Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Rise and Sad Demise of an Iconic American Product: Killing Knott's Berry Farm Foods

Walter Knott's freshly picked berries... blackberries, strawberries, red raspberries, loganberries, especially his extra-sweet Macatawa blackberries... were favorites of my Great Aunts Gertrude (1885 - 1962) and Clara (1888 - 1975).  

On sunny Saturdays in the early 1920s, they and husbands Gordon and Victor would drive a Model T Ford down eleven miles of dusty roads south from their Whittier homes to Walter and Cordelia Knott's roadside berry stand in Orange County, California.  Sunday suppers by the Kansas-born sisters featured homemade preserves and pies vivid with flavors of Knott's berries. 

By 1927, the industrious Knott farm employed up to 50 seasonal pickers, and often yielded four crop rotations a year for berries, cherry rhubarb, and asparagus.  

And Walter had finally persuaded Cordelia to set-up batches of her popular, pure berry jams, jellies, and preserves to sell at the berry stand.  Gertrude and Clara, who were busy mothers, housewives, and yearned for travel adventures by car, rarely again made homemade preserves.  

The rest is Southern California history:
"Knott's great berries were a 'must stop and buy some' for both old friends and for travelers and tourists who had heard the good news by word of mouth...
"The big Depression hit then, in 1928,  but the Knotts responded positively by using the last of their savings to build the Farm's first permanent building--- a combined berry market,  a small mursery to sell berry plants, and a five-table Tea Room where Cordelia served sandwiches, hot biscuits with berry jam, and berry pie."  (Source - Knott's Berry Farm Cookbook, 1976)
By 1934, the Tea Room expanded to a 40-seat diner serving fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans, plus hot biscuits, berry jams, and berry pies.  Three years later,  Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant opened doors with 300-seats and long waiting lines. Today, the famed restaurant draws more than 1.1 million customers a year. 

Cordelia's jams, jellies, preserves, and her new boysenberry ice cream and pancake syrup became legend, drawing locals and tourists eager to taste and tote home Knott's berry delights. Selling fresh berries fell by the wayside as crowds swelled for Cordelia's fried chicken and country ham dinners.  

Walter built small amusements to entertain customers while they waited hours to dine: first a rock garden and a replica of George Washington's fireplace, followed by a gift shop and an old Wells Fargo stagecoach. By the 1940s, Walter Knott embarked on rebuilding an American West ghost town, replete with relics from the California Gold Rush.

The end result, of course, was Knott's Berry Farm, today a famed 160-acre amusement park with 3.6 million visitors in 2011, and owned by New York Stock Exchange-listed Cedar Fair Entertainment Company.

A Business Built on Real Foods

Knott's, though, was built first on Walter's premium berries, and then on Cordelia Knott's extraordinary jams, jellies, and preserves made simply with the finest ingredients.  After Walter Knott innovated a new berry in the 1930s, the boysenberry, buyers returned in droves to try the unique fruit.

At every meal, my two great aunts, particular midwest-style cooks, always set on the table a pretty jelly dish or two of Knott's boysenberry, red raspberry, blackberry, or strawberry jam alongside a heaping plate of homebaked bread or hot biscuits.  

One of my earliest childhood memories is of savoring the tangy, sweet tastes of delicious Knott's jams at the elegantly-set Sunday supper tables in the Whittier cottage-homes of Great Aunts Gertrude Bennett and Clara Hodgin. (Yes, they knew the Nixon family. Never thought much of the Nixon kids.) 

 As the Knott's Berry Farm franchise grew over decades, gift packs of Knott's top-quality jams and jellies were commonly given to family, friends, and even as company gifts to employees. Knott's products were special, and considered special occasion, gourmet treats. 

Killing Cordelia Knott's Homespun Preserves

But as of 2013, Knott's superb products are no more. Killed by industrial food mega-corporations, hungry to cheapen and undercut great American products for greater profitability. 

Big Food corporate fake-food giant Con Agra bought-out Knott's food products and operations in 1995, pledging to foster the high-quality and good reputation of Knott's Berry Farm foods that had pleased generations of Americans. 

In 2008, though, Con Agra closed Knott's artisan jelly-making plant here in my hometown, and sold Knott's food brands to Ohio-based food giant J.M. Smuckers Co., industrial food corporate owner of Pillsbury, Hungry Jack, Dunkin' Donuts, Jif peanut butter, Crisco shortening, and hundreds of other processed food brands.  

In early 2013, Smuckers announced that Knott's-labeled preserves, jams, and jellies had been discontinued (except for token offerings at the Buena Park theme park).  That all Knott's jams, jellies, preserves and related products would bear the name of Smuckers...  a move that seems logical, considering that the high-quality ingredients and artisan-attention Cordelia Knott lavished on her pure, homespun fare had long since been compromised in favor of fake food sweeteners, additives, and processes.

Today, the ingredients listed for Smuckers Boysenberry Preserves, after boysenberries, are:
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Fruit pectin
  • Citric acid
Great Aunts Gertrude and Clara would be appalled. At their Sunday supper table, they would never have stooped to serve these inferior tasting, processed-food substitutes for Cordelia Knott's fresh, crisp iconic American creations.

In honor of their family tradition of delicious, healthy meals made with fresh, high-quality food, I won't either. 

(Great Aunt Clara is on the far right. Great Aunt Gertrude is standing center, back row. My maternal grandmother, Marie, their younger sister, is standing between my great grandparents. Photo was taken about 1900.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Oreos, Cheetos, Twinkies, Doritos: Home Baking as Rebellion Against Industrial Food

In 2013, home cooking is a radical act that empowers Americans to bypass the near-total control over the U.S. food supply of about twenty industrial food mega-corporations.  

Michael Pollan, famed journalist of Big Food, observes in New York magazine's April 2013 issue:

"... one of the most striking things I’ve learned is that all traditional food cultures keep populations healthy no matter what they are... The great irony is that now our civilization has managed to construct a new food culture that reliably makes people sick. It’s the first time in history...
 "But the collapse of home cooking is limiting for the food movement. As I watched this local agriculture movement get started, I realized that the farmers’-market movement was only going to get so far if people refused to cook."
Home baking, in particular, is personal rebellion.... creative, craftsy, delicious rebellion... against the hundreds of invisible chemicals, preservatives, cheap fillers, additives, emulsifiers, and artificial colors and flavors gunking up otherwise scrumptious delectables.

That doesn't mean, though, that you need resort to your grandmother's cherished baking cookbooks.  (See above from my mid-20th century cookbook collection, "Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book," which was near-revolutionary when published in 1950 with "more than 400... rolls, cakes, cookies. and pies.") 

Grandmother's baking was comforting and delicious beyond mere words, of course, but her recipes were complex, and a bit too fussy and old-fashioned for most 2013 home bakers.

A brand-new book that I'm crazy about is "Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats"by Casey Barber, a recipe developer and food writer.

Using good-quality ingredients and absolutely no additives or preservatives, this fun book enables all to bake better-quality, equally yummy versions of...

  • Oreos
  • Mint Millanos
  • Animal crackers
  • Twinkies
  • Wheat Thins
  • Peeps
  • Cracker Jacks
  • McDonald's apple pie
  • Pop Tarts
  • Cheetos
  • Goldfish
  • BBQ potato chips
....and, believe it or not, Cool Ranch Doritos.

No, none of these snack vices will be approved by stiff-necked nutritionists.  

But if you or yours have to have it... and we all do now and then... reject the cheaper, chemical-sodden ingredients used by greedy industrial food mega-corporations.  

Join the rebellion by returning to your grandmother's ritual of baking at home.  She'd be so pleased! 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Salt Sugar Fat" - Stunning Big Food Tactics to Hook, Trick, Harm Americans

"Fascinating" and "horrifying" are two words that come to mind to describe new bestseller "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us" by Pulitzer Prize journalist Michael Moss.  

"Fascinating" because Moss provides rich, fully-sourced details about industrial food corporations using tobacco-industry tactics in extraordinarily greedy pursuit of profits, public health be damned.  

"Horrifying" for the same reasons. 

"Horrifying" also for the smooth, underhanded ways Big Food has used, and still uses, to fool, trick, and hook all of us to enrichen their corporate coffers while clearly and deliberately hurting our health. 

Please read this brief, illuminating excerpt from the #2 book on last week's New York Times non-fiction bestseller list...
"... in attempting to trace an E.coli-tainted shipment of hamburger that had made hundreds ill and paralyzed a twenty-two-year-old former dance teacher in Minnesota named Stephanie Smith, I found the federal government to be of little help.
"Not only that,  the Department of Agriculture is actually complicit in the meat industry's secrecy.  Citing competitive interests, the public agency refused my requests for the most basic facts, like which slaughterhouses had supplied the meat.
"I ultimately obtained the information from an industry insider, and the smoking-gun document--- a detailed, second-by-second account of the hamburger production process called a "Grinding log"--- showed why the government is so protective of the industry it is supposed to be holding accountable.  
"The burger that Stephanie ate, made by Cargill, had been an amalgam of various grades if neat from different parts of the cow and from multiple slaughterhouses as far away as Uruguay.
"The meat industry, with the blessings of the federal government, was avoiding steps that could make their products safer for consumers.  The E.coli starts in the   slaughterhouses, where feces tainted with the pathogen can contaminate the meat when the hides of cows are pulled off.  
"Yet many of the biggest slaughterhouses would sell their meat only to hamburger makers like Cargill if they agreed NOT to test their meat for E.coli until it was mixed together with shipments from other slaughterhouses. 
"This insulated the slaughterhouses from costly recalls when the pathogen was found in ground beef, but also prevented government officials and the public from tracing the E.coli back to its source.  When it comes to pathogens in the meat industry, ignorance is financial bliss."
I recommend this riveting expose to all Americans: this clever book will help you reclaim a measure of control over your life and health as you understand the nature and origins of the #1 non-genetic factor on your health and longevity. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ballpark Food: New Gluttony and County-Fair Grotesqueness

Is ballpark eating now a grotesque indulgence akin to county fair gluttony?  

American tradition embraces juicy hot dogs and cold, cold beer at the ballpark, but when did a stadium visit become another exercise in over-the-top, self-destructive gastronomy?  

Call me naive about stadium food, because the ballpark in my neighborhood, Anaheim Stadium, emphasizes healthy choices including:
  • salads at 8 stadium locations
  • veggie dogs at 6 locations
  • vegetarian panini sandwiches
Joining Anaheim Stadium concessions last year was Melissa's Fresh for You, offering "healthy wraps, salads, fruit cups, hummus and pita chips, gluten-free hot dogs, and gluten-free beer" in four locations. I hear Melissa's black bean burger is scrumptious.  

Sure, the home of the Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles (future 2013 World Series champions!) offers heavy, satisfying fare for fans as pastrami, cheese steak, and meatball sandwiches, and gigantic, deliciously greasy pizzas by-the-slice.  And like every ballpark, Anaheim serves heaping piles of  "nacho" chips dripping with hot, yellow, liquid "cheese" topped with jalapeno peppers and God only knows what else. (Why my husband craves ballpark nachos, I will never, ever know...) 

My point is that, in my recent stadium experiences, the direction of food concessions has been toward healthier fare, less to conspicuous gluttony.

So imagine my delighted surprise when I recently read a headline in my father-in-law's morning newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, touting "Aces Chef to Debut Tasty Treats."  Terrific, I thought. Healthier foods at the stadium for the Reno Aces, a popular Triple-A baseball team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  A ballpark with an actual chef on staff! 

Delighted surprise until I read the article, that is. Among the new tasty treats? A foot-long hot dog smothered in chili and Fritos.  Pretzels slathered with "beer cheese." (Liquid beer cheese? What is beer cheese?) And sweet potato tater tots, deep-fried of course.  

A single Google search of stadium foods turned up, at the Texas Rangers' ballpark, a $26, two-foot hot dog weighing a full pound, dripping with that yellow liquid cheese substance, jalapenos, onions, and likely whatever else suits your food fantasies.  (See photo above.)

Has ballpark eating become the newest venue of rebellious, indigestion-inducing indulgence akin to county fair in-your-face gluttony as entertainment?  If so, shouldn't hungry fans at least be told the calorie, fat, salt, and sugar content of their food options? 

I believe in freedom of individual choice, yet recognize that in a responsible, safe society, individual freedoms must be balanced with public responsibilities and privileges. In the case of stadium foods and similar, public health concerns must be weighed against individual choice.  

The fast food industry is required by law to disclose the nutritional content of its menus, so that the public can make informed choices.  

The time is overdue to also mandate nutritional content disclosures of the tens of millions of meals and snacks sold annually at U.S. stadiums and ballparks.  Take me out to the ballpark, but please, tell me what I'm eating.