–given that in-state wineries are permitted to ship directly to consumers.

That still doesn’t take care of states that forbid all direct shipment of wine; that’s another case, and might be tougher to win.

Primary benefits: Consumers get wider variety, access to boutique wineries, and probably lower prices.

Aprium: A proper Saturday post

Saturday, May 7th, 2005

We were grocery shopping today, as usual–and as usual around this time of the year, my wife (the produce, fruit, and meat expert: I’m good at pushing carts and choosing my own weeknight dinners) was having trouble finding good fruit. (Apples give her trouble, ditto oranges; at the end of April/beginning of May, most pears are past season, the mangos and papayas have been lousy lately, Texas pink grapefruit seem to have disappeared from our markets, and it’s too early for summer stone fruit. There are almost always kiwifruit, to be sure, and Ataulfo mangoes are sometimes OK…and, to be sure, the organic strawberries are good). We’re both too busy to seek out fancy produce markets, but this is Northern California, where regular supermarket produce is usually plentiful and varied.

To our surprise, we saw a small display of apricots–and they looked good.

Understand: I grew up in apricot country. I know what real apricots–fresh, just-off-the-tree, apricots (esp. Blenheims)–taste like. Apricots just don’t ship very well; other than dried, canned, or frozen, what makes it to market is generally either unripe or just bad. We won’t normally even bother. We’ve planted a Blenheim tree, and hope to have some of our own later.

But these looked plausible. End of the first week of May? Awfully early, but…
And we do try to buy local produce whenever possible. We asked: These were from California. One of the knowledgeable produce guys said they’d just come in. Not badly priced at $2.99 a pound.

My wife tried one this afternoon, and gave me half. It was excellent–not the dead-ripe sweetness you sometimes get just off the tree, but nonetheless excellent. But there was something odd: The aftertaste wasn’t that of an apricot. It was the dead-on aftertaste of a plum.

Aha! The little labels on the fruit said “Aprium,” which we assumed was just another apricot variety. After all, we’ve had plumcots (straight plum/apricot crosses) and Pluots (a trademarked plum/apricot ‘interspecies’), and found them to be plums with no particular apricot flavor. Not bad, but not apricots.

Checking online, I find that an Aprium (somehow, “Apriums” just sounds wrong and “Apria” is unlikely) is indeed an apricot/plum ‘interspecies’–from the same company in my home town that developed Pluots. The Aprium looks like an apricot and tastes like an apricot with an overlay and aftertaste of plum. I’m guessing that it ships better than an apricot. (That wouldn’t be hard.)

(My home town is Modesto: heart of the Great Central Valley, heart of the world’s richest agricultural country, with too much hyper-productive land being turned into subdivisions for people crazy enough to spend 3 or 4 hours a day on a Bay Area commute. George Lucas was a high school classmate. I never knew him. End of digression.)

If you’re opposed to all hybridization, you’ll want to avoid the Aprium. But you’ll want to avoid almost all modern fruits and many flowers and other plants anyway. My cousin grows almond trees–but he makes more money selling cuttings of his blight-resistant hybrid almond tree, which he developed, than he does selling almonds. Hybrids and interspecies have been around for a very long time.

And a tiny little semi-blind item that will tell a few people a little more about my down-to-earth taste in television (this time via VCR, since I don’t stay up until 11 p.m.): It’s pretty clear that UW’s philosophy department has one less student than it used to.

Food: The first post

Thursday, April 7th, 2005

I didn’t mention food in the subtitle of the weblog, but, evidenced by an early comment, Eli Edwards knows I’m likely to talk about it. So, here goes:

Well, not directly food, but wine. And growing up.

In my early years in Modesto, we lived about two or three blocks from the primary Gallo winery. Later, in my junior high and high school years, we lived right in front of the Gallo glass factory (they made, and presumably still make, their own bottles). We didn’t move: Gallo purchased the mostly-empty land in the middle. Living in front of a glass factory has one interesting consequence: If it ever suddenly became wholly silent at night, or any other time, we’d know there was some big trouble…

Then, after I left for college, Gallo purchased the whole block of houses and added a cafeteria and parking lot. My parents moved to the good part of town, the junior college district. Where, to make a library connection, my long-time acquaintance Dennis Tucker, who I know mostly from INCOLSA, is now library director–that is, director of learning resources. (Modesto Junior College, and it’s called that, not a “community college,” is–I believe–the oldest junior college in California.)

So (this is becoming a Mark Twainish story) anyway: That’s the big Gallo winery, where they mostly put out all the low-end stuff. (For many years, one of their Gallo’s wine people was an engineer with the same name as my father, also an engineer…just another sidetrack.).

The serious Gallo is Gallo of Sonoma in Healdsburg (and Gina Gallo, the star of Gallo of Sonoma, went to College of Notre Dame while my wife was library director there, and the connections just keep rolling around…)

Gallo of Sonoma turns out some fine wine under its own name. But it also owns a bunch of other labels, some started new, some purchased–most affiliated with a particular region, and mostly offering very good wine. There’s Anapamu, Frei Brothers, Rancho Zabaco, and more.

So here’s my real food post, and a consumer tip: How you can identify most (but not all) Gallo labels that don’t say Gallo on the label.

If the UPC code begins with “85000” (if the first half of the large numbers under the bar code is 85000), it’s Gallo.

If the UPC code does not begin with 85000, that doesn’t mean it’s not Gallo…but that’s another story.

So if you think Gallo is evil union-busting nasty folks, here’s a way to avoid them. If you think Gallo is family-owned, strongly supportive of the local community, company that consistently turns out good-value wine (and, I believe, has made peace with the UFW), then here’s a way to identify them.