“Cinnamon was also very hard to find. You looked for women who had cinnamon,” Martha Stewart recently explained to David Spade, while they whipped up a few of her favorite prison recipes in the microwave. Spade was the second guest on Martha, the ex-con’s NBC talk show, and seemed slightly weirded out by her newfound silliness. Stewart was impressed when he easily popped the microwave door open so she could slide in her “baked apples.” “You even know how to open the oven!” she remarked.
It may have taken a little visit to Alderson Federal Prison Camp, but Stewart has discovered what the rest of the country has long known: You can make just about anything in the microwave. Of course, Martha’s approach, lovably highbrow and totally removed from the rest of American culture, involved real food, like wild greens, fresh-picked from the prison yard. Food companies operate on another level, with marketing wisely targeted to home cooks who want to try new things but are either intimidated, lazy, or feel they don’t have time to cook from scratch.
Think about it: How many people do you know watch the Food Network with rapt fascination and then order in? People love to eat, and are more and more curious about ethnic foods and health trends, but taking the step to prepare actual meals requires some pretty fancy merchandising, and a lot of shortcuts.
As Stewart cored apples with her plastic knife, two food industry shows, All Asia Food and Comida Latina, were coming to an end at the Javits Center. Fairs like these are a chance for food brands, like Kikkoman and La Morena, to show off new products to prospective distributors and individual buyers. The samples I tasted ranged in quality and spanned the globe, but an overarching strategy was obvious: to give people packaged food, often individually portioned for the microwave, but make them feel like they are partaking in authentic, traditional food from an exotic local. These are not new foods, for the most part, but packaging and marketing inventions.
Kame, the successful and already ubiquitous pan-Asian food company, had a pamphlet with the tagline “Ancient Tradition Meets Modern Consumer” and the grower’s co-operative Calavo (formed from the words “California” and “avocado”) brags that “The Only Thing Frozen Here Is Time.” They have achieved something impressive with their packaged guacamole, which actually tastes fresh—and even has chunks! “The secret is cold pasteurization,” a salesman explained, echoing the colorfully illustrated pamphlet. Another booth, which featured Korean mushrooms, whole and fresh, could not compete with splashy booths offering gimmicks.
An Indian food company had a more interactive approach. Posh Nosh Imports, Inc.’s Kitchen Guru Indian Spice Packets are pre-measured with everything a home cook needs to create “authentic Indian recipes.” It’s worrisome to think that gathering the individual parts of a dish is daunting enough to dissuade a person from cooking it, let alone experimenting with the flavors. But this product shows more faith in the home cook than those offering already-assembled whole meals in microwave-ready plastic airplane dishes, complete with dividers. It seems inevitable that, as this trend continues, groceries will come with assembly instructions, like a bookshelf from Ikea.