Food Memes

With the spread of celebrity chefs, restaurant rating and the glossy food media we’ve come to think we understand a great deal more about food than we really do. Like the Endless End of America, a series of memes about food, it’s history and how we interact with it have creeped into our world. And, like the Endless End of America, they just don’t stand up to scrutiny. These memes show up in the food media and advertising and it is well past time to have them deflated. I will tackle two memes: the “Cooks like Grandma” meme, and the “Smell and taste memory meme”. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they are something different from what we are being told; and, yes, in sometimes they don’t exist.

This was precipitated by a video about the wiz bang restaurant Alinea, in Chicago. Here is a link to it. Take a watch, I’ll wait. Now that you’ve seen it you have to remember I’ll be discussing this video only. How it partakes of a series of tropes in the food media. It is often called food porn. An attempt by watching to experience vicariously something that really makes use of another sense. Touch for sex, and taste for food.

I have no real opinion of it as a place to eat. Like most really high end places, you go, pay your nickel, and get whatever the chef is making that day. The point is that you will get to experience what ever the chef thought was best of what they could do that day. In Ailnea it’s over $200 for what is called a tasting menu. The term is Table d’hôte, or the hosts table. It’s like having your wife pick for you. Which can be viewed as lazy, or, as it should be viewed, as a way of understanding what someone else thinks; of you, of the world, of what it means to eat. It is an invitation to intimacy.

When you are cooking for your family, food as art is a silly and pompous stretch. But, the idea of food as art is what drives places like Alinea. Like music, food is ephemeral and abstract, but unlike music there is no way to record it and have it more then once, you must destroy it in order to sense it. Food as a piece of art is created individually for each audience member and can be experience by that person only once. Every taste is an unique and final experience. It will never be repeated. This leads to endless streams of verbiage and video-iage trying to capture the experience of eating some piece of food. It also leads to a lot of foot in mouth instead of food in mouth.

First a general note on the video shown, it’s a very White, very Suburban, world being shown. A world most Americans alive to see that video have never experienced. Those that could have experienced it are the wealthiest class of Americans. I watch the video and I see, someone saying, “I make the most amazing food in the world for Rich White Folk”. I know I’m being oversensitive, but I was left feeling like he wan’t speaking to me.

In my next post I’ll tackle the Grandma meme. It has a number of connotations and misrepresentations. I’ll also look at how it should be seen. By it, I mean the food of the past.


Finding a Reasonably Priced Suit

For us not young guys finding a reasonably priced suit has become harder today. Suits are simply less common then 20 years ago. As Business Casual has become a more common force for evil and ugliness, and mega factories have chugged out tons of cheap interchangeable crap, dreck has taken over. Finding even a decent suit for an Ordinary Civilian has become a frustrating quest. In this post I will explain a little of why and in the process explain what choices we have left. Let me make one thing very clear. If you are off size like me (big and tall – short can usually be tailored down) you have almost no choices. There is Destination XL, which has consumed the market, or Mens Warehouse or JoS. A. Banks or the internet. This is how big and beautiful women feel. It sucks.

First I’ll work out a basic glossary of terms. Some terms are official and some are just how I use them.

Market Segment: Basically what group you intend to sell to. This can be SciFi fans, accountants or one legged banjo players.

Market Tiers: This is a sub group of Market Segments and a bit vague. You usually find this term used in Financial markets like Stocks or Arbitrage. Here is just means that you have differing quality (and price range) levels. Most people think of it as a three level system; your cheap stuff, your mid-level okay stuff and your expensive stuff. It can get a lot more complicated, but I will just gloss that over right now to keep the number low and easy.

Point of Sale: This is both the physical cash register and the final price you pay.

Jobber: In retailing this is an off-price seller. Jobbers tend to buy the remaining stock of regular retailers and then sell it for less. For example: Macys will buy 1000 suits for the Fall 2012 season. For some reason they only sell 700 of them and another 50 were returned. Rather then try to return them they will sell the 350 items to an off price retailer. Jobbers will also buy the items returned to manufactures. Syms was the great jobber of mens clothes for years. Marshalls and TJ Maxx job fashion items now.

Now, how to put those terms together. Tiers are usually discussed in price ranges. Those ranges are before any discounts or taxes and without extras like alterations. So, a fellow I know was shocked at the $2000 to $5000 price range of suites in Esquire. If he shopped for any of them he might pay more or less then that. The POS may vary quite a bit from what the range would imply. Better retailers will have occasional 50% off sales. There are usually more closeouts in stock because they are selling less to Jobbers. Alterations may not be free. This is also a large range. If I suggest this range is not crazy anymore, I’m not suggesting you have to buy at the top of the range, and if you are careful you may pay well under it. Also the range is not even. The vast majority cluster at the low end of it and a few were under $2000. Folks tend to see the high number in a tier and freak, but that’s not a good idea. Most of the prices in a tier clump at the bottom end. It you made a simple graph of all the prices of all the items in a segment; at this price there are this many items, you see a series of clumps. Each clump would be the beginning of a tier. So a $2000-$5000 tier would have most of it’s items prices much nearer to $2000 rather then $5000. Just for the record, I don’t think there really is any such tier.

This is also a trap. People more and more shop for bargains, this is the mark up just to mark down trick. It didn’t used to happen in mens clothes a lot, but it is more and more. This is where Syms was wonderful. It’s a thing I miss.

I think of mens suits as a single market segment with 4 tiers. If you worked in the business you might find they break it up differently. The first tier is the cheap mass produced disposable stuff that you will find in Kohls and Target. The second is basic working mans suit, this tier is the one that has almost completely disappeared and has been replaced by Business Casual. It was typified by Bonds and Wallachs. The third tier is high end ready-to-wear and made-to-measure, this is the the Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewarts. The forth tier is custom made or Bespoke.

So you’re looking for a suit, what now? The stores:

Jobbers are gone, Syms went away in 2011 and there is just no one left. The days of going to a store and getting a $1500 suit for $400 are pretty much over. Sales in individual stores can be great. I’ve gotten a $1500 suit for $300. It didn’t quite fit and was take it or leave it. I took it. It’s a bit baggy, so what? You can try Marshalls or TJ Maxx but I have never seen much there.

There are the cheap discount department stores like Kmart or Walmart or Kohls. I’m just skipping those. Want to spend $150 on a suit and don’t give a hoot how it looks, you don’t need me.

Regular Department stores like Macys start to carry decent stuff, but they are focused on the high turnover young folks. Lots and lots of the best of the disposables and the bottom of the real stuff. Think $200 at the bottom to $800 at the top with a real limited selection. For shirts, ties, underwear, shoes, they are much better. Suits, not so much. Checking the web pages they’re focused on slim fit edgy styles. If you still have the less then 6 foot 2 inch hard body that somebody else had in High School then go for it.

Then you have your traditional Mens Stores. There are really only two, Mens Warehouse and Jo. A. Banks. I’ve been in both, have bought from both. Mens Warehouse and Jo. A. Banks are the sole players in the Middle Class segment. I don’t love the quality or the bang for the buck, but, if you want it and want to shop the way your Dad shopped they are all that is left. Mens Warehouse starts in the $200 range and goes up to about $800. Banks goes from maybe $600 to $2000. Everything I bought from Mens Warehouse has had to be repaired at least once. They bag and fit funny. The pockets get holes. They were basic stuff, and I was not impressed. The last Banks suit I bought was almost 20 years ago. It was serviceable but I wan’t so impressed that I went back. I would go to Banks to see what they have, but not Mens Warehouse any longer. People would disagree with me, online both have their partisans. This is why I say that the $2000 to $5000 range of suits isn’t out of bounds anymore. Yes it’s pricy, but even one of the two basic mens clothiers is in the bottom of that range now. Mind you, neither MW or Banks is carrying the better ends of suits like Ralph Lauren.

Then you move into the better end of suits like Saks fifth Ave, where the suits start at about $800 and go up to $2000 (there are only 10 on Saks’ website, and 60 women’s suits). You’ll notice this overlaps the Jo. Banks suits. Brooks Brothers and Paul Stewart’s website also top off at about $2000. There are more in the stores of course.

Then you have Bespoke. Several of the bespoke tailors in NYC had lines in the under $2500 range and a few were under $1500. Of course you could pay more, a lot more depending on extras, that is still in the under the $5000 high end that was reported to me earlier.

So the final summary. Most of the good suits are in the $800 to $2500 price range. Your actual price will vary according to discounts, taxes and extras. The stores you pick will greatly restrict your choices, but that isn’t a bad thing, you don’t need to see sixty of the same thing. Jos. A. Bank and Brooks Brothers basically carry their own label goods. Mens Warehouse carries various labels (Pronto Umo is the house label and is very so-so) that are of various qualities. The higher end retailers like Bloomies, Saks, Lord and Taylor are fine if you don’t need extra long and carry various labels. If you really like some label, like Ralph Lauren, and they have their own store give it a try. It won’t kill you.