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Posts Tagged ‘Food

“I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time.’ So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.”*…

 

Casual dining chains — industry parlance for economical sit-down restaurants like Fridays, Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings — have subsisted in a dismal and persistent state of decline for about a decade. But in the last two years, things have gotten worse, with the number of people eating at casual dining chains overall falling every single month since June 2015; they are now the worst-performing segment of the entire restaurant industry. In recent months, Applebee’s has said it will close 135 locations this year; Buffalo Wild Wings will shed at least 60. Ruby Tuesday closed 109 restaurants last year, and put the whole company up for sale in MarchFriendly’sBennigan’sJoe’s Crab Shack, and Logan’s Roadhouse have all filed for bankruptcy.

Whatever your feelings about casual dining chains, they have been a vital part of the way that many Americans eat since the 1930s, when Howard Johnson began blanketing the highways with his trademark orange-and-teal restaurants — temples to affordable, quality fare in a wholesome setting. After plodding along for some 50 years, the genre exploded during the 1980s, as America entered a period of sustained economic growth and chains like Fridays, Olive Garden, and Applebee’s saturated suburban landscapes with their bland, softly corporate vision of good times and good food. While the brands and the fads have changed — RIP fried-clam sandwich, hello baby back ribs and buffalo sliders — the formula has remained more or less unchanged over the decades: middlebrow menu, solid value, and friendly service, consistently executed, from Pasadena to Tallahassee. Until recently, it was a formula that worked across cuisines, state lines, and demographics…

TGI Fridays and Applebee’s and their ilk are struggling as the American middle class and its enormous purchasing power withers away in real time, with the country’s population dividing into a vast class of low-wage earners who cannot afford the indulgence of sit-down meal of Chili’s Mix & Match Fajitas and a Coke, and a smaller cluster of high-income households for whom a Jack Daniel’s sampler platter at Fridays is no longer good enough. At the same time, the rise of the internet, smartphones, and streaming media have changed the ways that consumers across the income spectrum choose to allocate our leisure time — and, by association, our mealtimes. In-home (and in-hand) entertainment has altered how we consume casual meals, making the Applebee’s and Red Lobsters of the world less and less relevant to the way America eats.

As casual dining restaurants collapse in on themselves, TGI Fridays remains — unfortunately for it — an emblem for the entire category: In 2014, after years of slipping sales, the chain was sold to a pair of private equity firms, Sentinel Capital Partners and TriArtisan Capital Advisors, which swiftly began offloading company-owned restaurants to franchisees, essentially stripping the business for parts. Meanwhile, the chain’s beleaguered management has attempted to turn things around with a series of highly publicized initiatives, like delivering booze. Most notably, last year, Fridays unveiled a new concept restaurant in Texas — a stunning reversal from the tchotchke-laden image savagely memorialized in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space — that’s heavy on neutral tones, pale wood, brick walls, and exceedingly mellow, indistinct furniture; it looks like a neglected airport lounge in Helsinki…

A fascinating consideration of a restaurant that is both an avatar and a bellwether of the American middle class: “As Goes the Middle Class, So Goes TGI Fridays.”

See also: “Applebee’s Deserves To Die,” which explores the millennial dimension of this phenomenon:

The media-created meme that’s arisen about millennials killing things — beer, napkins, Hooters, cereal, casual dining establishments, and motorcycles, and golf, to name a few — is fascinating, again, because of what it reveals. Young people’s generally decreased standard of living and the preferences they have developed as a result are destroying established industries, and older people don’t like it. But these are rational responses to economic anxiety. Everything from high rates of homeownership to Hooters came out of a middle-class prosperity that doesn’t really exist anymore, because the middle class doesn’t really exist in America anymore, especially not for the millennials who had to grow up without the comfort of the American Dream. Chains united America, but things were different then, and for millennials at least, they’re irreparably broken now…

* Steven Wright

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As we avail ourselves of the Endless Appetizers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that a self-taught engineer named Percy Spencer applied for a patent for a “microwave cooking oven”; he had been working in a lab testing magnetrons, the high-powered vacuum tubes inside radars.  One day while working near the magnetrons– which produced microwaves– Spencer noticed a peanut butter candy bar in his pocket had begun to melt — shortly after, the microwave oven was born.

In 1947, Raytheon introduced Spencer’s invention, the world’s first microwave oven, the “Radarange”: a refrigerator-sized appliance that cost $2-3,000.  It found a some applications in commercial food settings and on Navy ships, but no consumer market.  Then Raytheon licensed the technology to the Tappan Stove Company, which introduced a wall-mounted version with two cooking speeds (500 and 800 watts), stainless steel exterior, glass shelf, top-browning element and a recipe card drawer.  It sold for $1,295 (figure $10,500 today).

Later Litton entered the business and developed the short, wide shape of the microwave that we’re familiar with today. As Wired reports, this opened the market:

Prices began to fall rapidly. Raytheon, which had acquired a company called Amana, introduced the first popular home model in 1967, the countertop Radarange. It cost $495 (about $3,200 today).

Consumer interest in microwave ovens began to grow. About 40,000 units were sold in the United States in 1970. Five years later, that number hit a million.

The addition of electronic controls made microwaves easier to use, and they became a fixture in most kitchens. Roughly 25 percent of U.S. households owned a microwave oven by 1986. Today, almost 90 percent of American households have a microwave oven.

Today, Percy Spencer’s invention and research into microwave technology are still being used as a jumping off point for further research in radar and magnetron technologies.  Different wavelengths of microwaves are being used to keep an eye on weather conditions and even rain structures via satellites, and are able to penetrate clouds, rain, and snow, according to NASA.  Other radar technology use microwaves to monitor sea levels to within a few centimeters.

Police are also known to use radar guns to monitor a vehicle’s speed, which continually transmit microwaves to measure the waves’ reflections to see how fast one is driving.

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Written by LW

October 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The thought of two thousand people crunching celery at the same time horrified me”*…

 

Though it’s the crucial third component of a mirepoix, cooked celery is one of the most universally hated vegetables. Most notable for its role as the log in ants on a log—or the garnish in a Bloody Mary—raw celery is the baby’s breath of crudités, the ligneous filler in the veggie tray, always stubbornly there, never really wanted.

But celery was once a great luxury—one of the most fashionable foods to grace the table. The wealthy served it as the centerpiece of every dinner, while the average middle-class family reserved it for the conclusion of holiday meals. No Victorian household was complete without a glass celery vase—a tall, tulip-shaped bowl atop a pedestal—to prominently display the vegetable. Love it or loathe it, celery was once as fashionable as today’s dry-aged rib eye or avocado toast…

Stored in fancy vases. Cooked with care and finesse. Served in the Titanic’s first-class cabin. There were days when celery was not just boring crudité, but a luxury: “Celery Was the Avocado Toast of the Victorian Era.”

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we take a bite, we might send well-chilled birthday greetings to Frederic Tudor; he was born on this date in 1783.  Known as Boston’s “Ice King,” he was the founder of the Tudor Ice Company and a pioneer of the international ice trade in the early 19th century. He made a fortune shipping ice cut from New England ponds (in insulated cargo holds) to insulated warehouses in the Caribbean, Europe, and as far away as India.

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Written by LW

September 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”*…

 

“Speaking to the oysters”: a scene from “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871.

In a change from chocolates and fizzy drinks, the French are starting to offer fresh oysters from vending machines in the hope of selling more of the delicacy outside business hours.

One pioneer is Tony Berthelot, an oyster farmer whose automatic dispenser of live oysters on the Ile de Re island off France’s western coast offers a range of quantities, types and sizes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

French oyster farmers are following in the footsteps of other producers of fresh food who once manned stalls along roadsides for long hours but now use machines…

Oysters on demand at “French oysters go on sale in vending machines.”

* Jonathan Swift

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As we dispose of the shells, we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that Sgt. Edward Dzuba received the Legion of Merit award in recognition of his talent for “using food scraps in unusual and appetizing recipes.”

Sgt. Dzuba encouraging one of his patrons

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Written by LW

August 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience”*…

 

William Henry Fox Talbot, “A Fruit Piece,” 1845

We have Instagram to thank (or, perhaps, blame) for the proliferation of avocado toast today. But it was another, much earlier development in food photography that introduced us to the avocado in the first place.

In the 1940s, brands like Crisco and Aunt Jemima began to produce “cookbooklets”—free, promotional pamphlets that contained recipes accompanied by vivid photographs touting their products. “In lots of ways, they changed the way, especially in America, that people ate,” explains Susan Bright, author of the recently published book Feast for the Eyes.“Things like avocados and orange juice really became household objects through these cookbooklets.”

Bright’s book, which explores the history of food in photography, reveals that the subjects have been intertwined for nearly two centuries—almost since the birth of photography itself. The medium was introduced to the general public in 1839 with the unveiling of the daguerrotype. Six years later, William Henry Fox Talbot took one of the first photographs with food as its primary subject: a still life containing baskets of peaches and a pineapple…

All of the appetizing story at: “Food Photography Didn’t Start on Instagram—Here’s Its 170-Year History.”

* James Beard

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As we suggest to the cheese that it name itself, we might send a basketful for birthday greetings to Clarence Saunders; he was born on this date in 1881.  A Memphis grocer, he developed the the modern retail sales model of self service– he received U.S. Patent #1,242,872 for a “Self Serving Store”– and thus had a massive influence on the development of the modern supermarket.  His Memphis store grew into the Piggly Wiggly chain, which is still in operation.

The first Piggly Wiggly store

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Clarence Saunders

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“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese”*…

 

Americans eat 35 pounds of cheese per year on average—a record amount, more than double the quantity consumed in 1975. And yet that demand doesn’t come close to meeting U.S. supply: The cheese glut is so massive (1.3 billion pounds in cold storage as of May 31) that on two separate occasions, in August and October of last year, the federal government announced it would bail out dairy farmers by purchasing $20 million worth of surplus for distribution to food pantries. Add to that a global drop in demand for dairy, plus technology that’s making cows more prolific, and you have the lowest milk prices since the Great Recession ended in 2009. Farmers poured out almost 50 million gallons of unsold milk last year—actually poured it out, into holes in the ground—according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In an August 2016 letter, the National Milk Producers Federation begged the USDA for a $150 million bailout…

There exists a little-known, government-sponsored marketing group called Dairy Management Inc.(DMI), whose job it is to squeeze as much milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt as it can into food sold both at home and abroad. Until recently, the “Got Milk?” campaign was its highest-impact success story. But for the past eight years, the group has been the hidden hand guiding most of fast food’s dairy hits—a kind of Illuminati of cheese—including and especially the [Taco Bell] Quesalupa

Amid an historic glut, a secretive, government-sponsored entity is putting cheese anywhere it can stuff it: “The Mad Cheese Scientists Fighting to Save the Dairy Industry.”

* G.K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions

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As we opt for the stuffed crust, we might spare a thought for Charles Elmer Hires; he died on this date in 1937.  A Quaker pharmacist, introduced root beer to the world at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.  A committed member of the Temperance Movement, Hires saw his drink (the original formula included sarsaparilla, sasafras, ginger, pipsissewa, wintergreen, and juniper, among other flavoring ingredients) as an alternative to alcohol, and dubbed it “the temperance drink” and “the greatest health-giving beverage in the world.”  Hires was inspired by root tea, but thought that “beer” would be a more attractive name to “the working class.”

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Written by LW

July 31, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about”*…

 

Still, we try…

Americans love the genre of cuisine generally known as “Mexican food”. The cuisine of our southern neighbor has been ingrained in our culture since the early 20th century. In many respects, it has evolved beyond its origins to become something uniquely American (think Tex-Mex and giant breakfast burritos). 

You can find it anywhere, from just across the border to the farthest corners of our northern states. This presents a great opportunity to explore which parts of the country offer the most for Mexican food aficionados. Which city has the most Mexican restaurants? Do some regions of the United States exhibit any preferences for tacos versus burritos?…

Follow the data at: “Tacos vs Burritos Index: The Great Divide in Mexican-American Cuisine.”

* “I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”  – Anthony Bourdain

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As we’re careful not to double dip, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation making California the first state to ban trans fats in restaurants and retail food establishments. The ban went into into effect on January 1, 2010.  Other states followed suit, and in 2015, the FDA moved to ban trans fats across the nation.  Trans fats have been shown to consistently be associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease, a leading cause of death in Western nations.

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Oh, and Happy Hot Fudge Sundae Day!

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Written by LW

July 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I say it’s all like cellophane”*…

 

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t spent much time considering cellophane. It’s deliberately transparent, after all. You’re meant to consider whatever it’s wrapping instead.

Yet, it turns out that cellophane has a story worth telling. A new research paper exposes the historical significance of the packaging material, focusing on its key role in the development of self-service merchandising systems in American grocery stores, but also revealing how cellophane manufacturers tried to control the narrative of how women buy food…

Unwrap the story at “How Cellophane Changed the Way We Shop for Food“; then read the paper on which it it based, Ai Hisano’s “Cellophane, the New Visuality, and the Creation of Self-Service Food Retailing.

* Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Breakfast of Champions

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As we see through it, we might spare a sweet thought for Aaron “Bunny” Lapin; he died on this date in 1999.  In 1948, Lapin invented Reddi-Wip, the pioneering whipped cream dessert topping dispensed from a spray can.  First sold by milkmen in St. Louis, the product rode the post-World War Two convenience craze to national success; in 1998, it was named by Time one of the century’s “100 great consumer items”– along with the pop-top can and Spam.  Lapin became known as the Whipped Cream King; but his legacy is broader:  in 1955, he patented a special valve to control the flow of Reddi-Wip from the can, and formed The Clayton Corporation to manufacture it.  Reddi-Wip is now a Con-Agra brand; but Clayton goes strong, now also making industrial valves, closures, caulk, adhesives and foamed plastic products (like insulation and cushioning materials).

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Written by LW

July 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

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