Can You Keep a Secret?

On Monday, I went into work to discover that a major cheese producer had recalled a large number of products. Something to do with shelf life (yes, that means the possibility of moldy cheese). As a result, there were gaping holes in spots. Additionally we had ended a sale for products made by that same company over the weekend. Normally we get the replacement stock on Monday, but not this week. So – more holes.

As I was bringing out a cart full of cheese, a woman stopped me by calling out from a few feet away, “There’s the person I’m looking for!” (It’s funny how those same words can make you feel appreciated or make you want to run.) She came up and asked me what the deal is with the recall. I told her that it was an issue with the shelf life. She wanted to know if the manufacturer had recalled the products or Ralph’s. I assured her that it came from the company. She leaned in and asked me if I was telling the truth about how much I knew.

She wanted a product that was not on recall, but was out of stock. She told me how “interesting” it was that we happened to be out of stock for the product we had given her a coupon for a few days earlier. It was “obvious” what we were up to. We just wanted to get her (personally) into the store with the promise of something she wanted so we could sell her what we wanted to sell. I was grateful that she explained what we were up to. It was actually a lot more comforting than the thought that the manufacturer was causing us to lose thousands of dollars in revenue by not providing some of our best-selling products.

As I was trying to figure out how Ralph’s could have planned to be out of exactly what she wanted on the one day she was in the store, I wondered if other people go from point A to point B via point Q. I decided that I need to check the Internet. I love the Internet – it’s like statistics: you can prove anything you want by knowing what to do with the data. Unfortunately, unlike statistics people’s thoughts are not always as rational as numbers. I should have known better than to type “cheese conspiracy” into the search engine.

The majority of the early responses were about something called “The Great Cheese Conspiracy” by Jean Van Leeuwen. It’s a very cute story about some mice who try to steal cheese. All of those stories were pretty straight-forward. When I got to the humans, it was a different story (of course). Some (very few) were factual, some were tongue-in-cheek, and a few people should meet my customer.

My favorite was the man who said that Roger Federer lost his edge as a tennis player because of cheese. Apparently after Federer won Wimbledon, someone sent him some cheese as a gift. Being human, he ate the cheese. Because of the high fat content, Federer was unable to perform at his highest level and lost at the Olympics. The cheese gift was an attempt to ruin Federer’s game, and it worked. If you are interested, you can watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3x0921YzOY.

Apparently more well-known (from the number of citations), is the Subway Vast Isosceles Cheese Conspiracy from 2007. It seems that Subway was trying to use the triangles to charge more for cheese. If you lay the triangles in a rhombus, you only need one layer of cheese. But if you lay the cheese in a razorback you need two layers of cheese to fully cover the sandwich. So Subway can charge for double cheese.  I’m not sure how well this conspiracy is working. I don’t know how my cheese has been laid out, but when it’s melted it all runs together anyway.

There is a man who feels the British government is forcing restaurants to favor British cheeses over Continental cheeses by having farmers and industries create a wide variety of cheeses that are inferior to those across the Channel. People can then feel they are supporting their own farmers. There are also a fair number of people who humorously claim that large companies have intentionally stopped creating their favorite products (e.g., blue cheese dressing) to cause them emotional distress.

Of course, someone always has to ruin the fun. In 2007 (apparently a big year for cheese theories), a Chicago grand jury indicted four people for trying to ship more than 110,000 pounds of contaminated Mexican-style cheese. They took cheese customers had returned, scraped off the mold and fungus, and resold it wholesale. They were caught creating false documentation after lying to federal agents. I think they might have gotten away with it if they’d used bleu cheese or limburger – it’s really hard to tell whether or not they have spoiled.

I was unable to pin down one final theory. It’s called “The Philadelphia Cream Cheese Conspiracy – the Truth Revealed”. It’s tagged with “think about the animals”. I could get to the video but couldn’t get it to run (maybe the Philadelphia people have blocked it). You can look for it on 30 Bananas a Day – The High Carb Raw Vegan Lifestyle website. It shows 24 views so you can probably still be the first to rate it.

In the meantime, I am going to look for the people responsible for replacing all the chocolate chip ice cream with cookie dough ice cream. I’m sure someone had to be paid off.







Is Shopping with Your Significant Other a Minefield?

After observing what feels like a million people doing their grocery shopping, I have come to the conclusion that some people consider shopping a family activity. I am guessing that one spouse wants the other to go with/take the other shopping. Sometimes that makes two; sometimes it’s two + the children (most states have rules against leaving small children alone – some concern about the children setting the house on fire or drowning one another). The two-adult scenario is the one I am going to talk about.

First, a disclaimer: My husband and I try to never shop together. Early in our marriage (of course), we wanted to do everything together. Huge mistake. He is a comparison shopper and I want to get in and out as fast as possible. As long as the food looks like it will last until we eat it and the cans don’t bulge, I’m good. I think my time is worth more than knowing that we saved $0.25 on lima beans. (This could possibly be an ego thing on my part.) We decided early on that “divorce due to shopping style” would not look good on the papers going to the judge.

However, there are some reasons to consider that togetherness is the lesser of two evils. I have heard many variations of “My wife will kill me/yell at me if I don’t get the right kind.” They usually get on their phone just to make sure. Most times, it means he will recite the names of everything in that section so she can decide. We are talking about cheese. If you have this issue, perhaps you should buy something, apologize and  tell her that you made a mistake. Generally men will use this ploy in the hope that their spouse will get so frustrated that she will just do it herself next time. I have heard that this tactic is also used for dish washing, doing the laundry, and picking up the kids from wherever. It does not appear to work as well for women. They seem to tend more toward telling you that it’s OK, just write down what I want next time so you don’t make the same mistake. A variation on this is for the man to ask the kids what type mom gets, that way he can blame the child. After all, mom wouldn’t expect little Amy to know. But she would expect dad to know what type of mild he drinks. So it can backfire.

I have two favorites: 1) I can’t read my wife’s handwriting, can you? and 2) which type do you think my family/friends would prefer (generally a woman asking)? If you have been living with the woman, why would anyone be able to read what she has written better than you can? Between the two of us, we came up with something. Hopefully it was close to what she wanted (he didn’t have a phone). For the women, I generally tell them what I would buy. I always hope that their tastes are similar to mine, they write it off as a bad recipe, or they are too polite to say anything. I always wonder if the response is something like, “Ewww, this is terrible!! What were you thinking? I’m not eating that!” But since I don’t see them again, it’s not really my problem.

As far as reasons to not take anyone with you, my favorite is the couple who were looking for a block of cheese. He asks her if something OK. She replies, “Not that kind. I want Montgomery Jack.” I tell the man that we don’t sell Montgomery Jack. He tells her. She replies, “I only want Montgomery Jack.” I tell him that I’ve never heard of Montgomery Jack cheese, maybe she wants Monterey Jack. So he asks her if that is OK. She says, “I ONLY want Montgomery Jack. We’re going to have to go to the other store.” He looks at me and shrugs. I don’t know where she got it. I couldn’t find anyone who had heard of it. According to both Wikipedia and Google, it doesn’t exist. I’m guessing that if he had taken the Monterey Jack home and given her a piece without showing her the label, she would have been fine. Or thrown it at him.

Or maybe the couple who stood at the end of the aisle, and he asked his wife whether she wanted yogurt. She told him that she had gotten it a couple of aisles back. He asked her, “So why are we at this aisle?” She replies, “Why do you think we’re here? I want cheese.” He says, “How the hell would I know what you want?” She says, “I’m going to look for what I want.” He starts to follow her down the aisle. She looks annoyed. I tell her all men are like that. (Probably not, but it is my opinion on many occasions.)

Finally, the woman picks up something. He says, “We should get this kind.” She says, “But I don’t like that kind.” “But it’s cheaper.” “But I don’t like it.” He says fine and frowns as she throws it in the cart. She should have said that it wouldn’t really be cheaper because he would have to throw it out when she wouldn’t eat it and it got moldy.

So I don’t really have any advice. However, if you resemble any of these people, you might want to remember that someone might be watching. Then decide whether you might be offended if one of your friends reads it on a blog and says, “you know, that sounds just like you and Josh.”


It All Started with Milk and Rennet

When I started writing this blog, my son recommended that I shoot for a Scott Adams-level of snark (which may explain the noticeable male skew of the readership). However, today I want to try to emulate Richard Armour, my first (and possibly still) favorite humorist. He did his writing in the 1960’s and 1970’s, pre-irony and pre-snark, but it is still very clever. If there are any fans reading this, you may notice the title bears some resemblance to the titles of many of his books (It All Started with Stones and Clubs, It All Started with Hippocrates, It All Started with Eve, etc.)

Way back in time, actually before time if you use recorded history, some guy in a hot climate (we’ll call him Joe) was looking for a way to transport his milk (actually it probably came from a goat or a sheep).  Looking around, Joe realized that the thing he carried his water in would probably work for milk too. That thing was the stomach of an early cow relative. Fortunately, he had several loose ruminant organs lying around, being the Tupperware of their day. So he picked up a cow stomach, poured in the milk and went on his way to visit his hunting buddy, Eddie.

Having been quite a hike to Eddie’s over rough ground, the milk had spent a while sloshing around in the stomach. When Joe got to Eddie’s, he offered to share the milk. Imagine his surprise when he tried to pour it out and some mushy, whitish curds came out of the stomach instead. Joe looked at the mess and told Eddie to try it. Eddie, being a suspicious sort, told Joe to try it himself. Joe took a little and put it into his mouth. It tasted good! Joe had just discovered cheese.

Cheese was really the only way to keep milk in a hot climate. So why did the cow’s stomach allow the early civilizations to enjoy cheese instead of food poisoning? The magic ingredient of rennet. Rennet is a bunch of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach (yes, we could use your stomach to make cheese, but you would probably rather keep it where it is). The enzymes cause the milk to separate into curds and whey. The curds are the cheese, the whey is what made Joe’s first cheese so mushy.

Concurrently, an ancient housewife was trying to figure out what to do with the milk that had gone bad in the sun and curdled. The saber-tooth tiger kitten walked away from it. She tried feeding it to her teen-age son, thinking that he would eat anything, but he refused. Finally she decided to add salt. Well, it covered the taste of the curdling. But it was just nasty to drink. So she pressed it between two rocks and, voila!, she discovered cheese. (I do not know why this would make it more palatable except it may have added the taste of the rock.)

The early cheese was a success nutrition-wise (or in contemporary thinking, it beat starving). But it was REALLY salty to last in the hot sun, and it was sour due to the curdling. Fortunately for us, cheese-making was also done in Europe, where it was much cooler. So they used less salt. Less salt meant more microbes and molds (yummy). If you don’t worry about moldy cheese, you can let it age (it gets better and better, doesn’t it?) As time progressed, the mold was cut off some cheeses (e.g., cheddar) and incorporated into others (e.g., bleu). There’s a British-French joke there somewhere, but I can’t find it.

Cheese making was pretty much a universal art (except in the orient – apparently they did not see the sense in eating salty, curdled, moldy milk). Without good transportation, most cheese-making remained local until recently (apparently cow stomachs have their limits when it comes to transporting cheese). Britain claims to have over 700 distinct varieties, France and Italy each claim over 400.

Fast-forward a few thousand years. Switzerland opened the first cheese factory in 1815 (making Swiss cheese?) But the Americans managed to turn it into an assembly-line process in 1851. A sweat-shop for cheese just sounds disgusting.

Moving forward, the scientists figured out how to mass-produce rennet in the 1860s and cows everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. By the turn of the century, those hard-working scientists had created pure microbial cultures which led to more standardized cheese – good for the manufacturer’s bottom line, not so good for the discerning diner.

And guess what standardized cheese led to? Processed cheese!! (aka process cheese, cheese slice, prepared cheese, cheese singles, and cheese food). Processed cheese is a food product made from “normal” cheese, emulsifiers (for smoothness in melting), extra salt (it’s back), food colorings, and flavors. They might also throw in some other unfermented dairy ingredients (I guess the dairy equivalent of animal by-product) or whey. I checked today, and cheese culture was the ninth ingredient in one brand of cheese slices.

Today more processed cheese is sold than “real” cheese. It’s lasts longer, doesn’t separate when melted, and is more uniform in look and taste. Joe and the housewife had no idea what they started.

*Information in this post is loosely based on an article in Wikipedia. So please don’t take any of it as fact.


You Call THAT Food?

I know that I am getting old when I am surprised by some of what is available at the store:

Chicken and Waffle-flavored potato chips – people are really upset because they really taste like syrup. When did chicken and waffles become condiments rather than main dishes?

Spray cooking oil that contains flour – are there really that many people out there baking who don’t have enough spare flour on hand to coat the pan?

Pancake batter in a spray can – I guess it goes along with the pre-cooked bacon for those mornings you want a home-cooked breakfast but only have 15 minutes to get out the door.

Instant potatoes in a carton – all you do is add water, shake the carton, and pour the potatoes into the pan. Is that really an improvement over putting the flakes and water into a pan and cooking them? Does your dishwasher care that it has one fewer spoon in it?

Pre-made cheesecake filling – it says just pour it in a crust and you’re done. I’ve never tasted it, but I’m told it tastes fake. What a surprise for something that has virtually no natural ingredients in it.

Pre-cubed and cracker-cut cheese – unless you’re having a major party, it is going to be fresher (and cheaper) if you cut it yourself – but it won’t be as “cute” (just the word I look for in food)

Velveeta has become an industry – At one point in time, it’s claim to fame was that it melted smoother than cheddar. Apparently it didn’t melt fast enough, because they introduced Velveeta shreds. Then pre-melted Velveeta in foil that you just squeeze onto the food. All this for a product that is trying to convince us that it’s “real” cheese.

Imitation process cheese – process cheese is the step-child of cheese which lasts longer and melts more easily – imitation takes it one more step and removes the cheese entirely – really

No-fat, lactose free milk – it begs the question – once you’ve taken out the fat and the lactose is it still milk? Would any self-respecting cow still feed it to her child? There are all sorts of alternatives that are low-fat and lactose-free: soy, almond, coconut. Why not go for something with flavor and that you can’t see though if you hold it up to the light?

Phyllo dough has become filo dough – apparently we’re too dumbed-down to recognize it unless it’s spelled phonetically. Some people stick with “puff pastry”.

Neopolitan oreos – I thought it was wrong when they made mint oreos, but this is too far – there is no need for three types of filling in a cookie that most people could eat in two bites (and according to the commercials, only part of us take off the top to look at the creme anyway). Put it back where it belongs – in ice cream.

Girl-scout cookie flavored coffee creamer (with no cream) – I guess that coffee has gone from being something people wanted to drink because they like the taste to something that needs to be covered in sweetness so we can gag it down for the energy.

Pre-made iced tea – no not the stuff Lipton has been putting out since they figured out preservatives. Now you can get gallons of the stuff. I suppose it’s more important to save five minutes (and avoid digging out the pitcher) than to make than to flavor it to the tastes of the guests.

All of this ranting comes to you courtesy of the two people in one week who asked me to point out the “real” cheddar cheese. I thought they meant non-processed cheese product. No, they didn’t want sharp cheddar, they wanted real cheddar, the mild kind. It’s a good thing they weren’t around a while back, before “real” cheddar was invented.