the war against plain

When I wrote about the used Japanese rice cooker I found at a Craigs List moving sale for nothing, the implications of this emergent "fuzzy logic" technology had not yet begun to sink in. I was not yet fully aware of how easy it had become to prepare high-quality, low-cost food, but now that it's become a habit, and I've had time to think about the implications, another post is in order.

As I will explain, I think this technology (along with the related smart "slow cooker" technology) is more revolutionary than most people realize, and if it catches on in a big way, it could become what marketing people call "disruptive technology." (Americans might love instant-ness, but they also love gadgetry, and this gadgetry is on a collision course with the long-established instant, um "tradition.")

Take oatmeal. It's one of those things that's good for you, but it's usually a hassle to make, especially when you're in a hurry and just want to slurp your coffee and have something handy, and ready to eat. This is why (as you can see if you go to every supermarket I've seen), the oatmeal shelves are dominated by instant oatmeal -- in endless varieties, flavors, and brands. Like many people, I have been buying instant oatmeal, although it's sometimes difficult to find the plain variety. I realize that "real" non-instant oatmeal tastes better (and is said to be better for you), but I just don't like to screw around with cooking when I'm barely awake. Too easy for the mind to slip into something else and end up with lumpy or burned oatmeal. As to so-called "steel cut" oatmeal, forget it! That stuff takes 40 minutes of stirring, and whether it's good for you or not, the goodness is offset by the badness of the hassle. And even though at my local Whole Foods, steel cut oatmeal costs $1.44 per pound in bulk, the hassles outweigh the low cost and undoubtedly higher quality of the food.

That has changed big time. Now that I've gotten used to dumping the steel cut oatmeal and water into the rice cooker (at a simple ratio of three to one water to oatmeal -- which takes less time than preparing my coffee maker), I just set the timer for whenever I want to eat in the morning and it's ready. Quicker, faster, and easier than any "instant," and far superior, for a variety of reasons.

In the morning, I don't have to do anything, and if I used instant, I would have to boil water, tear open a package, dump it into the bowl, and then wait while bleary-eyed, for a far less rewarding meal.

The rice cooker has made the most difficult oatmeal the easiest. And when hard becomes easy, that's disruptive of the market. What could be more disruptive than the realization that instant is no longer instant?

I realize that few ordinary Americans know about this. If they did, it would pose a dire threat to the huge "instant" market.

This touches on another pet peeve I have about instant marketing, and that is the systematic destruction of regular, ordinary, plain old grits. I am not a Southerner, but I grew up enjoying grits for breakfast, and they were not instant grits, nor were they even "quick" grits, but the "old" kind that take 20 minutes to cook.

Old plain, unimproved were were simply better, and they still are. Maybe not quicker to cook, but better to eat.

This vital point has been made all over the Internet, and was immortalized for ordinary Americans in "My Cousin Vinny."

At 9:11 in the following YouTube video, an eyewitness in court makes the following statement, under oath:

"No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits."

That's a pretty serious indictment of instant grits, especially if we consider that 75% of grits are sold in the South. (Wiki calls this phenomenon the "grits belt.")

And of course, now that I have the rice cooker (which makes it easier to have perfectly prepared regular old grits than to use instant), naturally I have been confronted with an annoyance grounded in a stubborn geopolitical marketing reality: trying to buy plain, real, grits in a very Northern state. Where it comes to this gritty reality, Michigan is more "Northern" than Pennsylvania. Not sure why, but it has been like pulling teeth to find plain old grits around here. The two local supermarkets (Krogers and Meijers) have quick or instant grits only, and to my utter dismay, Whole Foods offers no grits at all! Similarly, the local organic food stores that sell bulk foods have no grits. A local delicatessen specializing in gourmet food can get them for you but the price is a simply outrageous $25.00. Plus $7.99 shipping!

That's $32.99. For two pounds of grits

Asks a local writer about the place, "When did healthy food become a luxury?"

Beats me, but trying to find a way to work around the "instant" mega marketing mania can be expensive. And I can hardly blame a deli for the obvious fact that there are so few people around here who want grits of any kind, much less the old unimproved type. Although it is also understandable that it can cause people with a real grits habit to develop what might be called "grits derangement syndrome." (The website documents a long and fruitless struggle to get Arrowhead Mills White Corn Grits back into the market after the company's callused marketing decision to remove it.)

I was nearly ready to order real grits online. The best deal for the stone-ground variety is here, and the Quaker Oats company makes a brand called "Old Fashioned Grits" which I found at Amazon. (Six boxes for $17.70, plus postage.)

Finally, though (with the help of the old-fashioned yellow pages), I found the Quaker Old Fashioned brand for sale at Hiller's -- an old fashioned grocery store that specializes in the rare and unusual:

Our grocery stores offer premier products, gourmet delectables, healthy choices, and lifestyle shopping. It has been said that we eat with our eyes before we ever take a bite. You'll have such a sensory-rich experience at Hiller's - how good it will feel for shopping to be enjoyable and even fun!

The company was created in 1941 by Sidney Hiller with a commitment to quality, selection, and value. Now, led by Jim Hiller, Hiller's Markets is Michigan's home for discerning shoppers. We listen to shoppers, and we obtain items that you request, no matter how arcane, rare, or unusual.

Thank God for Hiller's.

But how did it come to be that plain has become arcane, rare, and unusual?

(Seriously, it's getting so I have a hard time finding plain yogurt, and they are often out. But if you want banana daiquiri, no problem.)

MORE: Damned if M. Simon's post (with a video of the "food guy" who believes in making you "change what you eat because it is killing you") didn't remind me of yet another wrinkle.

Instant food is probably worse for THE ENVIRONMENT!

Now why did it take M. Simon to make me think of that?

(This new technology might be more disruptive than even I realized.....)

AND MORE: Larry Sheldon's comment has absolutely cracked me up:

I've been reading too much politics.

I read through that article twice before I realized the title ends with the word "PLAIN".

At least that's one typo I don't need to correct!

posted by Eric on 02.13.10 at 12:29 PM










Comments

I've been reading too much politics.

I read through that article twice before I realized the title ends with the word "PLAIN".

Silver Palate has pretty good oats at a tolerable price, but they will spam you to kingdom come.

Montana Wheat has outstanding rolled oats but they are reluctant to sell in small quantities. $50 minimum.

I whined to Michelle Lincoln at their Customer Service (a worthy term for them) Office and she shipped a couple of bags--I'll have to try that again soon, what I have is about gone.

I have for a long time used a double boiler for stuff like oatmeal to give me some slack before the smoke alarm goes off.

Boil the water and salt, stir in the oats, put the top on the bottom and go deal with the rest of morning.

Larry Sheldon   ·  February 13, 2010 4:29 PM

I've been reading too much politics.

I read through that article twice before I realized the title ends with the word "PLAIN".

Silver Palate has pretty good oats at a tolerable price, but they will spam you to kingdom come.

Montana Wheat has outstanding rolled oats but they are reluctant to sell in small quantities. $50 minimum.

I whined to Michelle Lincoln at their Customer Service (a worthy term for them) Office and she shipped a couple of bags--I'll have to try that again soon, what I have is about gone.

I have for a long time used a double boiler for stuff like oatmeal to give me some slack before the smoke alarm goes off.

Boil the water and salt, stir in the oats, put the top on the bottom and go deal with the rest of morning.

Larry Sheldon   ·  February 13, 2010 4:30 PM

Ditto on finding "real vanilla ice cream" that is not soy, reduced fat, non-fat, partial yoghurt, etc. Perhaps if I could find an ice cream maker that worked as well as your rice cooker, I could achieve homegrown Nirvana... On the oatmeal question, I have a wonderful recipe for oatmeal cookies. That works only with real oatmeal. That is utter crap with "instant" oatmeal, which was the only kind I found at the store...

Dee G   ·  February 13, 2010 4:37 PM

Now I realize that the hinterlands north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi are no place for sweet tea, Mountain Dew, and grits, but here in the true south we'd never be without these stables. At the quoted prices, one of the children would just have to go.

It is just terrible that here in Alabama Kroger's doesn't actually carry grits, but some kind of ground corn.

Try Logan Turnpike Mill in Blairsville, GA (www.loganturnpikemill.com) for good old fashion grits at prices around $10-$12 for 5lb bags, shipping not included.

Michael M   ·  February 13, 2010 10:56 PM

Quaker Oats plain is everywhere and easy to find here in central Ohio. You can cook it in two minutes in a microwave, which makes it "instant" in my mind.

bob sykes   ·  February 14, 2010 7:59 AM

Palin is not Plain.

M. Simon   ·  February 14, 2010 9:28 AM

If you can't find grits in whole foods, try polenta. It's Italian grits!

Sherry   ·  February 14, 2010 9:46 AM

Reminds me of Bert's first climactic line from this sketch from my childhood.

Sean Kinsell   ·  February 14, 2010 10:24 AM

Check the "Mexican" aisle. My local PathMark in Philly offers cornmeal in fine, coarse, and gritty.

Oh, and you can also make big batches of steel-cut oats, put them in serving size containers and freeze them. A minute in the microwave and they're good as new. We make ours with milk. Ditto for our grit-like corn based mushy stuff.

Anonymous   ·  February 14, 2010 10:35 AM

Check the "Mexican" aisle. My local PathMark in Philly offers cornmeal in fine, coarse, and gritty.

Oh, and you can also make big batches of steel-cut oats, put them in serving size containers and freeze them. A minute in the microwave and they're good as new. We make ours with milk. Ditto for our grit-like corn based mushy stuff.

Laura Blanchard   ·  February 14, 2010 10:36 AM

"after the company's callused marketing decision to remove it."

After working on the marketing decision that long, don't you think the decision would have corns and not calluses?
Ok! Ok! It's just callous to be so corny.

Dyspeptic Curmudgeon   ·  February 14, 2010 1:48 PM

You can easily find grits in Pennsylvania, they're inside the Scrapple.

ThomasD   ·  February 14, 2010 2:17 PM

Lemme see if I got this straight:

This is about using NEW TECH for good ol' fashun plain goodness. Using a digitally timed Rice Cooker. To cook 'Steel Cut' Oats. That's good.. I aint seen steel cut since my grandpa told me about it. NOT!

Plain Oatmeal oats is Rolled oats. Sliced or diced grain is something different. What do YOU call it? I mean it's the total opposite pole of Cheerios.

I mean, you got great points... plain is better and more -gadget- fun and tastes better. Heck, look at how chili made a comeback with the crockpot!

But the introduction of 'steel cut'! Why not just husked whole grain cooked a little longer?
That's even plainer, no high tech processing at all. Like my granma usedter do...
And I can just set the microwave different to make regular rolled Oats as tender as Minute. Takes longer at lower power, still less than the coffee to brew.
One more point.. dunno how old you are but I'd like to point out that you can MUCH more readily find regional exotics at least in my area of the midwest, than even 20 years ago.

But back a couple generations? heh.. My mom grew up during the depression, in an Ohio farm town. She had a real thing for Oysters, as a teenager, and was overjoyed to find, in the sixty's, that she could find them, once again, in the local markets

pettyfog   ·  February 14, 2010 3:24 PM

Grits = Cornmeal?!!!! Heh, I'm an ohio yankee and I know better'n that!

If you consider Yellow grits 'grits', I call it the first stage of cornmeal mush.. which I did have a lot of in my youth. Make the hasty puddin' then fry it.

Look it up.. 'grits' aint cornmeal pudding.

pettyfog   ·  February 14, 2010 3:43 PM

Yep, Southern grits is hominy grits. Still made from corn, but definitely NOT cornmeal.

Despite having Southern parents and living here for 40+ years, I do not like grits.

Donna B.   ·  February 14, 2010 4:53 PM

wow i never even thought of putting oats in my rice cooker. that thing makes making rice a breeze, but yeah that would make making good oatmeal easy too.

But I agree with pettyfog, just go for the oat groats, they are even better for you, and tastes pretty much the same as steel cut.

I have been having fun trying out quinoa which is very high in protein. Technically it's not even a grain but a seed.

plutosdad   ·  February 15, 2010 11:26 AM

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