Thursday, May 3, 2012

Shopping for integrity at this year's NRA show

At one of my first NRA conventions, the must-see product was a packet of catsup-flavored crystals that consumers could sprinkle on their fries and burgers like salt. I was expressly forbidden by my then-publisher to ask a well-known cheese advertiser if its DayGlo-orange cheese slices really wouldn’t melt if you left them in a sealed car all day in Florida. A similar gag order was in place when we called on a dairy supplier whose new shake mix was rumored to never lose its thick texture, even if you blow-torched it.

This year, I can grab one of Dunkin’s Artisan Bagels before I board my plane to Chicago. If Domino’s advertises Sunday morning on Headline News, I might be tempted to try one of its Artisan Pizzas that night, while I work on stories in my hotel room. And an Angus quarter-pounder might be a lunch option if I hit the McDonald’s in McCormick Place. Otherwise, I can head out to a nearby Wendy’s and go for one of its new premium burgers, made with “real North American beef.”

The restaurant industry, and restaurant chains most dramatically, has come a long way food-wise in the 32 years since I first pinned on an NRA Show name badge. Once, a new menu item seemed more the result of clever chemistry than culinary creativity. Most menus still abound in factory food, but mad science has given way to far more emphasis on quality, or even food integrity when it can be adapted to a chain kitchen. 

Yesterday I tried McDonald’s newest oatmeal variation, which was packed with plump, obviously fresh blueberries—the sort you’d pick on a weekend in the country and hand-sprinkle onto your cereal the next morning. The seasonal produce movement hasn’t been lost on the king of fast-food.

Then again, all the descriptive press materials alluded to a “hint” of banana. I kept wondering if that was euphemism for using banana flavoring, or maybe pureed banana instead of a sliced fresh one.
The proof of chains’ stride toward better food is the backlash it’s evoked from social commentators. They’ve blasted chains like Dunkin’ and Domino’s for using “artisan” as a descriptor, wondering how a big corporation can truly do something of high art or craft.

Comedian and playwright Lewis Black, for instance, reeled off quip after quip on The Daily Show, wondering aloud if Dunkin’s new Artisan Bagels are made by someone named Donutswitz. He also wondered if Domino’s had somehow mistaken itself for Gordon Ramsay.

A bakery in Queens, NY, an authentic-bagel stronghold, reportedly filed a lawsuit to block Dunkin’ from using “artisan” in the name of its new bagels.

Meanwhile, New York magazine devoted a cover story to the meaninglessness of “artisan” in an age where everything from cheese to fast-food rolls are being touted with that description.
The examples go on and on. A big part of the criticism is the assertion that anything offered by a restaurant chain almost by definition cannot be artisan, since the required volume couldn’t be met through handcrafting.

Unfortunately, those critics are usually correct on that point. But they’re missing the significance. Many consumers aren’t going to hit the farmer’s market to get truly artisan cheese or breads. They may not have the coin to pay for truly chef-made pizza. Chains are their source of indulgence, whether the dressed-all-in-black crowd likes it or finds it amusing. And for those people, chains are clearly providing more quality, at a realistic price.

Yeah, artisan is over- and mis-used. But the important current here is that chain food is getting better and more authentic, albeit more slowly than many sophisticates would like. It’s not a bad thing for  huge swath of the population.

I’m eager to see how exhibitors at the NRA Show are going to hasten the process along. So stay tuned for blogs from the convention, which begins Saturday.

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