Sunday, September 27, 2009

Questioning the convienience of Convienience Foods

I took a deep breath & bravely leafed through the monthly specials catalogue from a National food company that we buy a few odds & sods from.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the stuff they supply is good, reasonably priced & they deliver regularly which is a godsend when you are located in say, Uzbekistan-I mean Cygnet. I’d be nuts not to use them, in fact nearly everyone does. Their clients range from supermarkets, chippies, bakeries, corner stores, cafes & restaurants, any place that serves food actually. This is my point.
Much of the stuff I just don’t buy, I mean we make nearly everything here so I just glaze over when I regard the cascading A4 sheets of their immense product directory. However, once I began to really scrutinize the glossy pages I felt a conflicted sense of repulsion & fascination at the range of convenience foodstuffs that they carry. This stunning insight made me realise that so many businesses MUST be ordering this stuff for them to have pages of the stuff on their inventory-Yikes!
Take for instance the breaded & partially fried ‘Butterfly chicken breast Schnitzel’, the ‘beer battered garfish’, the ‘salt & pepper squid’ or ‘Tempura chicken breast nuggets’. Staples I’m sure, of pub dining rooms around the country but, is it that difficult to make them yourself? Sure it might be cheaper adding into the equation labour costs etc & there’s always those pesky consistency issues that we face when employing humans, but what is actually in these products? It would be fair to say a whole lotta-filla goes into making them as cheap as possible, that’s for sure.
In order to capitalize on the zeitgeist of the times, the list embraces the multicultural theme & traverse’s the globe seeking to represent all the current buzzwords. ‘Traditional French crepe mix’ (how hard is it to make crepes?), ‘Lasagne Toppers’ (for the uninitiated: lasagne coated in flour, egg wash & breadcrumbs, partially fried, Antonio Carluccio would be proud!) vaguely Asian ‘Devil wing dings’ (deftly combining the notion of Yellow Peril with something tasty) , Mini ‘Dagwood dog’( hat tip to America), Spring roll ‘Hong Kong style’ (whatever that means) or my particular favourite for all the wrong reasons ‘Pre cooked chicken or lamb Yiros meat’(now the Greek Pantheon of gods will rest in peace for sure!)
I understand the need for consistency. I understand the need to keep labour cost down.
BUT, some of these products cannot stand up to scrutiny if you intend to stand by what you serve.
To take this argument further how’s about: ‘Pre cooked beef or chicken patties’ (In the words of Austin Powers, “Honestly, who buys in a pre-cooked burger?”) ‘Scrambled egg Mix ( I want to know how much is egg & how much is ‘mix’) or this; ‘Pre poached eggs”, WHAT THE FUCK!
You can probably guess that I am not a ‘heavy user’ of these products. The really scary thing is that SO many places use these products & their ilk that the mind really boggles. Remember the 'pre-cooked lamb shank' revelation a few months back?

Look if you are happy eating this stuff when you go out, then, go ahead, it’s your choice, but please have the decency NOT to chuck all restaurants & cafes into the same basket when you inevitably question price, value & quality.

Some places just don’t use this stuff & surely you can tell the difference? I think this point of difference should be revered, celebrated & encouraged & the only way to do this is by patronising the places that make this effort to make their own food largely from scratch. It might mean paying a bit more initially but the current alternatives on offer will cost us a whole lot more in a whole more ways in the longer term.


Maggie said...

Great discussion topic Steve. I know exactly the catalog you are talking about. I can't believe people eat that stuff either.

For me, if a restaurant is serving something way to cheaply that what they serve will be the prepackaged frozen version.

It's always disappointing to hear a complaint about the price of a dish when it is made with fresh, good quality ingredients.

Rita said...

A-fucking-men! You've totally voiced exactly what I feel about the precise reasons why I choose NOT to eat at most pubs, cafes etc, with everyone surrounding me telling me I'm too fussy an eater, and that I shouldn't be so elitist or selective!

Well, I will now refer them to this post of yours Steve, then tell them to get back to me with why I should go along with their status quo!

That's why I like to eat at places like Piccolo, The Grain, RVL, Ut Si's etc - I know they do as much as they can to make everything on their menu (or as much as is humanly possible) and I DO fervently believe that if we care about the provenance of our food, we DO need to patronise places that go to the trouble of doing it, even though we may well have to pay a bit more.

That was the whole point of my post a few months back about the pre-done lamb shanks, then the subsequent post about the jus! As for pre-made scrambled eggs - as you said - WTF?? If only we could name and shame, as I prefer to know who does and who doesn't make what I term 'proper' food.

As it is, I'm lucky I have contacts and know exactly who uses these suppliers, so it's my choice if I want to eat their food, or not.

Great post and points Steve. Thank you.

Stephen Estcourt said...

Let's not forget that for many people these things represent an affordable treat at a pub which offers them a break from their routine and allows the pub to provide food that would otherwise be totally beyond their ability and budget.
We don't have to eat these things but we forget that sadly we have simple skills that many simply could never aspire to.
As a former ultra marathon runner I despair when I hear obese people say they can't afford to exercise when all they need is a pair of runners from K Mart.
What we need to do is help people break the mould. That's why I think kitchen gardens at primary schools are just such a wonderful initiative!.
Got a good conversation going here Steve!

steve said...

Hi maggie-Yes it is discouraging to hear complaints of price, value & quality espcially when you take time to consider what else out there is available. In our place for instance we have a couple who regularly, how do I put this, monopolize the floor staffs time by complaining about every minor detail. Then they spend a great deal of their meals out exploring the menus of the towns three pub dining rooms. They seem only to care about price not quality.

Hi Rita-Thanks for that response. Its good to know that many others share this conviction, that those establishments that make the effort to prepare their own food should be patronized.

Hello Stephen-To be clear-I'm not being elitist here. I know & understand that food for some people will never be intellectualised like we do on the blogs. I also know that many people dont have the cash to eat out regualrly & a simple meal at the pub is a treat. here's the thing though. In teir quest to make the food attractively priced they are yltimately doing a disservice to their clientelle. The food will not be fresh or pure & often it will be full of extenders & fillers.
Whats so hard about battering a piece of fish for goodness sake?
Your point about the obeisity issue is a good one but why oh why is the obvious solution the one that goes mostly ignored?
the kitchen garden is such a fantastic initiative. It is not without its challenges though. because it relies on the input & help of parents it seems the same old volunteer faces will be the ones who end up doing much of the work. As many of us can attest, getting some parents involved in the kids schools can be an uphill battle.
I have done a few cooking classes at my own kifds school where we made a vegie & bean soup with braed for four people for under a fiver. I despaired when half of the kids would not eat it because it had 'beans' in it & the other half were discouraged because there was no 'meat'. they all ate thebread though which made me laugh!

reb said...

I know what you mean Steve, that PFD stuff is crap.

However, in saying that, during yesterday's power outtage, I was faced with the challenge of cooking dinner for two on a single gas burner and to complete the task before dark.

I settled for one of these "instant pasta" in a packs, that I haven't tried since, well about 1976.

So for the princely sum of $1.26, I cooked up what purported to be "Penne Carbonara" and added my own leftover chicken and some bocks ham that I had in the fridge.

Naturally it wasn't as good as a complete home-made job, but given the circumstances it was surprisingly satisfactory.

Anonymous said...

I know the world has been seduced by that convenience demon, and somewhere in our evolutionary past we crave that instant killojoule of energy, but... or in most cases enlarging butt.
This week on Wednesday I and many others have been invited to Wrest point to the PFD fest 09. For me PFD is Pretty. Fecking. Dire. You can always count on a cheerful rep, and a bollocks driver who will turn up around mid-day.

Me I just buy stuff like white vinegar, flour, sugar etc . Every week without fail they try to seduce me with points prizes for frozen pre- made shite.
there kind of getting the point these days and the rep can't get out of the door quick enough, and get over to the pub, which is a deep fried open the can mecca.
Still, you made a point last year when as you rightly said " If you feed the poor, you dine with the rich".
Maybe I'll poodle down to Wrest point on Wednesday and hob nob with the points make prizes rich. I'll say hello if I see you, ha ha.


Lucy said...

can they really make a pre-cooked poached egg cheaper than an uncooked egg?!

Anonymous said...

No but it is supposed to be cheaper because it takes away the 'prep & cooking time'.
Believe me its not.

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

The trend by many moderne? restaurants to deconstruct ingredients then re-assemble them into new? soils, smokes, foams, smears,oils,essences [could go on here for a big list] into new? convenience foods that can look really cool on a menu and also cost a lot is a precursor of things to come. In China where cooking culture is extremely old and populations are very large nobody makes their own Hoi Sin, or Bean sauce or hundreds of bottled convenience? foods. This is the way Western cooking is going except we want artisan jars with celebrity labels like Shannons' truffle mustard and such which rarely contain real ingredients.
I'll stop ranting now and put on the Grand Final video....

ut si said...

Do they sous vide the stuff that isn't frozen Steve?

reb in a packet said...

All those deleted comments. Was that the adverse reaction to my 'instant pasta' post?

steve said...

Hi Reb- I'm sure I didn't name the company but yes I have heard of PFD! I'm sure when you are hungry those paket things fill the gap

Hi cartouche-Resit-dont go over to the dark side! the prizes are usually shite anyway!

Hi Lucy- Good question but I dont think they're cheaper just supposedly more convenient.

Hi anon-I agree

G'day George-Yes these trends will no doubt filter down over time & be part of the repetoire of the home cook.
I agree with your last point however I detect there might be a celeb chef fatigue setting in.

Hi Colette-What stuff do you mean? From the big suppliers?

Hi Reb-sorry to disappoint, just a doubly repeated comment is all

MaZE said...

Reb, depends which pasta packs you buy Never buy safeways select brand EW,they smell as bad as they taste. select was so horrible i felt i needed to ring the comments line to tell them!! only one i like is continental pasta packs. but for the time you were talking of, in a frying pan, you, if you had cream, an onion, maybe a tomato, and you said you had chicken, you could have easily made a chicken style creamy carbonara in the time it takes to cook the pasta pack, well if you include the pasta cooking time bit longer, but 20 mins would have done it :D I know what you mean with PFD, we used to have a bakery/cafe, we also only used the flour/oil products, not the other rubbish, the customers really noticed.

nutsdeb said...

I don't think pub meals are the cheap option they used to be either, so why are they charging a fortune for pre-package grub? Me, I'd rather a small cafe where I can spread my books on the table and actually hear the cook chopping the food in the kitchen. I think the key is to know what is in season and if it's not question how an establishment can offer it without it being pre packaged and frozen. I'm all for seasonal or blackboard menus!
Good entry btw, food for thought if not for digestion!