Thursday January 10, 2013

Handmaid of Brand Made

You can wager any article subtitled “Don’t shoot the messenger” means to push its readers toward that very sentiment. And indeed, 20 Things Everyone Thinks About the Food World (But Nobody Will Say) comes packed with fightin’ words.

Fudge Stripe cookies and milk

The authors can count on me to stand by them in a good many of those fights, including the premise that, “nostalgia props up a lot of really, really bad food.” To the extent that people keep buying crap because it’s familiar crap, I agree. Hershey’s still slings out America’s #1 chocolate bar, despite the fact that it’s made from mostly not-chocolate.

But here’s where they lost me:

“[…] amid the current obsession with heritage and Americana, no one wants to be the dick to take shots at an old classic. But as in other aspects of culture, the constant backwards gaze can be problematic. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are now adults by letting chefs serve us “elevated” (read: more expensive) versions of the same [$#!+] we ate when we were 10, but at the end of the day perhaps we’re all just too scared to move on.”

Ah, yes. Just as the Italians are too scared to move on from biscotti, gelato and panna cotta. Or how the whole of Europe remains paralyzed by gingerbread. I doubt the authors would ask Proust to get over madeleines.

That most of America’s “childhood snacks” came from a factory rather than a pâtisserie doesn’t make them any less a part of our cuisine or our culture. What makes the Dutch love for stroopwafel more pure than our love for Oatmeal Creme Pies?

I’m not asking what makes one food better or worse than another. I’m asking about love.

half of an oatmeal creme pie

We can’t help our childhood. We can’t shrug off the memory of Pop-Tarts anymore than the Japanese can forget about anpan.

The very act of buying (or making) “elevated” versions of these foods is moving on. It’s an implicit admission that they don’t taste like we remember and that we want something more.

Developing recipes that can exorcise the preservatives, stabilizers and red dye #5 straight outta these foods while leaving the memories intact is the biggest challenge of my job.

I don’t do it for a bunch of culinarily stunted thumb-suckers. I do it for people who respect that, despite the Flavorseal, certain foods still play a legitimate role in our cultural identity. People who think the idea of a Fudge Stripe Cookie is worth reincarnating with real butter and chocolate, worth entry into a new American pastry canon.

Not because it’s expensive, not because it’s “elevated,” not because it’s grown-up. But because in transforming brand made into hand made, we reclaim it as our own.

posted byStellaand filed under:  Sarah Jane

43 comments and counting

Jan 11, 2013 · 12:23 AM

I’ve been reading your blog since last summer, and I just wanted to speak up to show my solidarity for the idea you’ve expressed in this post.

There are foods and desserts in our country that deserve to be reclaimed from the crime of mass-production, simply because we all love them. One of the things I love about your recipes is that you do just that. Thank you for making the effort to give us the American food culture we need!

 · Solaric ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  4:32 AM

Hear, hear!

 · Neha ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  6:59 AM

I’m not sure why, but this reminded me of when celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal declared that he love butterscotch Angel Delight (a really cheap, mass produced product pumped with chemicals). It’s funny how nostalgia make you like things you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t!

 · Nathalie ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  8:19 AM

Your “fighting words” fit today’s need to remove all the additives put into our commercially made comfort food. I had read somewhere to “Eat all the junk food you want, just make it yourself.” The beautifully made recipes from you are from real honest-to-goodness ingredients. And I thank you for it!

 · somebunnyslove ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  9:07 AM

So by saying this, are they saying that all cakes are worthless because they also come in a box mix?
Not sure about mentioning other blogs on yours…but has made from scratch recipes for girl scout cookies….

 · Gabrielle · 

Jan 11, 2013 ·  9:12 AM

When the heck are you going to publish your own book?! Given the crap, and yes I do mean crap, in current circulation it is quite obvious that you are heads and tails above the rest! At the risk of sounding creepy: You.Are.Awesome woman!

 · Charlotte · 

Jan 11, 2013 ·  9:32 AM

@Solaric, well said! Their “crimes” don’t invalidate the idea behind them, especially if we can reform them.

@Neha, thanks for piping up!

@Nathalie, I wonder if he does a version of that himself or just takes it straight from the box?

@somebunnyslove, I’ve heard that too and totally agree.The amount of sugar or even corn syrup that I can cram into a recipe pales in comparison to what comes piggybacked on processed foods. Homemade all the way!

@Gabrielle, thanks for the referral! I’ll have to check her out.

@Charlotte, I have a book coming out next year! On this very topic, as you might have gathered. I get a little worked up about our snacktastic heritage.


Jan 11, 2013 · 10:01 AM

Usually I think these kind of lists are interesting, or cool, but this one was just depressing. I’m assuming they meant to come off as incredibly condescending and snobbish? I’m always interested in finding new food blogs, but after that post, no desire whatsoever to read anything else by them. Your blog on the other hand is awesome and I really enjoy it. looking forward to your book next year!!

 · vmanda · 

Jan 11, 2013 · 10:15 AM

Awesome post! Thank you for creating and sharing so many fun recipes – I love sharing the treats with friends and family!

 · Niki · 

Jan 11, 2013 · 10:28 AM

This list brings together things that aren’t so, things that are kind of obvious, and a few insightful observations that people have been talking about for years. (OMG! Illegal immigrants are working as cooks! That’s a complete shock, because I’ve never read Kitchen Confidential!)

 · Jonathan ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 10:31 AM

i really liked the 20 things article/posts! i get really mad when I see white people by “elevating” chinese/asian/non-american fusion and then charging 20 bucks for it, so that post hit the spot! i also shake my head at the ridiculously expensive tasting menus that leave people hungry….i can’t wait to try out more of your recipes that kick brandmade items in the butt

 · megan ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 11:38 AM

You solidly hit the nail on the head here. What is the goal of good cooking if not to continually make the very best food possible and why should it be more noble to create the perfect omelette than to improve upon a cookie?

The very fact that Oreos, Pop Tarts, and Big Mac burgers are such a huge part of our food culture makes them prime for improvement. I’ll wager that people in the US eat WAY more of any one of these in a day than eat omelettes so any improvement to them has a potentially much greater impact too.

 · xxchef ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 12:19 PM

Keep on making our favorite snacks. As you know there is something so rewarding about transforming a childhood memory into a recipe that uses recognizable ingredients. It’s part of our history and our food memories and now that they are updated with our new ideals we can once again enjoy them.

 · Ashley ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 12:41 PM

Thanks for this! I agree wholeheartedly, and took issue with another point as well, re: local and sustainable food.

 · Suzanne ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 12:55 PM

Here – Here…Huzzah, and all that good stuff. Very well stated, Stella. Had a Bouchon version of a Ho-Ho the other day….LOVED!

 · Oui, Chef ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  1:19 PM

Hear hear! As someone who just wrote a whole damn cookbook on the subject of homemade junk food, I know there are hordes of people out there who feel the same way. It’s not a backwards glance and no one is craving these foods out of fear, but out of love!

 · Casey ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  1:21 PM

Please explain my love of marshmallow peeps
It must be nostalgia…

 · Redhead · 

Jan 11, 2013 ·  3:14 PM

Well said, Stella. If what these authors are saying had any merit, those of us who are forced to live a GF life would never eat anything we enjoyed from childhood, regardless of our age. Am I being ‘nostalgic’ when my kids ask me to figure out how to make a GF Whoopie Pie or a Krispy-Kreme type doughnut?

 · Jennifer- The Adventuresome Kitchen ·

Jan 11, 2013 ·  6:42 PM

Well said! I think we need to walk that fine line between turning our noses up at snacks we find “common” and stuffing our faces with preservative and artificial color-laden junk. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and frankly that quest for the chocolate cake that tastes just like mom’s is what keeps a lot of us in business.

Every time food snobs scoff pretentiously at so called “comfort food” or the health-crazed go ape-$#!* about the Monster that is sugar, I roll my eyes a bit. We humans have such a hard time with the concept of moderation, don’t we? Obviously candy and sweets and the processed foods of our childhoods shouldn’t be the mainstays of our diet. But I would argue that the amazing things we can do with sugar and butter should be celebrated as well.

/rant. Great post, and beautiful cookies too!

 · Sara at The Cozy Herbivore ·

Jan 11, 2013 · 11:08 PM


 · KimS · 

Jan 12, 2013 · 10:42 AM

I’m glad you made peace with your words Stella. I’m all for people having opinions about food, food trends, food bloggers but I rarely see the wisdom in branding a whole type of food or type of communication or whatever as unworthy in any way. Mostly, I think these types of statements are meant to raise our dander and get us to shout. I suppose that in itself, is worth something Nice shout Stella.

 · Beth (OMG! Yummy) ·

Jan 12, 2013 · 11:40 AM

I can see I’m preachin’ to the choir here, thanks everyone!


Jan 14, 2013 · 11:23 AM

I’m an American in the UK… More then half of the “junk” I grew up on doesn’t exist over here due to regulations and guidelines. At first I missed it. Now not so much. love this post!
Oh and I found this article on Heston B.‘s love of Angel Delight…
A book is so exciting!! Love books! ;0) cook/baking books always remind me of spell books with magic potions! :0)

 · Lisa ·

Jan 15, 2013 ·  2:53 PM

A-effing-men, sister. Thanks for putting this so perfectly… our form of food nostalgia may involve packaged crap instead of handcrafted pastries, but that doesn’t change the feeling those flavours can evoke.

 · Isabelle @ Crumb ·

Jan 16, 2013 · 10:22 AM

ah, too bad this isn’t facebook so’s I can like your post & like all the comments above!

Speaking of “memory foods”… at times a food invokes an unpleasant memory growing up. It has been my delight to revamp “heirloom” family recipes according to the way my guys eat & my own personal tastes. Who cares what my mom thinks at Thanksgiving when my fresh cranberry sauce by far outshines her canned cranberry Jello salad?!?

 · Melody♪♫ ·

Jan 16, 2013 · 12:39 PM

Hey Stella! I just found your blog and had to tell you how much I am enjoying it. The combination of clever, witty writing and amazing recipes keeps me coming back for more. This post made me smile as I am a big believer in nostalgia and tradition. The scoffers must not have fond childhood memories of finding a ding dong in their lunch box or a box of pop-tarts in the pantry. Memory is a powerful thing and I love the thought of taking something remembered and simply making it better. Can’t wait to purchase your book when it comes out next year. Keep up the great work…I am a fan

 · Stephanie · 

Jan 18, 2013 ·  9:28 AM

@Lisa, yeah, in my research for the book, I started hearing about all these US foods banned overseas. Butterfinger seemed to be especially notorious for being kept out of Germany. Crazy!!

@Isabelle, seriously! My mom may not have carried a wicker basket down to the local marche, but the treats she brought home were special none the less.

@Melody, you are so right! There are definitely foods from the past that are now cringe inducing. I too am a yearly victim of canned cranberry “sauce.”

@Stephanie, thanks so much! Maybe it’s like me (and Melody) and the aversion to cranberry sauce, just spread out over an entire childhood. But I could never shun a Pop-Tart…


Jan 19, 2013 · 11:37 AM

Thank you for this post. It is a part of American culture, all of these things. My boss from a past job, whom is in her 70s remembers when packaged cookies first came out, and the Keebler company was a huge deal. Stories like hers make me appreciate those mass produced cookies, even just a little bit.

 · Rachel ·

Jan 22, 2013 ·  3:12 PM


 · ~pb · 

Jan 24, 2013 · 10:59 AM

I couldn’t agree with you more- actually your post and your passion on the topic brought tears to my eyes. My kids are gluten, dairy, beef, food coloring and preservative free, plus we are low refined sugar and low egg eaters. But they are still a part of a very food oriented world, and their ability to “blend” socially and experience what the world has to offer is precious to me. So I spend hours and hours meticulously making healthy, safe versions of the stuff other people eat out of a package without a second thought. Homemade pop tarts, conversation hearts, and girl scout cookies are a labor of love in this house. And you are right- this is how we reclaim our bodies and our health, without paying the price of our cherished memories and time in fellowship with friends. This is how my children are able to value their wellbeing and also have a great time at a school party. This is how we acknowledge the needs of our bodies and the needs of our hearts as well.

 · Sarah · 

Jan 27, 2013 ·  4:16 AM

The points you make are valid for all of us, in all cultures. Like those of you in the US, a lot of the “pastry icons” in Australia were industrially produced from the start. That doesn’t make our love for them any less valid or their importance in our lives any less worthy.
I totally agree with you … elevating them to their proper place in the lexicon of food cultural icons by recreating them faithfully at home, but with real, fresh ingredients, or even taking their essence and recasting them into a new form for the love of the flavours and textures they have … are brilliant ways to keep one’s culture alive through food.

Keep doing what you are doing. That article has lost the plot.

Thank the gods, that you have not.

Bravo Stella xx

 · Chocolate Chilli Mango ·

Jan 31, 2013 ·  2:13 PM

Hi Stella,

I agree entirely with you. I find it fascinating that, in most cases, food mass produced in a factory is a version of what was originally a home-cooked food. Cake mix, cookies, mac ‘n cheese, canned vegetables, frozen dinners- they’re all replicas of very traditional foods. And what you’re doing is a wonderful reversal of this! And as of course you know, many of the foods that actually were invented for mass production are completely different from traditional foods and which to duplicate in a home kitchen might even require the invention of new cooking techniques (requiring a genius like you). Did the capabilities of mass production broaden the range of what was possible to cook and really change our cuisine? Just because factory made goods have to have preservatives, stabilizers, etc. to make them sale-able, doesn’t mean that they can’t be, as you said, amazing ideas. Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

 · Caitlin · 

Feb 04, 2013 · 12:01 AM

Agreed! Most of the favorite sweets and snacks I enjoyed as a child are no longer to my taste as an adult, but I still want to like them. Home-made versions of the same thing satisfies both my desire to have a healthier, tastier product, and also allows me to do something I enjoy – cook.

 · freeforged ·

Feb 04, 2013 ·  9:53 AM

@Rachel, seriously! I’ve been seeing all these cool, vintage ads for packaged foods and at the time, it was some ground breaking excitement!

@Sarah, oh you darling woman. Those little snacks are a huge part of the social currency of childhood, no? It may seem like a normal part of life to your kids right now, but someday when they’re on their own they will look back and see how incredible it was that you furnished them with all of those treats.

@CCM, I think when I knock this book out, I’m going to have to explore all of the “equivalent” commercial snacks of the rest of the world. I keep hearing about Tim-Tam…

@Caitlin, absolutely! Factory produced foods gave us a whole new world of snacks by introducing new techniques. Candy bars, in particular, are a result of the assembly line. Before industrialization, chocolate candies were hand crafted and might come in various shapes and configurations. Frank Mars (inventor of 3 Musketeers, Milky Way, etc) was one of the first to industrialize the process, which resulted in the skinny, layered bars we know today.

@freeforged, I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I tasted a Pop-Tart for the first time as an adult. I was expecting this amazing deliciousness, but it was so, so terrible, I couldn’t believe it.


Feb 08, 2013 ·  6:39 AM

Enjoyed reading this as well as the article you referenced I can see both points of view. But have we succumbed to the chemically processed food chain? For instance, in making cakes for people, I tend to prefer the scratch recipe. I can taste the cake mix cake immediately and favor the scratch recipe more. However, I think because our society has been brought up on, and the industry is using for convenience and money’s sake, box cake mix. So, when people are given the choice, their preference ends up being the cake mix. This drives me nuts because I am not getting why they can’t “taste” the difference? From a food science perspective, mixes produce a softer, finer crumb and are more moist so I can understand why people prefer that. What is your take on the cake mix? I am guessing you don’t use these in your products. Just wondering

 · Joan · 

Feb 08, 2013 ·  7:24 AM

Hi Joan! When I was in high school, I was obsessed with this concept and did a taste test by making two chocolate cakes, one from a box and one from scratch. Almost all of my classmates preferred the boxed cake because it “tasted like Mom’s” while most of my teachers preferred the made from scratch cake, because they were old enough to either remember what a scratch-cake tastes like, or because they’d refined their palates over time. Everybody can taste the difference between the two, it’s just that so many grew up with mixes that it’s become the taste they prefer. Clearly, I don’t fall into that camp, I am a made-from-scratch girl all the way.


Feb 11, 2013 ·  3:49 AM

Hallo Joan,
those pies remind me to “Choco Pie” by the manufacturers Lotte and Crown, Korea. But these pies have marshmallow inside. Do you know “Choco Pie”? Very delicious, although it is packed food

 · Kyoungmi ·

Feb 11, 2013 ·  9:22 AM

Hi Kyoungmi! Oooh, they have Choco Pie in Japan, too. I never tried them, but I saw them at the stores and they reminded me so much (just based on looks) of an American snack food. Have you ever heard of American “Moon Pies”? Very similar to Choco Pie I think!


Feb 13, 2013 ·  5:36 PM

This is exactly the topic of the book Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk by Lara Ferroni
Jennifer @ The Adventuresome Kitchen—all the recipes have GF/vegan variations as well!

 · Haley · 

Feb 13, 2013 · 10:22 PM

Hi Haley! Thanks for the recommendations! I hadn’t heard of Lara or Jennifer before, I’ll have to look ‘em up!


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