Stay Tuned/Fondue In a Bag

From Eccentric Flower

 



stay tuned
 



Fondue In a Bag
3 May 1998


I am especially irritable this week, apparently, and find myself at odds with a lot of different people and things, some which did absolutely nothing to provoke me.

It makes me exceedingly unpleasant to be around, but it does mean ample fodder for columns of this sort, where I gripe and moan. So much so, this week, that it verily giveth me pause: When everything annoys me, my reaction is to step back and take a deep breath.

Here's the calmest of the several columns I thought of writing today.


Yesterday I went grocery shopping, as generally happens on weekends. Now, my grocery store's pretty good, as such things go; I bear them no ill will for any of the weird and disgusting products they stock, and never have. They recently expanded the "ethnic foods" section to two whole aisles, which means that we here at Stay Tuned World HQ can finally buy chipotles in adobo and other hard-to-find import items without all the travelling and scrounging. We happen to cook using a lot of those hard-to-find items; it's nice to be able to find good-quality rice vinegar and mirin, for example, without having to go all the way down to Chinatown. It's convenient.

And here I become aware of my own hypocrisy, since I have rallied in favor of patronizing small groceries and ethnic marketplaces and so forth. I'm not going to attempt to explain or justify my internal contradictions, because I can't. Suffice to say that even I fall victim on occasion to the culture of convenience.

I have entrusted my paychecks to the tender mercies of Direct Deposit, for example, for the first time in my life. I have successfully, and crankily, resisted Direct Deposit for almost my entire working career. Since I have been in the technology sector for a long time, and tech people tend to love Direct Deposit, I have grown accustomed to being the only person in the entire department - sometimes the entire building - who gets a "live paycheck." I have also grown accustomed to having to chase down that paycheck, because after all, when everyone else is just getting a receipt, there's no real incentive to deal them out in a hurry. Some employers don't bother giving out the receipts until a few days after payday. So it didn't get done by Friday afternoon - who cares? They all got their money anyway.

I dislike Direct Deposit because I work too closely with computers to trust them with my money - and coming from someone who's been in software for over ten years, I hope that frightens you a little tiny bit. I know what sort of stability level is being built into software. But I digress.

As I say, I have finally given in. My new employer makes it too difficult. If I did not have Direct Deposit, I would have to chase down my paychecks several buildings away, across a very large complex of buildings. So I succumbed. My paycheck arrived in my bank account on schedule Friday morning - and yet I still feel like I've sold out. I will probably continue to feel this way for the duration. (At least until two Januaries hence, when I won't get paid whether I have Direct Deposit or not, because the bank computers are some of the stodgiest around.)

So one person's "convenience" is another person's "laziness" or "apathy" or "selling out" or being "co-opted," and we will never agree on where the lines should be drawn.

Meanwhile, back at the grocery, I found three items which I felt went too far. I tore off a piece of a discarded receipt, got one of those roped-down ballpoint pens (which is why the handwriting's so atrocious - I hate ballpoints, they slide all over the paper) and wrote

Image:Receipt.jpg

The smiley Goldfish don't really belong in this column. They're a completely different issue, one loosely tied to my usual rant about line extension.

Basically, product managers (or their foodstuff equivalent; I'm using the software term) get nervous if their product line doesn't show continuous growth - never mind that continuous growth is impossible, and that some products with flat growth lines are doing rather well. They're paid to keep those numbers rising. This makes them nervous.

Since some products basically cannot be improved - cases where even the product managers realize they've got a successful item and shouldn't mess with it - the only things which can be done in those cases are:

1. Mess with the packaging. Watch out, though, because this is also a desperation maneuver sometimes called in to boost falling sales, as in Pepsi's new can.

2. Spawn new products, closely or loosely based on the original. That's line extension.

In the case of Goldfish crackers, a product whose appeal I have never seen, what's going on is kind of a cross between 1 and 2.

The customer base is fanatically loyal and well-established. They can't really alter the product without angering anyone. So they've taken the little smile which is drawn on the goldfish on the package, and embossed it into the surface of the cracker. Voila!

The packages say "for a limited time," which, decoded, means: If this improves sales of the cracker - perhaps bringing in those younger buyers who thought the cracker was too staid? - it'll become a permanent feature, replacing the non-embossed kind. If no one buys them, the experiment will vanish quietly (maybe the product manager too) and no one at Pepperidge Farm will ever admit it happened.

It's not true line extension, I don't think, because they probably don't intend to keep both kinds of crackers around. There simply isn't that much market for those dry, nasty, artificially-cheesed things.

OK, I'm being mean. Goldfish are actually one of the most popular crackers in the world. I need to state that, otherwise my sister, whom I think survived entirely on Goldfish and Diet Coke for a few years, will call me on the telephone and fuss at me. Actually, given the previous sentence, she may fuss anyway.

I've left the Goldfish comments in, rather than deleting them as irrelevant and dangerous to my health, because I wanted to demonstrate the silliness that happens when marketers try to find new products which are sufficiently different from the base product.

You can't make the product too similar, because you don't want to "cannibalize" sales from your established product(s). The idea is to bring in new customers, not shuffle the existing ones around.

Often this drags us right back into the culture of convenience, which, fortunately, is where I was aiming. When your product is doing pretty well at what it does, sometimes you have to invent new uses for it ... or package it in a way to appeal to laziness.

As usual, Al Capp said it better than I did. The Shmoo, as most readers will sadly not recall, is a critter that gives all manner of dairy products profusely, is edible or usable head to toe with no waste, and reproduces so fast that you could not possibly consume them into extinction if you tried. The Shmoos are a living horn of plenty. The food barons are understandably upset at this threat to their profits:


Image:Shmoo1.jpg
Image:Shmoo2.jpg


So if you're a Nabisco exec, and you realize that people are crumbling your Oreos and mixing them into or sprinkling them over ice cream, what do you do? Why, you come out with a little can of pre-crumbled Oreos, of course. Never mind that the crumbles in the can cost much more, ounce for ounce, than it would for the consumer to purchase a package of Oreos and break them into little pieces themselves.

Will the public buy it? I sure hope not. But stranger things have happened.

A slightly more legitimate category of items are the products which exist because the real thing is "too difficult." The problem with these is that they're corrosive. No one makes ice cream at home anymore; you need special equipment, special ingredients, patience - and freezer space. But once, it was not considered something which would sell as a packaged foodstuff. Oh, sure, in soda fountains, you ate someone else's ice cream - and that's why dairy companies originally started selling it. But I assure you that the first executive to suggest selling a paper carton of ice cream to the home consumer was greeted with suspicious looks.

It's worse when the item isn't especially hard to make, but has an undeserved bad reputation. Which brings us, finally, to the fondue in a bag. ("Microwaveable!")

The big trick with fondue is keeping it hot enough while you eat it - and that's a problem which a microwaveable bag full of white cheesegoo isn't going to dodge. No matter how you heat it, you have to keep it hot.

I think what scares people away from fondue is its exotic nature - again, special equipment comes into play, and images of fancy parties - but it's really just melted cheese and wine, and if you want to make it, you can always do it in a double boiler. When you remove the water from the heat, it'll stay hot for about a half hour or so. Just don't take the top part of the double boiler off the bottom part.

Since I've already given you my Key Points, hidden in the body of this rambling column, I don't see much point in rehashing them now. Go hunt for them. Meanwhile, just to keep you from ever being tempted to buy fondue in a bag, here's a recipe. It's easy.

Call it a consumer service.


Swiss-Style Fondue

Ingredients:
A loaf of French or other hard-crust bread. A long thin baguette works best.
A clove of garlic. Peel it first.
2 cups of a dry white wine. Dry Rieslings are excellent; a Chablis is OK too. Don't use a Chardonnay. It doesn't have to be an expensive wine, but get one you'd actually want to drink; a standard wine bottle is 3 cups, so you'll have some leftovers to sip.
A teaspoon of lemon juice. Don't use the bottled stuff.
A pound of Swiss cheese. My snotty cookbooks say "imported only" but I've found some Vermont and Wisconsin Swiss which tastes great. The point is, you don't want processed cheese for this. Grate it first.
3 tablespoons of flour.
Salt and black pepper.
Ground nutmeg (optional).
2 tablespoons of kirsch. Kirsch (sometimes "kirschwasser" on labels) is actually a cherry brandy, but it is generally found in booze emporia among the liqueurs. It's not really optional but if you don't want to hunt for it (or pay for it), you can leave it out and the fondue will still taste good.

Well before making the fondue, cut the bread into little cubes about one inch square. You don't want the pieces from the middle that don't have crust attached; make croutons out of them if you're feeling thrifty. The "well before" is so the bread will have time to dry out a little and harden, but if you find out later that you didn't cut enough bread, slice up more as you go - no big deal. (Or skip this step entirely and just dip fresh bread in the fondue. See below.)

Peel the garlic and shred the cheese before you begin to make the fondue, and make whatever table preparations you want - this is a must-eat-it-as-soon-as-it's-done dish, so everything else needs to be good to go.

Take the top of your double boiler and rub the inside with the peeled garlic clove - press down hard when you rub. For once, even if you love garlic, don't leave the clove in the pot. It'll overpower everything else. Discard what's left of the clove when you're done (or eat it raw if you're a masochist ... or save it for something else ... you get the point).

Fill the bottom of the double boiler about half full of water. You never want the water to touch the bottom of the upper pot. Put the double boiler together and set it over medium heat. Add the wine and the lemon juice; let this mixture come almost to a boil. Meanwhile, mix the grated cheese with the flour. When the wine looks ready to boil, start adding the cheese by handfuls, stirring constantly. When the cheese is melted evenly (it'll be a thick but stirrable liquid), take the double boiler off the heat. Don't take it apart!

Season with the salt and the pepper, and a little nutmeg. The nutmeg is traditional to the Swiss but some people don't like the taste. Stir in the kirsch, if you opted to buy it. (If you didn't, try the fondue with it sometime; it really makes a difference.)

That's it! Spear the bread cubes with a fork, twirl them in the cheese a little to coat them, and chow down - presumably while drinking the rest of the wine. If the fondue gets too thick, you can put the double boiler back over heat for a minute or two. Just be sure to stir it a lot while it's on the heat.

If you're a real Philistine like me, don't bother with the fussy bread business at the beginning, but just tear the bread into chunks and dip it in the cheese any which way. But don't use chips. Fondue is for bread; it's not cheese dip.

Yum.


Other Business

Seen these funny car ads on TV for a brand called Kia and wondered what the deal is? Me too. Here's the scoop: They're a Korean company which has made cars in the past for American sale under the Ford name. Now they're trying to sell cars in this country on their own.

I have no idea whether the cars are any good or not, but I note that Ford owns ten percent of their stock and Mazda eight percent, so clearly someone thinks they've got a chance of selling a few. Hopefully the foreign investment is also keeping the company's nose clean enough that it manages to avoid the corruption that's currently knocking down most of Korea's big conglomerates like dominoes.



Backstory

The "two Januaries hence" remark refers to the fact that, of course, when dates rolled over to 2000 the bank's computers were going to crash. One day we will look back on all the Y2K bug hysteria - some of it justified - and laugh. But that day has not yet come. Coincidentally, this is the point where I began updating a separate project called The Millennium Game, where I tracked advertising hype having to do with the approach of 2000. It collapsed after a while under the weight of its own overhead, and I have attempted to delete references to it where they occur in these articles, but you will find a sort of "best of" summation here.

I am occasionally (and uncomfortably) prophetic on the subject of consumer goods. As of February 2007, the smile is permanently embedded on normal Goldfish. What I did not foresee was the advent of such atrocities as "Flavor Blasted" and multicolor Goldfish, although I have correctly noted above that all of this is an attempt to make the product attractive to younger consumers.

The two scanned panels above are taken from The Life and Times of the Shmoo by Al Capp, original copyright 1948 and presumably in the course of being renewed by his estate this year (since that was back in the time of fifty-year copyrights with one renewal allowed). This book, to the best of my knowledge, isn't in print. If you see it (it'll be a battered-looking paperback), buy it at any cost. It should be required reading for everyone.

At the time I wrote the "Other Business" above, Kia was already being affected by the general Asian financial crisis. Wikipedia says they went bankrupt in 1997, so either that's an error or the news hadn't penetrated in May 1998. At any rate, they were bought by Hyundai, who outbid Ford (and presumably bought out Ford's stake, but I can't confirm that). Despite all that, their plan of gradual American market penetration has done well for them, and they seem to have a definite foothold here now. At the time it wasn't clear if they'd be able to do that.


and now back to our program


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