Big Without Bad
On Saturday there was a guy at Empire Farm named Larry Olmsted, and he spoke a little bit about his new book. The book is called Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It.
The thing is that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve got a lot of that covered already. You know that honey isn’t always honey. You know that 100% orange juice isn’t quite that either. We’ve covered the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine grown beyond Reims and Epernay.
I would have loved to asked him his thoughts on cream that’s not cream, and the awful stuff that passes for bread. Heck, just recently we’ve been having a conversation on the blog about what should qualify as Greek yogurt.
But this post isn’t about sour grapes. I have no interest in writing a book, and I’m glad that Mr. Olmsted is shining some light on these issues. However, his talk started me thinking about something, and I could use a little help mulling it over.
Here’s my question. Mass production isn’t inherently bad. For example, I don’t have any interest in a handmade pencil. But are there any foodstuffs that are made better in mass, and if so, what are they?
The first problem, or perhaps temptation, is getting hung up on what it means to mass produce something. Because sometimes, relatively small production on a global scale, can look pretty darn massive.
I’ve seen pictures of the facilities where giant wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are aged, and those look like factories to me. On the flip side, I got to work in the Cowgirl Creamery for a day, and even though they were already world famous, it was a truly small operation.
My hunch is that if there is a brand from another country that you’ve heard of and can be found on these shores, regardless of how small the company or the consortium may be, it’s a big business.
And big businesses have problems.
For starters, big publicly held companies have to keep on finding new ways to make more money year after year. It’s not enough to be profitable. They have to be increasingly profitable. So making a good product, and charging a reasonable price to cover costs and pay off investors isn’t good enough. And personally, I think this is the kiss of death for long term quality. It is far too often sacrificed for short term profits.
Big business also has an increased need for standardization and homogenization. Both of these can be quality killers too.
When it comes to milk, I’ll take my small company every time. Cowbella creamline is fantastic, on every level. And it’s a unique product that big milk producers just can’t match.
The only big brand that I can think of that delivers a better product than its smaller competitors is, oddly, Tanqueray. That classic gin is amazing. It just is. And I don’t think they cut corners. The production simply grows and grows and grows.
To my knowledge, there’s no cheating of the kind that goes on in the scotch whisky marketplace. There’s no mislabeling that I know of like there is in the small batch bourbon marketplace. And for the most part, I love what smaller distillers do. I dig the idiosyncratic approach to grain based spirits. I get off on the authenticity, integrity, and craft.
Gin can be all of those things too. But for some products I drift towards the classics. My question is, what other big brands make things which are better big than any of the little guys.
I’m tempted to put Grape Nuts on the list. Sure, it lost its way a while back, when the brand thought it would be a good idea to change the classic formula to make room for soy. Yuck.
Today I’m offering a rare, judgement free zone. Mostly because I’m curious. And the more beloved big products I can consider, the broader my thinking on this matter may become.
Thanks for lending a hand.