Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Great Packaging Conspiracy

I can see no point in even trying to discuss the ridiculous, petty, nonsensical, fruitless, silly, stupid nonsense going on in the nation’s capital, so I have chosen a more important topic.

While I am not one who is big on conspiracy theories I have in recent years come to believe there is a conspiracy on the part of packaging companies to eventually and finally manage to package literally everything we use, including all of our foodstuffs. Of course living here in a small fairly rural town I cannot really speak for everywhere else, I suppose that somewhere there may still be butchers and bakers and maybe even candlestick and cannon ball makers, but I’m not so sure and I am coming more and more to doubt it.

My recent interest in this problem, and I believe it truly is a problem, has to do with my wife’s need for 4 ounces of ground turkey. Not a big deal, granted, but it illustrates the problem. You simply cannot acquire 4 ounces of ground turkey in either of our grocery stores. I have learned that if you want ground turkey it comes packaged in 20 ounce packages. Why it comes packaged in 20 ounce packages is an interesting question in its own right, but it does, and there is nothing much one can do about it. After much grousing at one of the clerks I finally managed to find a one pound package of ground turkey, still much more than my wife needed for her latest round in the International Charcutepalooza contest she is currently engaged in, but certainly much better than the 20 ounces, aside from the fact I didn’t really want frozen ground turkey. Anyway, the reason for this is simply because we no longer have butchers and butcher shops. They do not have bulk ground turkey, they barely still have bulk hamburger. Instead of butchers we have “Meat Processers,” whose training provides them only with the ability to make limited general cuts of meat and wrap them in plastic packages. Perhaps in a large city you might find a butcher who has bulk ground turkey, but don’t bet on it. The packaging of food, including meat, has become so widespread it is truly difficult to buy anything that is not packaged.

I have been observing this packaging phenomenon for the last several years. We had one sort of supermarket plus another much smaller one for years. They used to have meat and other products displayed behind glass counters and you could actually ask them for special cuts (only of ordinary meats such as beef or pork) that they could cut on the spot and cater to your request. You cannot do this any longer. When our one largest supermarket was sold to a national chain that upgraded and enlarged it almost everything became packaged. Actually, when we first moved here there was a real butcher shop, but of course it inevitably went out of business because of the competition from these larger stores. You can buy a single steak, of course (packaged), or a package of two or three or even several, but you cannot ask for a thicker or thinner cut or anything out of the unusual. When I was a boy there were two butcher shops in our little town. You could order virtually anything you wanted and they were able to produce it for you, a rack of pork or lamb, pigs’ feet, kidneys, a Christmas goose, duck, whatever, not only that, they would bone it for you, pull the tendons, clean the kidneys, clean and crack the crab, fillet the fish, anything you needed. They actually gave away fish heads, bones, and even liver. How things have changed! If you asked one of these Meat Processers to bone a chicken they would look at you in disbelief (and probably would have less of an idea of how to do it that you have). If you asked them to pull the tendons from a turkey they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

It is truly amusing to read cookbooks or watch cooking shows where they suggest you ask your butcher to do things for you, it makes you wonder what century they are living in. I’m pretty certain that most meat markets nowadays receive most of their stock pre-packaged or at least in a standard form that can be easily cut and packaged, and that is basically all they do. Fish is of course the same, it comes already cut up and packaged or in a form that can easily just be packaged. As far as I can tell our local meat processers (who also sell the fish) know virtually nothing about their products, especially if they occasionally get in something esoteric like squid or octopus (which they very, very rarely do). They also do not even bother trying to sell things like veal, racks of lamb, mussels, sweetbreads, brains, kidneys, and such because people here do not buy them. They also have a curious practice of marking down fish that has not sold quickly enough, they seem to have no concept of people wanting fresh fish. I guess you can’t blame them for not handling things they cannot sell, but it certainly doesn’t make for decent butchers and fish mongers. Some items, like caul fat, for example, they have never even heard of and don’t have any idea what it is or what it might be used for.

It is not only meat and fish that are packaged. Think about it, I suspect that easily 90% of what you now find in food stores is packaged, either in cans, bottles, frozen, in plastic bags, shrink wrapped in plastic, or in boxes. And each year it seems more and more things are being packaged. I once saw, I think on the Daily Show a banana that was wrapped in plastic. I thought it was a joke but I’m not so sure. Even “fresh” vegetables are more and more sold packaged, but more and more you will find what you want frozen. This mania for packaging extends to all other products as well, even pliers and screwdrivers, padlocks, and so on come shrink wrapped, often in plastic that is virtually impenetrable. This is a big topic, far too huge to continue here. I’m convinced these packagers will not be content until they have successfully packaged everything in the universe.

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