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Brand Me! Or, How to Commercialize Cabbage

Earlier this year I made a joke about the marketing campaign for fresh bulk vegetables, along the lines of “Red Cabbage. It’s What’s For Salad.” I was thinking how nice it would be if people could be motivated to buy ordinary fresh bulk vegetables–no brand names, no packages–every week as a matter of habit the way they did 30 years ago, instead of the way they now fill their carts with brightly colored boxes of processed stuff. I thought it would probably take a satirical approach like the Ad Council’s Got Milk? public service ad campaign.

Clearly I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the real issue driving the relentless replacement of food with boxes. As with the Internet, it’s branding. And not surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of spam out there (hints of The Viking Song in the background…and a word of caution: as with many Monty Python sketches, this one contains more than a few off-color lines and screeching in addition to the main ingredient.)

The packaged food industry is way ahead of me and has been for years. They’ve figured out how to put brand names on cabbage or broccoli or carrots so they can charge more for it–several times more per pound. And they’re doing enormously well with this ploy.

Ordinary shoppers — your neighbors, your co-workers, your mom, and you too, I bet— have in the past week or so bought a little packaged bag of pre-washed spinach, Euro Salad Mix, baby-cut carrots, or broccoli and cauliflower florets. To save time, you tell yourself. Because it’s more gourmet, perhaps. And you’re getting your vegetables in, you think. But it becomes a habit, and a needlessly expensive one.

This kind of thinking about vegetables is becoming dangerously ingrained among American shoppers. People think they’re eating healthy without the fuss, but then they complain how expensive vegetables are. And no wonder, if they shop like this.

Because the few vegetables you get in the precut packs in pristine plastic bags are less than a pound. 12 oz. is typical for broccoli and cauliflower florets, 5-6 oz. for pre-washed mixed lettuces. Prices are at least $2.00 per bag, and often on up to $3.50 or more. Yes, Virginia, that’s anything between $3 and $9/lb for the “convenience” of just opening a bag.

I bring this up here because packaged, pre-shredded cabbage, an 8-oz. bag no less, was listed, actually listed, as a key ingredient in a recent (and no I didn’t really mean to be picking on them again so soon) Bon Appetit feature recipe online. One for “Fishcakes and Coleslaw”. It was part of a slideshow series illustrating “gourmet cooking on a budget”, glossy photos with convincing price tags included–but this one recipe cost $14 for four servings!

The 8-oz. bag of pre-shredded cabbage called for in the recipe—that’s “half a pound” for the shopping-challenged—costs $2-3 and serves a maximum of 4 people not very generously for a single meal (look at the Bon Appetit recipe photo–would that be enough for you?). There won’t be leftovers, clearly, but if you were making only one portion, the rest could only really be used as slaw or a salad garnish, and only within a day or two. By the time you buy pre-shredded cabbage, it’s already starting to dry out and yellow at the cut edges. If you saw that on your plate at a restaurant, you’d be mad. Especially at $4-6/lb.

For that you could buy three or more heads of red or green cabbage–at least 6 pounds, possibly 8, enough for a block party barbecue’s worth of coleslaw. Or, and let’s be frank about this, a big multi-pound tub or so of the actual fully-prepared coleslaw at the grocery store’s deli counter. Even more at your local 7-Eleven.

So I have to ask. How much convenience are you really buying for your money? How much time are you saving with the just-open-and-pour branded vegetable bags? How is the prepackaged bag faster? Because you open it up and pour? Please. You’re not that busy.

A head of romaine or red leaf lettuce is about a dollar a pound. It takes 5 minutes to wash and tear up by hand. Stalk broccoli, even in the big-name supermarkets, costs $1-2/lb. depending on the season, and usually less in local markets. A head of broccoli takes maybe a whole minute to rinse under the tap and cut into florets, and maybe half another minute to pull the outside peel off the stalk, trim the end, and chop it into crosswise coins. All you need is a knife—a steak knife, not a chef’s knife, at that—and a plate. You need no more chef-like “knife skills” than it takes to cut up your own dinner. Unless you’re all thumbs, or your mother is still cutting up your food for you, you should be able to do that much by the time you’re old enough to shop for yourself.

Bulk carrots, the kind you see in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, need peeling and cutting up. They’re also 50 cents/lb. most places and have loads more vitamins and more complex aromatic flavor than the pre-cut ones. And they don’t dry out and give up the ghost so quickly. You really have to hate chopping them for the “baby-cut” carrots to be a good deal.

Even at a big-name supermarket, a head of cabbage is only $1/lb max. In a smaller or more local market, you’ll find a head of cabbage closer to 50 cents/lb and sometimes as low as 33 cents/lb. It’s incredibly versatile and easy to deal with, it’s nutritious, and if you don’t precut it it’ll stay fresh for at least a week in the fridge. It takes maybe 10 minutes–tops–to rinse an entire head of cabbage, peel off the two outer leaves, cut it in half and core it, put it flat-side down on the cutting board, and shred it with a chopping knife. If you have a food processor, it’s even quicker. You’ll make enough slaw for a party of 10 or more. Or you could shred just a quarter and mix it with something else, and store the rest in the vegetable bin for a chopped salad later that week. Or a stir-fry, maybe accented by hot peppers and sesame oil. Or a traditional side dish like spiced red cabbage simmered with cloves and apples. Or a hot stuffed cabbage-style dish with ground beef or curried lentils. Or the crunchy tehina-dressed salad for pita with shwarme or felafel. Or just as it is for a nosh.

So tell me again. Why are people buying packaged vegetables instead of bulk? They’re not easier to get to—they’re even in the same section of the supermarket. They’re not so much faster to prepare that they should be 3-5 times as expensive (or in the case of the cabbage, 10 times as expensive). Are we so trained to expect things in neat “convenience” packages that we’ve started treating vegetables like nationally advertised breakfast cereals? And if that’s true, and we neither need nor want to know how to cook, why are we buying the glossy food magazines?

Why, more damningly, are food magazines starting to call for these branded pre-packed vegetables in their recipes, in preference to ordinary unbranded fresh vegetables? Aren’t food magazines supposed to promote home cooking skills? Are they trying to nudge people into incompetence at the basics so they’ll buy the prepackaged stuff instead? Because the worst side effect isn’t even the price—it’s the implication that chopping your own vegetables is too much trouble, beyond the average household cook, and takes special professional chef-level knife skills. When did we lose our ability to rinse and cut up basic vegetables?

I haven’t dared look in the current print issue of Bon Appetit to find out if one of their advertisers is the company that makes these 8-oz. bags of pre-shredded branded cabbage. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

I’m really afraid that if we continue buying this branding ploy, and let packaged food companies profit grotesquely off our inattention while leading us away from ordinary fresh vegetables, we’re going to lose the basic skills for cooking our own meals. And Mom isn’t going to be around to help us cut up our food.

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