Friday, January 18, 2008

E.V.S.O. (Extra-Virgin Snake Oil) - A collection of useless crap

Saturday Night Live once featured a skit with Father Guido Sarducci about the latest kitchen gadget called "Mr. Tea"; a natural extension of the then-new and now-famous "Mr. Coffee". To use it, one simply places a tea bag in a cup, places the cup in the device, then pours boiling water (from a kettle) into the top of the unit which, in turn, directs the water into the cup. For $19.99, you could make tea more easily than ever before.

As his demonstration went on, it became clear that it was simply a funnel. While coffee makers do a bit more than a funnel, they don't really do that much more. (Units with timers and grinders are pretty good... having freshly-ground coffee waiting for me when I get up is probably the best use of technology I've found so far.) Such ludicrous devices didn't end with the original brilliance of SNL. In fact, there are plenty of these devices to choose from.

Wandering through The Ferry Building in San Francisco (if there is a heaven for food geeks, it contains an exact replica of this place), I stopped in at Sur La Table and was truly struck by the number of - as Alton likes to call them - "single-purpose devices." Knives and graters aimed at a single ingredient, in other cases, I'm not sure they have a use at all. A lettuce knife?

The crown jewel of useless crap seems to be an electric cocktail shaker which has the option of "shaking" (vertically) or "stirring" (presumably swirling the contents). The transition from silver cocktail shakers to stainless ones was painful enough, the omission of vermouth from martinis is an outrage, but to turn the task of making a cocktail over to a machine? Something so sensual, tactile, and elegant thrown into the hands of a robot? This device is the mixologist's equivalent of an inflatable sex doll.

A few days later, I was standing in the plastic products aisle at my local grocery store and stared at the following product in disbelief, hoping there was something about it I didn't understand. "Glad" makes a plastic bag which they claim allows you to steam vegetables in a microwave oven. Yes, you read that correctly. Steaming in a microwave oven; a tiny voice in the back of my head uttered "bullshit".

Let me see if I get this straight - A bag containing vegetables (I'm avoiding their irritating use of the non-word "veggies") is being bombarded with microwaves (which are generating heat creating the steam in the first place) and they allude to (but do not outright claim) that the steam is helping the vegetables maintain their "taste and natural goodness". As for the bag, it doesn't do anything other than allow the steam to escape more slowly. In fact, the only claim that might even be considered legit is that it "eases cleanup". Then comes that casual marketing reference that causes the "fill" in "landfill": "Simply dispose of bag after each use." Buy a product, use it once, and throw it "away".

I have a better idea. Go down to your local thrift shop and look for a Pyrex or Corningware dish. Probably won't cost more than about 3 boxes of those bags, and until you break it, it's permanent. I was now on a mission; to make a list of useless crap.

Garlic Rollers
I was in love with mine too until I learned you can lay your knife flat against a garlic clove, smack it with your hand, and the peel comes right off. Note that these things (rubber tubes, essentially) carry a patent. I'm assuming it's for the way the ends are cut in serration, but don't care enough to research it. Clearly nothing about the patentable parts affects its performance.

Mandolines with a straight-across blade
Absolutely useless. Does your knife work better if you shove it through a cut, or draw it toward you as you cut? In other words, chopping or slicing? Same physics apply to a Mandoline. I know you paid a lot of money for yours, especially if it's metal, and it's made in France so it must be good. Donate it to Goodwill and get yourself one with a diagonal or V blade. You'll see what I mean.

Flavor "injectors"
Seriously, think about it. When you inject it, where's the marinade going to go?

All-Clad's "Asparagus Pot"
Okay, a pot dedicated to a single vegetable is in itself retarded, but this one is so poorly-designed that it's a disgrace to All-Clad's line. The problem lies in the steamer basket; the "feet" on the bottom, which hold the asparagus to steaming height rather than boiling height, are too short. You can only put maybe 1/3" of water in the pot which, if you're not watching closely enough, can easily all boil away.

Celebrity Chef Cookware
You've seen them. Emeril has a line, Mario Batali has a line, Rachael what's-her-name has one. Fine. Fans of each on the Food Channel can buy the play-at-home game of their favorite celeb chef's show. But there was an oddball I spotted the other day.

Marco Pierre White, notorious former boss to Gordon Ramsay, agreed to put his name on a line of cookware. Unlike Emeril, he didn't go with a brand name manufacturer (Emeril's stuff is made "by All-Clad" in their branch factory in China). In fact, most chef-branded cookware is certainly not made to be used in their own kitchens. This puts a surprisingly small dent in their credibility (though not their profitability).

But I think the strangest part of this is that few people in the U.S. have any idea who M.P.W. is! To his credit, he has no cooking show (not in the U.S. anyway) and can come across as an arrogant ass so is unlikely to be offered one. An obscure (if brilliant) chef stuck his name on mediocre cookware, and perhaps wonders what went wrong.

Oh, and just one more...

Riedel Glassware
For about a decade, Riedel has touted the (imaginary) benefits of their glassware. Their claim is not the benefits of the material (leaded glass is hardly new) or necessarily craftsmanship, but that their wine glasses make wine taste better. Brilliant. Subjective, and impossible to disprove.

Specifically, shape. the curvature of each glass which is individually (and suspiciously) tuned for each of a dozen or more individual grape varietals. These glasses magically target the wine toward a different area of your tongue, the details of which are clearly illustrated in much of Riedel's advertising. Doesn't matter whether you understand it or not and certainly doesn't matter if it's true or not, you cannot prove beyond all doubt that their claims aren't true and, if they are, you may be missing something.

Think about it, how can a glass "aim" wine? Even if we all sipped wine exactly the same way (we don't), we tend to hold our head and hand at different angles depending on how much wine is in the glass. Each of us uniquely draws the wine in, gives it a bubbled stir in the mouth, moves it about and, depending on the quantity at hand, either consumes or purges it. How can they claim a glass unifies the way we all drink wine? In fact, the trajectory of the wine over the rim of the glass will change during the course of consuming it, so if their theory is true, the wine will change its flavor based on how much of it you've already had.

Riedel even (wisely) alters the thickness of their glasses so as to be "restaurant grade" and fit in the dishwasher racks. How does this affect the tongue zone targeting system? They don't say. We must simply assume that they have it all under control.

Then, the young Maximilian Riedel goes and cuts the stems off. Did we ask for this? No. Does it help improve the wine? No. Is it more trendy crap for us to buy? Apparently. Is it harder to wash the fingerprints off of "O" glasses? Hell yes. Does holding the glass warm the wine more quickly? Not much, assuming you don't wrap your hands around the glass.

Obviously, they've become a brand to leverage, not an improvement to be understood, the tongue diagram has gone missing, and Riedel-branded glassware is now available at Target (along with a variety of vases all of which clearly say made in China). Seems they've fooled enough of the market to try fooling the rest of the market.

In fact, while you sip wine from Riedel Vinum glasses, there is someone in Austria making a replacement at the Spiegelau factory. Turns out, Spiegelau has been making Riedel's glassware, apart from the Sommellier series, for years. Made sense, eventually, for Riedel to purchase Spiegelau outright. (If you click on that link, you'll find two familiar names in charge of the company.)

I'm most bitter about it, I think, because I bought into the whole thing and then thought about it more carefully. From here on, it's Spieglau and Schott-Zweisel for me. And, no, you won't see stemless glasses in my house.

I have to admit though that none of the other items irritate me anywhere NEAR as much as that cocktail shaker.

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