Product Watch
Jeremy Eaton

Product Watch

My neighbor Jerome was standing in my kitchen, a place he has been at least a couple of times a week for the past several years. But that night, apparently, he was looking with new eyes at the CapriSun® strawberry-banana easy-open pouches of juice; the Smucker's Snackers®, no-refrigeration-needed packages that contain peanut butter, jelly, crackers, and a miniature knife; the 12-sack -- "12 bags TO GO!" -- of nacho cheese flavor Doritos® and the Hunt's SnackPack Squeez 'n Go® chocolate "portable pudding!" After cataloguing a few of these convenience items that I typically keep out on the counters for when I have to make lunch the morning after I've attended, say, a very exclusive Caymus wine dinner where I was forced to sample at least eight or ten glasses of just-released vintages, Jerome turned to me accusingly. "You," he said, "are such a consumer."

Flashback to a flashbulb: my father-in-law taking a surprise picture of me as I sat, on a Sunday morning, with my coffee cup and coupons, dutifully clipping. "No one would ever believe you are a food critic," he laughed, promising blackmail.

Flashback to a light bulb: my husband's bright idea of signing me up for Publix Direct so I can get the groceries delivered. "It will save you time." After two hours reading lists of the various brands and types of rice, I gave up and went to the store.

Flashback to a flashback: me, sitting in the cart where my son sits now, watching another woman place some intriguing-looking snack foods onto a conveyor belt. "Mommy," I asked, "how come we don't ever buy that?"

If admission is the first step to solving a problem, then I confess: Yes, I consume. In addition to my role as restaurant critic, I am also a wife and a mother. I run, somewhat haphazardly, a home for them, our five cats, and a never-ending stream of friends, nannies, and neighbors. Obviously I must shop for food, in addition to such unromantic items as toilet paper and cat litter.

Of course, that doesn't entirely explain my tendency to linger at Publix, on an almost daily basis, as long as I do on personal hygiene. But I still don't consider scanning the soup aisle for a new take on chicken noodle or loading up my cart with two family-size bottles of buy-one-get-one-free "restaurant-style" Italian salad dressing to be an issue. My fondness for gimmicks aside, at the end of the conveyor belt, I'm always thrilled to go to the bottom line of the ticker tape, where it tells me how much money I saved by spending it on culinary cons at Publix.

Perhaps it is something of a compulsion, now that I think about it. Or maybe I am just the victim of successful marketing campaigns. Whenever someone plugs a "new" or even "new and improved" label on a product, I'm the model for the sucker they had in mind. I know, consciously, that many such proclamations, like the one on the Gulden's zesty honey mustard, are only referring to the packaging. Others are simply new flavors, like the Classico Cabernet marinara -- culinary variations on a theme. Creating a different size of a product also allows it to be called "new." Might as well make me a bull and wave a flag at my face.

This is how I wound up with a "personal watermelon," a fruit that has been downsized for one (or two) generous servings. How could I resist the cheerful red sticker, proclaiming "new, try me?" Though after I did, I was convinced that whoever coined the term "bigger is better" knew of which they spoke.

Still some items are genuinely fresh to the product market in general, and therein lies what my neighbor thinks I need intervention for -- I can't refuse the opportunity to sample something novel, even if it only appears to be so. If I temporarily refrain from buying something like the Sun-Bird Cantonese black bean soup entrée -- "just add water, microwave, ready in 5 minutes" -- on one shopping outing, I'm bound to buy it on the next. And yes, it was awful. So much so I had to leave the door of the microwave open after I made it to let the machine "breathe."

The key to finding workable new items, however you define them, depends on your own vigilance. Many items I see in the store, including Honey Wheat Thins and Birds Eye® Hearty Spoonfuls™ soup bowls (the latter found in the freezer section), challenge the purist meaning of new. If the packaging still boasts about innovation after six months, you can be pretty confident the product isn't selling too well.

For truly original items, do your research: Watch the commercials on TV and read advertisements in the local media's friendly neighborhood food sections. This is one reason I like to clip coupons -- it helps me be aware that such tasty yum-yums as "mini" mint Milano® cookies, strawberry shortcake Newtons®, and white cheddar Cheez Doodles® are about to be dropped on vulnerable, unsuspecting palates near you.

Success itself, though, is open to interpretation as well. Does convenience qualify a comestible from the get-go? If so, then Hot Pockets® Pot Pie Express, "the 2 minute pot pie you can eat on the run," is a perfect example. It took me exactly three minutes to make one, if you count the 60 seconds required to read and comprehend the directions for using the microwavable sleeve correctly. The end result: a decent, semifilling version (if you make both of the Pockets that come in the package) of a portable pastry that even has vegetables in it. If your car is both your office and your lunchroom, this one's a natural.

If your yardstick has more to do with whether or not your family will eat it, steer clear of Ragú® Express!™ Pasta Snacks -- at least in the pizza flavor. Kids will not appreciate the overly herbaceous and peppery nature of this microwaved muck. You can, however, trust the Gorton's® fisherman. The Crispy Popcorn Fish, "seasoned with 9 herbs & spices!" are pleasant nuggets that taste more like McNuggets. Adults can snack on these, too, especially if you dress 'em up with French's® GourMayo™; -- I recommend the wasabi horseradish flavor over the chipotle chili.

Both condiments, I might add, are fairly piquant additions to the sweet & spicy or hickory smoked StarKist® Flavor Fresh Pouch® Tuna Creations™, "lightly marinated premium chunk light tuna" that is "perfect in wraps or on rice!" The lemon pepper flavor of the tuna, however, is not necessarily something you'd want to feed your cat or your kid -- two animals whose picky palates, as we all know, are the truest measure of success.


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