“Like Homemade”? Not in Any Home I’ve Ever Seen.

Sunni's picture

Lobo recently sent me a link to a segment from a show titled How It’s Made. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and when it was over, YouTube helpfully suggested other segments. I should not have chosen what I did.

The next video I watched was on how Sara Lee muffins are made. I’m sure it isn’t as gross as other foods could be, but it revolted me, as well as raised my blood pressure. The latter commenced near the very beginning, when the narrator asserts, “These muffins are a lot like homemade”. I call bullshit on that. The narrator qualified that thought by pointing out the specialized equipment used and volume of ingredients necessary. While both points are valid, they aren’t the only differences.

If you’ve the stomach to watch the video (really, it isn’t gross; but it certainly wasn’t appetizing to me either), you may notice some interesting turns of phrase. The one that caught my immediate attention was the constant use of the ambiguous “they” and “workers” to refer to the people working the production line. I don’t think they can honestly be called bakers, because they’re simply minding the machines that are doing all the work. I suppose they are food technicians ... more accurately, quasi–food technicians. One bright spot is that this brand appears to use real blueberries, unlike many other quasi–food manufacturers.

Next, any number of suspect dry ingredients are glossed over as “a prepared mixture of dry ingredients”. Since the narrator did name the primary rising agents—baking powder and salt—as well as the flour, we’re left wondering what exactly those things are. Most likely they include sugar, dry egg product, powdered milk, flavor enhancers, stabilizers, preservatives, and possibly coloring agents and spices. Yep, I use all those things every time I bake homemade muffins. Watching the vegetable shortening go in to the mix was the most disgusting part of the vid to me; who would prefer that crap to yummy butter (except for those who cannot eat dairy, obviously)? But butter doesn’t have a long shelf life—and likely costs a good deal more than the shortening—so it’s out of the question.

I wonder how long the carts of prepared batter sit before they’re attached to the pump that squirts out the batter. Baking powder begins to chemically react with the liquids as soon as it’s blended in, so if they sit for any time, some of its rising power is lost. And they must sit for some nontrivial amount of time, else the workers wouldn’t need to tie a plastic protector over the cart.

Perhaps the thing that bothered me the most is the lack of the most important ingredient to good cooking: love. From one end of the production line to the other, nothing was touched by human hands. That may be a good thing in terms of sanitation, but it also means that the workers don’t need to care about what they’re doing. The stuff coming off that line could just as well be molded plastic or metal bits for all they care. A local bakery may use many of the same shortcuts as seen in the vid, but I’d be much more likely to buy something from them because the human element—watching, smelling, feeling, tasting, and adjusting as necessary—is present in the baking.

Making muffins is very easy. The only two extra things one need be mindful of are: not overmixing the batter (the dry ingredients should be just moistened by the wet ones); and not letting the batter sit too long before going in the oven, as already mentioned. And one has the choice to leave them simple, or dress them up with other flavorful and healthful additions, including nuts and spices. It truly saddens me to think that there are people out there who think these products are what real, homemade muffins taste like.

I’ve watched several of the food–related segments, and am pretty thoroughly turned off of eating processed foods, whether ready–made or used in restaurant service. It just doesn’t look like real food, and real cooking, to me.

[Also, the linguistic curmudgeon in me winced at hearing the narrator pronounce “Voilà!” as “Walla!”.]

In 1979 there was a

In 1979 there was a television movie called An American Christmas Carol starring Henry Winkler. Most of it was as sentimental and as sappy as you might expect. But there was one very telling moment when the young Scrooge analog was trying to show his employer what the future was: manufactured furniture instead of the hand crafted work that the company had always done before. It was almost as good and cost a fraction as much. Of course the master cabinet makers didn't think much of it…

It's a version of the old 80/20 rule. That last 20% of quality is more expensive by far than the first eighty. Assembly lines break a skilled job into easily handled not so skilled jobs that aren't quite as effective, but don't cost as much either.

So the question is, what tradeoffs are people willing to make for something that is better than good enough?

A free market is going to have a place for good enough, better, and amazingly fabulous. To me the important thing is the choice, not the quality. The quality will increase over time while the price drops as long as folks are free to choose. Given enough choice, even the bargain hunters will demand more value as time goes on. It doesn't matter if it's LCD TVs or microwave vegetarian hamburgers or underarm deodorant.

So yeah, processed food is disgusting if you know what's in it. But it's still better than what was available years ago. And faster too.

"The Market"

Most people understand that they don't always eat the cheapest possible food. They don't get their hair done at the cheapest possible place.

But they can't see how that would apply to other goods and services; clothes, furniture, electronics, etc...

People are weird. :)

*nods* And they still expect


And they still expect their old Jetta to accelerate on a hill…

Yes ... and no, I think.

It's a version of the old 80/20 rule. That last 20% of quality is more expensive by far than the first eighty. Assembly lines break a skilled job into easily handled not so skilled jobs that aren't quite as effective, but don't cost as much either.

I hadn’t framed it in that context before, but that is a very useful way of examining it. Thank you.

So yeah, processed food is disgusting if you know what's in it. But it's still better than what was available years ago. And faster too.

Hmmm. I agree, to a point. If one were to consider all the time involved in making and shipping a food product—not just buying it at some store and consuming it—I don’t think it is necessarily faster than shopping for ingredients and making the thing oneself.

The issue of it being better is where I’m even less certain. By “better” I mean more healthful. I am increasingly suspicious of the idea that taking whole foods and stripping them of stuff, sterilizing the remainder, and then fortifying them with (often synthetic) vitamins either to replace what was stripped or because it’s become the norm (iron fortification of breads being a prime example) is better for us than the whole food itself. I would even go so far as to say that it’s possible that occasional exposure to critters such as are sometimes found on old cuts of meat or overripe produce might actually help our immune and digestive systems in ways we don’t yet understand.

All of which is not to say I’m a complete Luddite ... hell, I don’t even have a garden now, which grumpifies me considerably. But where I can, I choose fresh and whole over preserved and processed—as much as our benevolent foodicrats allow me to, of course.

Sunni, I absolutely agree

Sunni, I absolutely agree with you that most prepared food is not healthful (I like that word). But if it's a trade-off between time and availability, availability is going to win.

For example, I've got a slow cooker. Now, for me to really make it work, I have to be awake enough to plop the stuff in there before I leave the house. That's not an easy thing to do for an insomniac. If I'm on my way somewhere, it's usually easier for me to grab a sandwich or a bowl of cereal than to do a sit down meal. Especially if I don't have a guest.

But, look at what's in the stores. Remember when yogurt was unheard of outside a major city? I do. Heck, there were spots in AZ where you were lucky to get iceberg or romaine lettuce, forget fresh spinach or kale. And alfalfa sprouts? My grandfather, the former farmer would have laughed at you for that.

There's a bunch of junk. But there is also some real treasures if you look.

Speaking of which, I have to tell my "foodie" story. There's a Nero Wolfe story (sorry, can't remember which one) where the rotund recluse is lecturing on the wonders of chicken raised on an exclusive diet of blueberries. Well, I was doing the networking thing near San Francisco and this particular story came up. We all had a good laugh except for one guy. He told us it was no joke, there was this farm that raised chickens on berries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and the occasional cranberries. Of course we had to see it to believe it. He took us to this restaurant that bought from that farm. I don't know if was the berries or the chef, but that was some of the most amazing chicken I've ever had. Cost me a bottle of good Scotch too.

Anyway, back to the point. As long as there's a choice of good enough, better, and amazingly fabulous, I'm happy, even if I am not paying top dollar for the best available.

Remind me to tell you about the Flagstaff pizza guy sometime.

Tenuous tradeoffs

But if it's a trade-off between time and availability, availability is going to win.

For you, that may be true. It isn’t for me, in the main. When Lobo shops, he often buys prepared foods like canned soups, flavored yogurt, etc. When I shop, my preference is to buy plain yogurt, and fresh vegetables that can become soups, or side dishes, or even main dishes. When it’s my turn to cook, even on nights when I’m tired and/or in a hurry, I strongly prefer to cook from scratch than heat up what’s easily available. All that said, I’m glad each of us is able to pursue our preferences.

I do think a key that’s been overlooked thus far in the conversation is that a lot of Americans, not having grown up with an adult who cooked from scratch, have no idea how fast and easy simple cooking can be. As you pointed out, a slow cooker makes it even easier. Without any exposure to home cooking, I imagine it’s considered much more difficult than it has to be.

And, entirely at your convenience, I’d love to hear the Flagstaff pizza guy story; your blueberry chicken one is quite amusing.

I did grow up with someone

I did grow up with someone who cooked mainly from scratch. When she started her graduate program, she still had to keep a family of five fed. She did a lot of freezer cooking.

The problem is I think, I don't enjoy cooking. I'd rather be in and out as fast as possible. I mean, if there is a payoff, that is one thing, but otherwise I can take or leave it, preferably leave it. The time and effort I put into cooking can usually be better spent somewhere else.

That brings us to the second bit. I'm a fair cook, but I grew up in a family of terrific cooks. I've got the whole Southern family tradition going on. While my stuff is okay, my memory replays what my elder female relatives used to do. I don't stack up and it's hard convincing myself that it's worth the effort.

So except for maybe a dozen dishes that I'm good at, I tend to work around it. And yes, the premade stuff is probably a bigger part than it really should be.

Okay, the Flagstaff pizza

Okay, the Flagstaff pizza guy.

Some mumblety-mumble years ago, a guy opened up a new pizza place in Flagstaff. I was passing through visiting friends, and we decided to see what he had to offer.

Now this was a small storefront and it shared a building. The other half was a well-established business that had already maxed out the sign size allowed under the zoning law. So the only outside advertising this guy had was his window. He barely had any parking.

What he did have was a great location. Just across from the university and within a block or so of a major watering hole.

And the pizza.

Starting with the dough, which he let rise s-l-o-w-l-y in the back of his fridge. Then there was the sauce which he made himself. Occasionally he would use his own sausage or pepperoni. His pizza was more expensive than his competition, but it tasted much much better.

The first year he broke even. The second he cleared a small profit. And the third year was looking pretty good.

Except he was crippled in an accident. He had to sell the store and move. That's why I didn't tell the story right away. Great pizza as a high end niche, and tragedy strikes.

And that is why I didn't tell the story right away.

There's a Reason the Stuff's Cheap

The comparative costs of processed agribusiness crap and better stuff don't necessarily represent the free market.

A lot of the big operations in California are built on legacy haciendas taken over by the previous landed oligarchy. They receive enormous amounts of government-subsidized water, at a miniscule fraction of the real cost, from government dams. And they're distributed below cost thanks to the Interstate Highway/trucking complex. If all these costs were fully internalized in supermarket prices, we'd be buying a lot more stuff from local truck farmers.

Ditto for subsidies to corn, and indirectly to HFCS and corn oil.

Then, too, the government's policies tend to promote high-overhead, centralized mass-production methods, rather than more efficient demand-pull lean methods. The only thing more efficient about giant flour mills in Minneapolis is their unit cost at the actual point of production. When you figure in the costs of transportation, warehousing, supply-push marketing, brand-name markup, etc., the most efficient thing in terms of total unit costs is production on a small-scale near the point of consumption, with production driven by immediate demand. And perhaps not coincidentally, the main economic virtue of bleached white flour is that it's embalmed so it can endure long periods of shipping and shelving without going rancid. So it's not only healthier and tastier but healthier to buy whole wheat flour ground on-site at your natural food coop, or even to grind it in your own kitchen.

Perhaps I jumped the gun

Perhaps I jumped the gun here.

Most American pagans are progressive, the "political" discussions tend to follow a very predictable pattern

X is bad, therefore we must ban X FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!

I certainly agree that today's agribusiness is mercantilism and not free market. Water subsidies in particular are a sore point with me. For years practically any time I tried to raise the subject, I was told that we had to "handle" global warming first.

Thereby proving my point that global warming effectively derailed the entire environmental movement. Watch closely, GLBT issues are being used in the same manner against the cilvil rights movement.

Kevin, you are right. Most of the "savings in scale" in agribusiness would never have happened without active government intervention, and almost certainly can't be maintained without government help.

Withdraw the subsidies and the free market will take care of it's own.

The best way to handle global warming IMO...

...is to stop subsidizing energy extraction and transportation.

I tend to take global warming threats seriously, but really I wonder what progs desire to accomplish with statist measures like the Kyoto Accords that's not going to happen automatically through Peak Oil. If you look at projected fossil fuel production curves through the next several decades, they're pretty much isomorphic with the results that the cap-and-trade people are looking for. In all likelihood the price of diesel fuel will rise to $15/gallon over the next decade without any government help. Physical laws like "energy return on energy investment" are a hell of a lot more binding than treaties ratified by the Senate.

Re the standard "progressive" pattern you describe, establishment libs and cons seem to share an unstated common paradigm: what Roderick Long calls "conflationism," or conflating the free market with "actually existing corporate capitalism." According to the conflationist paradigm, the existing model of the corporate economy is what naturally emerged from a free market, and the only way to prevent it would have been some sort of active intervention in the market. Long divided conflationism into "left-conflationism," or an attack on actually existing capitalism as if it were the free market (see Tom Frank, for example), and "right-conflationism," the defense of actually existing capitalism in terms of free market values.

I hate to attribute bad faith to individuals, but I think the paradigm is at least reinforced by material interest through a sort of invisible hand effect. Apologists for big business interests like Dick Armey and the folks at FreedomWorks can pretend that they're just defending the rewards of competitive virtue and thrift. Big government statists can justify their own lust for power by pretending that people like them are the only thing standing between us and corporate power.

In functional terms, the mutual hostility between big business and big govt is about as genuine as that between a "good cop" and "bad cop" in an interrogation room.

Embalmed foods

That is so right, Kevin. And of course, much of the nutritive value is lost in that process.

I’m a devotee of raw milk, and in reading about the ever–changing regulations for that food, I learn the most amazing things. For example, in many states it is wrong and bad for a dairy farmer to make and sell value–added products made from his raw milk, such as yogurt, cheeses, and butter. But that is precisely the way big corporations make their money—they remove the cream from the milk, then add it back in in the appropriate quantities for the different levels of butterfat milk they sell (skim, 1%, etc.). The remainder is sold, processed, or used to make other products. (Of course, in those processes, the raw milk is pasteurized and homogenized, both of which make the milk less healthful.) It’s a total scam.

I'd like to drink raw milk myself,

if there were a distributor within convenient distance. The closest thing I've been able to find is a seller of raw goat milk (which is only available seasonally). I heard a leading anti-milk guy on the radio admitting that pasteurization was actually responsible for most of the harmful effects of caseine.

And in typical Baptists-n-Bootleggers style, it's the competing licensed retailers who set up entrapment schemes to shut down people who distribute raw milk by subscription.

I have to credit Ralph Borsodi for coining the phrase "embalmed flour." But it's right on the money. The stuff in real life is exactly like that urban legend about the Big Macs that never decay; it can sit on the shelf until Judgement Day without rotting because there's nothing of value in it to rot.

I've got one of those old vita-mix blenders with an industrial strength motor I bought used for under a hundred bucks, and it's dirt cheap to buy wheat berries at the natural foods co-op and grind them myself compared to the price of supermarket enriched flour.