Sunday, June 27, 2010

Can You Trust A Tomato In January? The Hidden Life of Groceries Revealed At Last And Other Secrets of The Supermarket by Vince Staten

This is the companion volume to Mr. Staten's book on drugstores, (Did Trojans Use Trojans? A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstore), which I reviewed last week. In this book he takes readers up and down the linoleum-tiled aisles of the grocery store to learn the histories behind some of the most popular items that find their way into our carts. He also gives us a brief history of the evolution of the grocery store from quaint small-town general store to today's megamarts, and gives us the inside scoop on such practices as slotting allowances, the fees companies pay to get their products onto store shelves, and how after a long battle plastic bags finally won the war and took precedence over paper. Trivia lovers will also delight in little nuggets of facts like the first grocery store laser scanner was used on June 16, 1974 at Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio and very first item to be scanned was a package of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum.
As Mr. Staten takes us on a tour through the average modern day grocery store we learn that apples are the most popular item in the produce section--Red Delicious reign supreme--and that broccoli, cauliflower, and squash are the least popular. He also tells us how cornflakes began life as one of the weapons in the arsenal of Dr. Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to combat his personal war against lust and in particular the self-polluting sin of masturbation, and how Grape-Nuts got their name, and how cartoon characters and "free" prizes inside the boxes can transform even the worst tasting cereal into a top-seller. Graham Crackers also started out as an anti-lust food invented by a Presbyterian minister who lent his name to them, Dr. Sylvester Graham. Another interesting chapter explains how Napoleon's complaint about poor rations for the army eventually led to the invention of canned goods. We also learn the stories behind popular condiments like ketchup or catsup and how in its early days Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was not only touted for its taste but as "a wonderful liquid tonic that makes hair grow beautiful." So apparently early consumers were encouraged to put it on their food and then apply it to their scalps. And did you know that Lemon Pledge Furniture Polish actually has more lemons in it than Country Time Lemonade? Mr. Staten also gives us the history of that childhood favorite Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the familiar blue cardboard box has been on store shelves since 1936 when it was advertised as a meal for four that can be made in nine minutes for only 19 cents. We also learn about Hershey and other popular candy bars that are still with us today and cookies. I never realized that there is no vanilla in Nilla Wafers. One of my favorite stories is that when they were introduced in 1912 Oreos were seen as the least promising of three new brands of cookies introduced by Nabisco at the same time. Mother Goose Biscuits and Veronese were expected to triumph, but it was the dark horse named Oreo that won won. Oreos have been America's favorite cookie ever since while its other two competitors faded quieting into cookie oblivion and disappeared from store shelves. And one of my personal favorites, Moon Pies, also get a chapter, they began as a fill-me-up snack for hungry Southern coal-miners in the 1930s and are still beloved today (I've got two boxes in the kitchen right now, Chocolate and Banana, I love to zap them in the microwave for a few seconds so the marshmallow melts). And here's another little known fact for the trivia buffs--during WW2 when caffeine was getting scarce, Coke briefly considered a synthetic derived from bat guano but wisely decided against it fearing how the public would react if they found out that their favorite soft drink was being made with bat excrement. We also get the histories behind hot dogs, Spam, and ice cream cones, Jell-O, tv dinners, and many more popular items. Mr. Staten also explains how the FDA came to be after journalist Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" exposed the abuses and shady practices of the meat-packing industry, and led to exposes of similar practices among other food manufacturers. Ground charcoal used to be mixed in with pepper, and it was not uncommon for plaster to be mixed in with flour or starch into cocoa, arsenic and lead were even used as colouring agents for cheese.
This is a fun and fascinating book, perfect for either reading in small doses or as a quick cover-to-cover read.

1 comment:

librarypat said...

I live books like this that can be picked up and read a little at a time when you have a spare moment. Thank you for making me aware of it.