May 10, 2011
The old method of getting goodies from a vending machine is being revamped by the Pepsi Corporation with its new Social Vending System. Dispensing with clunky slots for coins and bills in favor of a touchscreen that allows you to look at the nutritional information of the products therein, this new species of machine is also hopping on the social networking bandwagon: people can use the machines to send drinks to friends, complete with personalized text and video messages. (The recipient gets a message on a cell phone and they have to go to a Social Vending Machine and enter a code to redeem the gift.) But because you have to enter telephone numbers to use the social features of the machine, questions arise about how personal data is stored and used, an issue inherent in all social media. At this time, Pepsi says that personal data will not be stored unless the user grants permission.
Is this the next logical step in our ongoing quest for convenience or does it make accessing foodstuffs more complicated than it should be? Corporate efforts to create glowing vending-machine eye candy have a long and sometimes ridiculous history. (If you have the patience, this mid-century video walks you through the ins and outs of vending machine salesmanship.) Would you go to a machine for any of the following things?
This variation on the claw machine arcade game may very well be the greatest visual pun in food marketing. That’s right: you use your gaming skills to catch your own live lobster; however, if you are fortunate enough to nab one of the skittering crustaceans, you may find yourself in a bit of a pickle. Apparently takeaway bags aren’t a standard part of the machine rig, so you may need to bring your own.
Farmers who sell their eggs directly to consumers can pop a vending machine at the entrance of their property and passersby can drop in their money and walk away with a tray of farm fresh goods. Some famers have even noticed an increased demand for their products since installing the machine. The German branch of PETA offered its own variation, placing live hens in the machine to make a statement about the living conditions of these animals on farms.
In 2010, Pennsylvania unveiled two wine vending machines—however, users have to swipe their ID and pass a breathalyzer test before they can lay their hands on a bottle of vino. And if you have wine aficionados for friends, would you ever tell them that you’re serving them something that came from a vending machine?
4. Pecan Pie
The Bedroll Pecan Farm, Candy and Gift Company in Cedar Creek, Texas offers its wares via a vending machine, from a 9″ Pecan pie to pecan brittle.
The Shop 2000 allows users to buy toiletries, milk, snack items and other convenience store fare. In 2002, one of these machines was installed in D.C. near the intersection of 18th St. NW and California St. under the name Tik Tok Easy Shop. (It no longer existed as of 2003)
And for more on unique vending machines, check out Around the Mall blogger Megan Gambino’s piece on the Art-o-Mat, which sells you works of art out of a revamped and refurbished cigarette machines.
April 26, 2011
Some readers out there may wonder how libraries kept track of all their goodies before the advent of computerized catalogs. You had one of two options: You could either consult a giant wood cabinet with drawers jam-packed with little 3 x 5 cards or, better yet, you could consult a reference librarian who could lead you to treasure troves of information. Cultural institutions now make their collections available digitally for people who are unable to do on-site research; however, for those places that have been building up resources for a century or more, digitizing their holdings is an overwhelming game of catch-up that requires time and money.
Such is the case with the New York Public Library’s menu collection, which contains approximately 26,000 pieces, about 10,000 of which have been digitally scanned. Specializing in the period between 1890 and 1920, the menus are especially useful to historians or chefs or authors—anyone trying to capture an era down to the dining details. One problem, however, is that it’s difficult to present the digital images in such a way that people can do searches across the entire collection. Searches are an easy way to look at trends in dining, which food fell in—and out—of favor, price fluctuations and other information of that ilk. And it sure beats flipping through the collection menu by menu if there’s only a nugget of information you’re after.
Some purveyors of digital information—like Google books—use optical character recognition software to convert the printed page into digital, searchable text. But many of the Library’s menus are handwritten or use ornamental typefaces that can’t be easily read by computers. And really, when it comes to dining, presentation is everything—even when it comes to menu typography.
Flesh and blood transcribers really are the best way to get the job done, and now anyone with an internet connection can lend the library a helping hand. If you’d like to lend your services, and get a taste—intellectually speaking—of American cuisine from a bygone era and enjoy some really stunning works of art, go to the project’s main site, select a menu that grabs you and dig in!
March 31, 2011
Whenever a new cookbook comes into my possession, the first thing I do is sit down, scan through the recipes and use Post-Its to flag the things I might actually take the time to make, paying attention to ingredients and the time required to pull a dish together. It makes for easy referencing, especially if I need to break from the same tired old meals and learn to make something new. However, it seems that the digital powers that be are trying to make this facet of my analog life obsolete. Will websites and e-readers ultimately replace the tried-and-true hard copy cookbook?
New York Times tech blogger Sam Grobart fired a few warning shots in his recent piece about which technological gadgets to keep and which ones to toss. While he positions himself as a supporter of books, he points out some new apps on the market that may make cookbooks obsolete. They’re geared to making life in the kitchen easier with instructional videos, built-in timers and the ability to email oneself a list of ingredients when making a run to the grocery store. There’s also the added benefit of having color photographs for every recipe—which is a luxury in printed cookbooks.
But as he also points out in his piece, books are generally not that expensive; if something happens to one, it’s not the end of the world. If something happens to your e-reader, that’s a huge chunk of change gone down the drain. And need I remind anyone of how hopelessly messy a kitchen can be? Although there are preventative measures you can take to protect your investment, the stuff that can gunk up and ruin an electronic device are easily wiped off from a book. Furthermore, if you need to adjust recipes to suit your personal taste, it’s not that inconvenient to find a pencil and mark your amendments in a book’s margins.
Google also threw a jab at the traditional cookbook format with its new online recipe search, allowing amateur cooks to refine a search by ingredients, calorie count and cooking time. Offhand, this sounds pretty handy—but is something lost in the ongoing quest for convenience? New York Times Cookbook editor and blogger Amanda Hesser has her reservations:
Google’s search engine gives vast advantage to the largest recipe websites with the resources to input all this metadata, and particularly those who home in on “quick and easy” and low calorie dishes (which, by the way, doesn’t mean the recipes are actually healthy). In so doing, Google unwittingly—but damagingly—promotes a cooking culture focused on speed and diets.
I gave the search a quick try and, personally, I see this as a fine way to make use of odds-and-ends ingredients lurking in the pantry. For example, I was readily able to find a recipe that could make use of leftover pearl barley and lentils—ingredients I bought for recipes I didn’t especially enjoy, and I didn’t know how to use those ingredients outside of those dishes. Nevertheless, I would never use it as a primary meal planning resource. There’s much fun to be had flipping through a cookbook and stumbling on recipes where the author pairs ingredients in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to you. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not opposed to new technologies. It is a question of form and function, and as far as I’m concerned, physical cookbooks are more practical for primary cooking references.
Do you think the latest technologies will make you stop buying cookbooks? Continue the discussion in the comments area below.
March 3, 2011
The common incandescent light bulb will soon become a lot less common. In an effort to reduce energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions, the provisions laid out in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (pdf) stipulate that manufacture of the classic 100 watt bulb will cease in 2012, with lower wattage bulbs being phased out by 2014. And considering that the majority of the energy consumed by regular light bulbs goes into producing heat, incandescents are ridiculously inefficient at what they were designed to do. What does this mean in terms of food? It means the end of the Easy-Bake Oven as we now know it.
It wasn’t the first electric toy oven. Lionel, in a departure from its popular line of trains, came out with an electric range in 1930, and in the 1950s products such as the Little Lady Range were encouraging aspiring homemakers to try their hands at baking. However, these toys were scaled-down versions of real appliances, which meant lots of exposed heating elements that could potentially burn little hands. The Easy-Bake Oven designers, on the other hand, took a cue from street vendors’ pretzel ovens to create a modified oven where you slide bakeware full of batter or dough through the oven to cook and cool. The other design innovation was the use of two 100 watt lightbulbs, safely concealed within the toy, to heat the oven. In light of the impending bulb ban, Hasbro will be rolling out what is presently dubbed the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, which will feature as-yet-unknown heating element. However, this is not the first time the toy has had a makeover. Since it first hit toy store shelves in 1963, has updated its look 11 times to keep up with aesthetic trends—like an avocado green model that emerged in the 1970s—as well as changes in the American kitchen. (Though it once resembled a range, the toy was redesigned in the early 1980s to look like a microwave and it has since maintained that look.)
In keeping with traditional gender stereotypes, the toy was marketed exclusively to girls. Even when boys would appear in television spots for the toy, they were almost always just there to observe and enjoy the hard work their little female companion put into making Easy-Bake treats. Perhaps the closest male equivalent was Creepy Crawlers, where you used a lightbulb to cook off molded plastic insects; although in the early 2000s, an Easy-Bake variant called the Queasy Bake Cookerator briefly entered the market, encouraging boys to make food that resembled bugs, dirt and dog drool.
Nevertheless, the toy has endured as a quintessential teaching tool, a set of homemaking training wheels—even though the notion of just adding water to prefab mixes gives an oversimplified vision of what it’s like to work in a real kitchen. The Easy-Bake Oven has also served as an inspiration to professional chefs, who transcended the prepackaged mixes and created a cookbook full of gourmet recipes that will work in the oven. And what little kid wouldn’t want to serve wild mushroom flan and roasted quail breast at their next tea party or Tonka truck rally?
October 7, 2010
Once upon a time, groceries made the journey between stores and consumers’ cupboards wearing little more than a paper bag. But as packaging technology has taken off in the past 50 years, our food and beverage products have gained an extensive wardrobe—so extensive, it can get a little crazy.
According to this article about food packaging trends:
“Today’s consumers want to access the Internet while ordering lattes, call their physicians while taking public transportation, send text messages while crossing intersections, and watch the latest film release on DVD while driving to grandma and grandpa’s house…shop for clothing and interact with friends over the Web while dining on 7-minute Asian cuisine that tastes great and is safe for consumption.”
Yikes. Today’s consumers sound like brats. The article says we also desire “active” and “intelligent” food packaging, which can control and monitor things like temperature, oxygen and moisture levels to preserve the artifacts—I mean, products—longer. But we also want creativity, convenience and novelty, which has resulted in some unusual packages.
Here’s a few examples:
1. Cascadian Farm, which sells things like jam and frozen vegetables, hides tiny human faces amid the digital images of foods like broccoli and grapes on their packages. The astute Bread and Honey blogger pointed this out a few years ago. Like she said, it’s wacky but “pretty darn funny.”
2. Gross or brilliant? Well, it’s an efficient use of space, anyway. The Col-Pop package combines a soda cup and chicken nugget container, freeing up the hands of “today’s consumer” so they can drive…or text-message through the next intersection. Ugh.
3. Definitely gross: beer bottles made from taxidermied squirrels. (I know, you want one, but they’re SOLD OUT.) And on a similar who-the-heck-buys-this-stuff note…I present Bling bottled water, decorated with Swarovski crystals. (Only $2,600 for the fully-encrusted bottle!)
6. Many fruit juices are mostly sugar and water—but hey, at least these juice boxes look and feel like real fruit.
9. We might be able to eat our yogurt containers or frozen pizza wrappers someday, according to this article. Why would we want to? Well, that’s a good question.
10. Here’s something this consumer does want: food safety. And since you can’t have safety without accountability, traceable produce makes sense. A system called HarvestMark gives an individual barcode to each piece of produce sold by participating farms. Consumers can scan that code with their smartphones and find out where and when a particular watermelon was grown, for example, and if it is subject to any recalls.