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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 10, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Chips and Water

One of the most annoying things about Deconstructionism and Multiculturalism, when they took over university English Departments, was that they gave everybody a new vocabulary to use in rehashing every single thing that had already been said about the same old books.

There was almost no new content, and even less that was intelligent. None was intelligible, because the genius of Post-Modernism was that it led to endless verbiage that was both inscrutable and not worth scruting. But because nobody could tell what was being said, or care much even when they did decode it, it allowed an endless supply of new dissertations and papers to be written and published.

In short, without adding even a farthing to the sum of human wisdom, it provided tenure to thousands of dumb people who wanted to pass on their imitation of education to even more thousands of dumb people in want of Ph.D.s.

It became a mill that ground only the grist. Grinding for the sake of grinding, with no useful product.

But this is not just an artifact of education. Almost every human enterprise soon learns that they can profit from pretending to create new products.

That was the great genius of the post-Model T automobile industry. It wasn't necessary to design cars with fabulous new features in order to compete. They could come out with new models of essentially the same car -- but if they changed the look just a little, or added a trivial feature or two, they could sell new cars to people who already had a perfectly adequate car.

As long as other people could tell that this was the latest model, there would be those who would feel an irresistible need to buy it.

The same thing is happening with food, and I am not immune. "Organic" and "natural" and "low fat" and "less fat" and "gluten-free" and "healthy" and "Omega-whatever" have allowed people to introduce new products that may or may not be significantly better -- but people will buy them.

As long as the new product can fight for a place on the grocery store shelves, it has a chance of carving out a niche for itself.

But, unlike English departments and their customers, manufacturers of commercial products have to meet certain levels of quality. The Edsel was stylish; the Pinto was cute. But the Pinto got a reputation for blowing up now and then; the Edsel may simply have been overmarketed.

When it comes to food, novelty alone isn't enough. Even slapping unregulated "healthy" labels on a product won't always do the trick. If you're going to get people to put something in their mouths and then swallow it, it's going to have to taste good.

Even if it's certifiably Good For You, if it tastes nasty it's unlikely to catch on.

Which brings me, at last, to chips.

In the past thirty years, Americans made a huge shift from cream-based dips for potato chips to tomato-based dips for corn chips. I personally don't understand this: Both types of chip and both types of dip are very good. But when you go to a party, you're about ten times as likely to see chips and salsa rather than chips and dip.

Maybe it's because sour-cream dips go bad if you leave them out unrefrigerated, while tomato-based salsas continue to be edible much longer at room temperature.

That doesn't mean potato chips are gone -- in fact, they are going through the same kinds of changes as other foods. Change the oil the potato chips are cooked in, add different seasonings and flavors, or bake them instead of frying them -- it's hard to think of a combination that you can't find somewhere.

I don't know how much health difference the changes make. I don't actually eat enough of any kind of snack food for the kind or amount of oil to make a huge difference in my weekly nutrition.

I'm also highly skeptical about health claims -- though now and then I make a completely irrational decision, like avoiding high-fructose corn syrup. Scientifically, sugar is sugar. I think the root of my decision there is that I love Brazil and I resent the huge bite that American corn syrup has taken out of the Brazilian cane sugar market.

Just because you can make a sweetener out of corn doesn't mean that this food and feed crop should be converted into a seasoning, any more than the fact that you can make ethanol from corn means that you should allow people to starve somewhere in the world so that Americans can drive cars partly powered by corn.

So my high-fructose corn syrup aversion has changed from a pseudo-health motive to a stubborn political one. And maybe it also has to do with the weird specialness that you feel with you decide that you're too good to eat the common product, and must look for the unusual one that only a few people are choosy enough to choose.

In other words, there's snob appeal in food, as in cars, and I have no illusion that I'm immune to it, despite my best efforts. When it comes to food, while I'm not a connoisseur of anything, I am fussy and proud of it. Even though I'm also ashamed of it. You don't fluctuate a hundred pounds up and down every few years without having complicated and contradictory food issues.

Still, when it comes to food I'm far more taste-driven than health-driven or even snobbery-driven. I don't look at price when choosing food, because I'm lucky enough to be a bit overpaid for my fiction. It gives me the freedom to buy and eat what I like instead of what's on sale.

But even that is within limits. I have better places for my money to go than on empty, snobbish distinctions in food. The quality has to be real; it has to make a difference in taste before I'll pay extra for it. However, when that difference is real, I'm willing to make some sacrifices for the sake of that quality.

That makes me part of the natural market for food innovation. I'm quite aware that when I review a new chip or chocolate or ice cream or restaurant, there will be plenty of readers who will shake their heads over the amount of money some people waste on expensive versions of basic foods.

I don't mind. I'm glad that there are, for instance, inexpensive but tasty pizzas for those who like pizza but want to keep within a budget. That doesn't mean, though, that I can't join the customers who would rather eat less pizza, as long as it's at the quality level of Pie Works.

You know the kind of equation I'm talking about. For the same money, you can eat Domino's or Papa John's pizza more often than you can eat Pie Works pizza.

But then, I happen to love pizza with shrimp, hot sausage, and pepperoni on a tomato sauce base. I can't get that anywhere in Greensboro but Pie Works -- and I know the ingredients at Pie Works will always be best-quality.

I'd rather eat pizza only now and then, but have exactly the pizza I like.

So when I shop at the four grocery stores in our regular rotation -- Harris-Teeter, Fresh Market, Earth Fare, and Whole Foods -- I always keep my eye out for new products.

New products are likely to be featured in odd places -- end caps, or near the cash registers, though some just show up on the shelves.

And many of these new products are in categories I detest. Anything with coffee or alcohol or tea in it will simply be off limits. Those of us who grew up Mormon never acquired a taste for any of these things. They don't qualify as "flavors." They're more like pollution.

And my recently-acquired allergies to MSG and peanuts have put a vast array of products out of reach. (I still miss peanuts. I hover near them the way that ex-smokers will gravitate toward someone generating second-hand smoke.)

Then there are things I flat-out dislike. That doesn't mean that I don't occasionally make exceptions. I have no interest in tofu -- yet my daughter and I tried the new tofu burrito filling at a Chipotle Grill in Los Angeles and it is now my favorite of the "meats" at this best-of-category Mexican fast-food chain. Too bad Greensboro doesn't yet have that tofu option.

I'm willing, in other words, to try foods that contain ingredients that I know I don't like, in the hope that in combination with other ingredients, the result might be something wonderful.

Except nutmeg. Anything with nutmeg in it is nauseating. There's nothing you can do with nutmeg that will make the food you add it to edible. If you enjoy nutmeg, it makes me suspicious of your upbringing.

Anyway, the other day we noticed a new product line: four types of chips, all made by Mother's Farms, which happens to be located in Conover, North Carolina.

We've had good luck with some other local products -- for instance, the Greensboro-made Good Health Avocado Oil Potato Chips that remain my favorites.

So, knowing we were going to have a good-sized group of friends over for an informal meal, we got all four types of chip in a sampler pack by mail: Multigrain, Pumpkin Seed, Sweet Corn & Black Pepper, and Sweet Potato.

I don't like pumpkin in any form. I can tolerate sweet potato now and then, but I loathe it sweetened, as with "candied yams" at Thanksgiving. But as I said, I'm willing to try things that contain some ingredients I don't like. So I sampled all the chips.

By using friends as fellow taste-testers, I'm able to develop a pretty good idea of general preferences, rather than just my own.

It's like my Halloween candy test. When I let kids at the door reach into a basket and choose, it's always Twix bars that disappear first. Period. No contest. Regardless of sales figures, Twix is clearly the most popular commercial candy bar, because it's always the first one gone.

We set out all four kinds of chips, along with homemade guacamole and two kinds of homemade salsa. The most popular chip was the Mother's Farms Sweet Potato. It definitely tastes like sweet potato, and yet it is not so overpowering as to make it stop working with guac or salsa.

The reason Mother's Farms Multigrain didn't do as well is that it contains clearly visible seeds. This caused younger participants to avoid them because they looked strange. I actually liked the flavor a little better than the Sweet Potato.

My wife's favorite was the Sweet Corn & Black Pepper. I liked it a lot, too.

At the end of the meal, all three of these were gone, or mostly gone (even the crumbs of the Sweet Potato had been eaten).

But the Pumpkin Seed chips were barely touched. People tried them, and simply didn't like them.

I even tried them. And if I were forced to eat pumpkin ("or we'll shoot your dog"), then this is definitely preferable to any other pumpkin-based food I've ingested over the years.

The trouble is that, unlike the Sweet Potato chips, the pumpkin flavor is overwhelming and it doesn't work with guac or salsa. It's just too pumpkiny.

(Try to find occasions to say "pumpkiny." It's a delightful word and if we all use it, they'll have to add it to the dictionary. "How are you feeling today?" "A bit pumpkiny, I'm afraid.")

Naturally, if you are a real pumpkin fan, this is actually good news for you. For most people, though, I feel confident in saying that three out of the four Mother's Farms tortilla chip flavors work very well.

Here's where you can order them online: https://mothersfarms.com/our-snacks/

Meanwhile, I can assure you that Mother's Farms tortilla chips are not new for the sake of novelty. They really are unusual and very good. I'm glad that in the midst of an age of innovation and superfluous choice, some really good products do pop up. I hope you'll give them a try -- I'd very much like for this company to succeed, so I can keep eating their chips.

*

When I was a kid growing up in California, our family had a single glass by the kitchen sink, which we called "the drinking glass" or "the water glass."

Yes. We all used it. Unless somebody was known to be sick, in which case they had a separate glass, clearly designated for them -- the "sick glass."

When I told my children this, they were as appalled as when we told them about the family we knew that shared a single toothbrush. Ick! How unsanitary!

But the 1950s were a different time. Our parents were only a few generations removed from the outdoor water pump, from buckets of water toted into the house from a well or pump or stream. In those days, water was water and a glass was a glass.

My parents certainly knew about germs and sanitation. It's not as if they didn't wash the family drinking glass, usually when doing up the dinner dishes. And standards of sanitation were different.

School health texts were only just starting to educate people on the benefits of daily bathing -- and the whole culture knew about, talked about the "Saturday night bath."

Only new homes had two bathrooms; most people still lived in older houses whose indoor plumbing had been retrofitted, and there was only one tub.

Tub is the operative word. And since families were larger, imagine having to pass all five or six or eight kids through that single tub every night. It just wasn't going to happen.

Likewise, our kitchen had no dishwasher. That was only for rich (and lazy) people.

We felt innovative when we had a garbage disposer installed in the sink -- which the salesman had solemnly informed us could easily chew up napkins and banana peels. A lie, but it dealt with most other things quite well, so we regarded it as money well spent.

With no dishwasher, and eight people getting drinks of water at the sink many times a day, we would soon have run out of glasses. Paper cups would have been expensive and wasteful. Plastic cups did not exist yet, not in any supermarket we saw.

Glasses were not all that easy to come by. We were never poor, but we were never able to be oblivious to cost, and there were lots of things we couldn't afford. We weren't the only ones, either. Gas stations gave away tumblers as promotions; people regarded it as a real value to get free glassware.

Chipped beef -- a common item on many menus in those days -- came in nice little glass jars which were deliberately designed with a rounded lip so that they made juice glasses after you used up the beef. We had quite a set of glasses that began as chipped beef jars.

So today, with a house full of different sized plastic cups for various purposes, and glass glasses coming out only for meals, it's hard to remember that it has been a fairly recent transition to the fastidious disposable-cup culture of today.

I don't feel guilty about using plastic cups now that Greensboro finally allows them to be included in recycling. But I didn't feel guilty enough before to avoid using them.

The progression, though, passed through a paper cup stage first. Early in my wife's and my marriage -- the late 1970s, in other words -- we installed the cup dispensers that Dixie conveniently offered in grocery stores along with their cups.

They had (and still have, as far as I know) two sizes: Three-ounce cups for the bathroom, and five-ounce cups for the kitchen.

The three-ounce bathroom size is perfect for downing pills. The five-ounce size, though, wasn't quite large enough for a good draught of water. When you're thirsty, five ounces just won't do.

Still, it was easy enough to refill that five-ounce cup, so for many years we had a wall-mounted dispenser for five-ounce kitchen cups beside the sink.

Then, in the late 1990s, we made the switch to plastic cups. They didn't leak as often as paper, and they lasted longer -- because my wife and I, to avoid being wasteful, would each leave our own used cup beside our own bathroom sink (separate sinks! Unheard of in my parents' day!) for reuse over a few days.

Those little paper bathroom cups didn't work well for that. If you left liquid in them for very long, they soaked through.

But not all plastic cups are created equal. They have a tendency to stick together from time to time, so you can't get them apart. Only one company has solved this, which is why we now buy only Hefty Easy Grip three-ounce bathroom cups. They almost never stick together, and the texture on the outside means that you are far less likely to drop one.

I believe they have created the perfect bathroom cup.

Way better than having a retired chipped-beef jar sitting by the bathroom sink, which is what I grew up with. Yet at the time, I certainly didn't feel deprived or poisoned by this arrangement!

In the kitchen, it's a little trickier. When we moved away from Dixie's five-ounce kitchen cup, the size we settled on was seven ounces. That really is exactly the size of a good draught of water.

The trouble is, about ten years ago, grocery stores stopped carrying that size. They settled on nine-ounce cups as the smallest size they'd sell.

And that makes sense. If you're serving punch at a party, anything smaller than nine ounces feels ungenerous.

But in the basket beside our spring-water dispenser, nine-ounce cups take up way too much room, and they have more capacity than we need for mere drinks of water.

That's fine -- we order Solo Galaxy seven-ounce cups, in units of twenty packs of 100 cups each, from Amazon.com, and then put a few hundred in the basket. Regular visitors to our home know that they're free to get a drink any time, and just toss the cup into recycling when they're done.

You will be relieved to know that we also bathe every day. Only now it's with a handheld shower in a stall with a large platform at one end, about sixteen inches from the floor, where you can rest one foot for washing or leg-shaving. An unthinkable design feature in ordinary homes of the 1950s or 1960s, where showers were just tubs with a wall-mounted shower head and a curtain.

With showers, and with two-bathrooms-per-house as a bare minimum these days, it's perfectly possible and socially expected for everyone to wash their whole body, including their hair, every day. And you know what? When people talk about the "good old days," one of the things I absolutely don't miss is dirty hair and smelly people -- especially when I was one of the smelly ones.


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