Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy Halloween! (A Photo Essay)

THIS YEAR, Mr Bunches is:


And Mr F is:


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed just died, and I am thinking about an old mayonnaise commercial (Overthinking Stuff)

I never read "The Scarlet Letter," which I think puts me into a distinct minority in America, as I assume that almost every high schooler ever gets assigned to read the book.

But even with that, I am familiar enough with the storyline to understand the storyline in that commercial above, and what it means.  What I don't get is this:

Who hates Miracle Whip?

And hates it so much that there is a commercial built around the idea that they hate it so much?

And under what circumstances is it a good advertising move to say "Man, people REALLY REALLY hate this product, so, you know, give it a try." ?

THAT is what I think everytime I see this commercial, or the companion one where a bunch of people storm through the woods to burn Miracle Whip at the stake or something:

Those two ads are part of a $30,000,000 campaign that began in 2012, a continuation of a 2011 Miracle Whip ad blitz that featured celebrities (?) like "Pauly D" saying how they hate Miracle Whip so much that if a girlfriend of theirs liked it they would break up with her.

(Which sounds like a great reason to develop a taste for Miracle Whip, cultivating a desire for it so that one won't inadvertently end up dating someone from Jersey Shore.)

Miracle Whip is mayonnaise, and the fact that a company -- just one company of the 76 or so companies that make mayo in the United States alone -- can spend $30,000,000 to convince you that it's particular blend of oil, egg yolk, vinegar and/or lemon juice is the one to buy says a lot more about America than I like to think about, especially this early (6:39 a.m.) in the morning, because, remember, advertising money is profits that a company uses to generate more profits, which, put another way, means this: Last year, Americans spent at least $30,000,000 on Miracle Whip alone.  

This, from a country that thinks Armageddon was caused by requiring people to buy health insurance with government subsidies.

(In an ironic twist on that last sentence, if you google "How much money is spent on mayo in a year" you'll get a link to health savings account information at the Mayo clinic" as your first result.)

The actual numbers are worse, or better, depending on whether you make your living selling mayonnaise or simply despair that this country will ever get to a point where people don't have to be in debt for a year simply to take their family to Disney World (as Rusty Carl recently pointed out is what happens to 80% of America, presumably the 80% that regularly eats mayonnaise): according to a BusinessWeek article, one brand of mayonnaise alone sells $401,000,000 worth of egg yolks-in-a-jar per year. 

One brand. Remember, there are 76 different companies churning (probably literally) mayo out for your consumption.

That same article said that mayo is the number one condiment in the US, nearly doubling the sales of number two, salsa.

which then comes back to the question, who hates mayo so much that you could build an ad campaign around it?

I, personally, hate the idea of reading The Scarlet Letter, and the idea of "Pauly D", for that matter, more than I hate mayo, which I actually rather like, and which everyone actually rather likes, based on the fact that it's the number one selling condiment.  (A different kind of mayo, in fact, is number 4, so two of the top four, and $700,000,000 per year worth of buying power, are, in America, devoted to mayo.)

Among football teams, especially, there is often a motivational tactic known as Nobody believes in us: think of the New York Giants the year they beat the as-yet-undefeated New England Patriots* in the Super Bowl.  This is a phenomenon used often enough that sports writers comment on it when it crops up, especially to note that some teams seems to holler nobody believes in us when it's pretty clear that everybody believes in them.

That device, in turn, is akin to a straw man -- a fake target set up for the sole purpose of knocking it down, a rhetorical device in a debate.  If you, for example, wanted to make sure that a country which could spend $600,000,000+ on sandwich spread -- and $30,000,000 just to tell you which kind of sandwich spread to buy -- might also want to do something crazy, like ensure that people are not impoverished by treatable illnesses, you might argue that in a wealthy country like that, we can easily afford to spread the cost of health care around among people so that everyone gets some.  

Your opponent, though, might scare up images of 'death panels' and 'privacy violations' that need to be proven not to exist before people will dare even discuss how a society can guarantee a basic liberty for all its citizens.  That is a 'straw man,' and in this context, the idea that people don't like Miracle Whip serves as a straw man, of sorts.

Except that the people who make Miracle Whip seem to also be the people who don't like Miracle Whip.  Exhibit 1 in the Mayo Self-Loathing trial is that "Miracle Whip" refuses to call itself "mayonnaise."  Partly, that's because it isn't really mayonnaise, exactly, although what is mayonnaise, exactly, is open to some debate.

Nobody is really sure where "mayonnaise" comes from or what ingredients, exactly, make something "mayonnaise."  Wikipedia claims alternately that the salad dressing -- which is technically what mayo is, although I have never seen anyone put it on a salad-- comes from France, Spain, and London, the latter being a claim that a custard-making accident resulted in mayonnaise, which, in terms of accidental discoveries that benefit humanity, ranks pretty far below penicillin.

The best version of the story of where the name "mayonnaise" comes from is that it traces back to the Duke of Mayenne, who took the time to eat some chicken with cold sauce before losing the Battle of Arques in the "French Wars Of Religion."  Which might, in retrospect, be a very good reason to not just give Miracle Whip a try, because doing so might result in losing the siege of a strategic port, and France will win the religion wars and we'll all be praying in French.  Sacre bleu, mon dieu!  (Point of order: the notion that the French swear by saying Sacre bleu originates from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, who was a Belgian.)  

The basic ingredients of mayo are eggs, oil, and vinegar; after that, you can dress up the salad dressing any way you want, but you might be crossing some lines: add mustard, for example, and you've left Mayonnaise City and entered Remoulade-ville.  The put remoulade on hot dogs in Iceland, and now you know that.  (Add butter instead of mustard and you've got Hollandaise sauce.)

Mayo became commercially available in the US in 1907, and was so successful that some companies which originally focused on sandwiches eventually went to just selling the mayo they used to dress them up -- that's Duke's, from the southeast US -- but it would be 26 years before Kraft came up with the "less expensive" version of mayo, "Miracle Whip."  Kraft did this by using a specialized machine to whip together traditional mayo and something it called "boiled dressing."  The name comes from the device: the machine was known as the "Miracle Whip" because of the way it was supposed to perfectly blend the ingredients.  The bigger miracle may be that people don't realize it contains high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners, artificial sweeteners being the way food manufacturers get you to like their food so much you can't stop eating it.

In February, in this New York Times Magazine article, it was pointed out that one of the most common ingredients in spaghetti sauce is sugar:

 A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

Americans can be ignorant, but in America, ignorance is no longer bliss: sugared tomato sauce is.  (Sales of pasta sauces have doubled since the 1970s, and annually the industry rakes in $1,200,000,000 from people who, like me, cannot stand the thought of bare noodles.  Mayo, too, is meant to give pasta some modesty: most of the actual 'salads' for which it is dressing are things like pasta and fruit salads.)

(If you are keeping track, that's nearly $2,000,000,000 annually we Americans spend on just two kinds of condiments.)

Miracle Whip is also Miracle Whip because, legally speaking, it isn't mayonnaise at all: while experts disagree on what makes a mayo the real thing, the FDA says that you have to have at least 65% vegetable oil, and Miracle Whip doesn't measure up, so it can't say it's mayonnaise.  (Also, Miracle Whip was originally a low-cost alternative. Now it's about the same price as all other mayonnaises.)

That "boiled dressing" that Miracle Whip is emulsified with? It's a remoulade, according to most recipes that explain how to cook the Southern Dish.  Which means that to make Miracle Whip, you take mayonnaise and mix it with a mayonnaise-based dressing.  If you then use your Miracle Whip to make egg salad, as I do, and you then add mustard to that egg salad, as I do, you have created the sandwich equivalent of the Ouroborous.

As for the haters, while there's no doubt that some people hate Miracle Whip, Kraft loved the idea of getting people to hate it: the ad campaign was said to have generated over 98,000,000 page views when it first debuted in 2011.  

And the dressing may really be a miracle:  the spread is also used for polishing brass (it's the vinegar that does it) and is said to be helpful on burns and to remove dead skin from feet if you soak them in a tub of water and Miracle Whip mixed.  (Now try to ignore that notion when you make your next sandwich.)

The spread is an emulsion.  So is milk. Technically, an emulsion is a form of colloid that is always a liquid -- so Miracle Whip is a liquid, but just barely.  Soap uses the principles behind mayonnaise to get dirt out of your clothing.  

Despite its provenance as a benefactor for penny-pinching households -- as a cheap spread or cheaper way to polish the boss' brass-- Miracle Whip, and mayo in general, has a long history of siding with the 1%. Remember "hollandaise sauce," from above?  It's used in Eggs Benedict, a dish named for a hungover Wall Street broker who came up with it at the Waldorf hotel one morning in 1894.   

39 years later, when Kraft wanted to sell eggs to the masses for less, it bought the recipe for "Miracle Whip" from Max Crossett, paying him $300 for it.  Adjusted for inflation, Kraft would have had to pay $5,218 if Max had only just come up with his idea this year.  

The company behind the "Scarlet Letter/Keep An Open Mouth" ad campaign is McGarryBowen, an agency which has only existed since 2002 but which now brings in about $176,000,000 per year in revenues.  They've also created ads for Sears and Burger King (among others).  The idea behind the "Scarlet Letter" ads, they've said, was to make Miracle Whip seem not just "hip" (an earlier, "extreme" series of ads for Miracle Whip in 2009 drew derision [and free publicity] from Stephen Colbert) but sinful and decadent.

It's an interesting idea: pair up a generic-y mixture of eggs and vinegar with required reading, in order to appeal to the kids: a double-negative that maybe is intended to boomerang around and make them both cool again?  But it's not the first time Nathaniel Hawthorne's work has been co-opted by pop culture.  It's been mentioned (or rewritten) in numerous books and songs, including a reference from Metallica:

although they only refer to being branded with the "mark of sin."

Six operas have been made from the story, and it has been used as an easy reference by television shows and books, including a character adopting "Hester Prynne" as a pseudonym on Twin Peaks, at which point the brothel owner tells the character "I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, too, honey."

Like Miracle Whip, the book itself ended up being more beneficial to everyone who didn't create it:  Hawthorne was surprised by its success, but only made about $1,500 from the book itself.  That's $40,785 in today's money.

As for the letter itself? While it may seem harsh to force an adulterer to wear a letter on her chest, consider that the letter was created as alternative punishment: originally, the sentence for cheating was death, or at least a severe whipping: one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestors was a magistrate who had an adulterer publicly flogged.  Part of Hawthorne's motivation in writing The Scarlet Letter, scholars have said, was to help convince people that adultery was a private, rather than a public matter.

So now, today, I am thinking about a commercial that makes light of a punishment imposed by a society that felt so strongly about private matters that it would put people to death if they did not adhere to the popular morality.  That commercial used (no doubt, without compensating his heirs) a story written by a man who made very little off a book that 160+ years later is a staple of high school English courses.  It advertises a product bought for a pittance from a small restauranteur, a product for which we voluntarily give nearly $1,000,000,000 annually just to keep our sandwiches from being bland.

Lou Reed thought about this kind of stuff, too.  Here is his song, Strawman:

In it, he sings:

We who have so much to you who have so little
to you who don't have anything at all
We who have so much more than any one man does need
and you who don't have anything at all, ah
Does anybody need another million dollar movie
does anybody need another million dollar star
Does anybody need to be told over and over
spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard

Strawman, going straight to the devil
strawman, going straight to hell
Strawman, going straight to the devil

strawman, yes

Does anyone really need a billion dollar rocket
does anyone need a 60,000 dollars car
Does anyone need another president
or the sins of Swaggart parts 6, 7, 8 and 9, ah
Does anyone need yet another politician
caught with his pants down and money sticking in his hole
Does anyone need another racist preacher
spittin' in the wind can only do you harm, ooohhh


Does anyone need another faulty shuttle
blasting off to the moon, Venus or Mars
Does anybody need another self-righteous rock singer
whose nose he says has led him straight to God
Does anyone need yet another blank skyscraper
if you're like me I'm sure a minor miracle will do
A flaming sword or maybe a gold ark floating up the Hudson
when you spit in the wind it comes right back at you


I differ with Lou a little: I like the space program just fine.  But I'd say we don't necessarily need another reason to pick one of 76 different kinds of mayonnaise over the other.

Lou didn't, so far as I could tell, write any songs about mayo.  But he did write one about egg cream, so, close enough:

Lou's own songs get featured in commercials, too, like Perfect Day, which is used to advertise the Playstation 4:

Which some people say is about heroin, while others contend it talks about perfect, romantic love.  It's doubtful, no matter what you think, that he was talking about video gaming.


A quick word about Shadow Spinner, a novel that has been serialized by incredible author Andrew Leon:  this book, about a young boy who learns that he can manipulate shadows and has a connection to otherwordly beings, is a phenomenal read that calls to mind both Stephen King and Steven Spielberg.  While you can already buy the entire hardcopy book, Andrew is releasing e-versions in segments, and part two just went live on Amazon.

You can, and SHOULD, buy this book, immediately: it's incredible and amazingly fun to read.  PLUS, if you get the e-version, you'll get a bonus story from me: Augurs of Distant Shadow, which reinvents vampires as new gods who master scientific principles of energy manipulation.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

The other half of that trip to the Art Museum (A Photo Essay)

In all the non-excitement, I completely forgot about finishing up the post about the date Sweetie and I took to the Chazen Museum of Art.  I'd left off, remember, at this:

Cleverly titled "Still Life with Game, Fowl, and Vegetables." The era when artists could feel free to pain a bunch of realistic-looking dead animals has passed from the art world, and I say we are the poorer for it.  Then again, can you imagine if some 8th-grader painted that picture today?  We'd call her a plagiarist, is what. 

Here is a somewhat-blurry shot of the galleries as we walked through them:

This is a blown-glass sculpture, not far away from that mirrored glass sculpture I liked.  I think artists that work in glass are far, far more talented than other sculptors.

This is a piece I think of as the "Giant Jack."

I'm not sure what it's really called.

But it's VERY reflective:

More of the galleries.  In the first one of these photos, Sweetie had just walked around the corner, but in keeping with policy, I took a second shot that omits her.

Here's a big scary face.

(Probably not its official title.)

This piece is called "Bird."  It's from 1939, which is not a time I think of when I imagine modern-looking sculptures.

When I was a kid, I read tons and tons of comic books and science fiction and fantasy books -- probably almost literally, if you weighed them -- and drew picture after picture of people battling dragons and Vipers vs. Cylons and explosions and space shuttles and the like.  (I even once invented my own cartoon people, Snarks and Boojums.  The names I stole from Lewis Carroll).

My mom always figured that stuff would hold me back and wanted me to focus on more serious reading, lest I turn out to not be the first Doctor President Lawyer ever.

Now, I know that I could have stuck with that and had my work hanging in an art museum:

What looks like a series of spaceship drawings is actually ART! by Lee Bontecou, from 1966.  Surprise number TWO for me was that Lee Bontecou is a woman, which, okay, maybe I'm sexist but when I think of someone drawing spaceships for a living, I don't automatically think woman, and frankly, I blame society for that. \

Primarily a sculptor until she got married, Lee Bontecou began drawing and sketching once she settled down into family life.

Nowadays, Mr Bunches doesn't draw much, but he does make things out of blocks.  Yesterday, alone, he and I collaborated on a pirate ship, two laser-shooting spiders, and Mr. Fredrickson's house from Up!.  

And we carved pumpkins.  It doesn't matter how you are exercising your mind.  It matters that you are.

I'm out of time for today: Sweetie needs help getting the boys ready for school.  I'm heading up there.  More on this when I remember.

If you've got the time, check out Moon Mow Me Cheerios, my zombie-ish story that author Andrew Leon called "really good, but so so sad."  Here's an excerpt:

He comes as often as he thinks he can: a powerful feeling inside him makes him want to come here, to peer out of the bushes and creep up to the house and touch the aluminum siding and look at the patio table where the rust is painted over by…

…and to look in the windows, sure, and to hold his hand by the doorknob, wanting to test it, wanting to see if it would open, if he could pull the door open and go inside and walk upstairs on the carpet, turn the corner and see the bedroom with the Star Wars comforter…

…and to be warm, and cozy, and have a nightlight, instead of the moon, and a bookshelf instead of a tree branch and books instead of pinecones and the cat instead of sometimes a fox or porcupine stumbling across him…

What It Is Like To Sleep Later Than You Expected But Not As Late As You Wanted

It's only 7:23 a.m. on Sunday morning, and the sun, barely up, doesn't really help the light register as a day, yet: there is light in the sky but it's not the kind of light you would call day light.

More like pre-light.

Light anticipating the real light to come later on.

Let's be honest: you wouldn't be up yet, if you could have helped not being up, but let's also be honest, you've been up more or less since 5 a.m., less sometimes than more.

Five a.m.: a terrible time to be awake if you do not want to be. Morning news shows starting, Animal Planet shows about chimpanzees and killer whales, and an ostrich? You are propped up against the pillows, waiting for sounds that will wake you back up if you can fall back asleep.

Six a.m.: Not yet light outside.  Sounds from the boys' room. Stirring.  Mr F: he wants you to lay down beside him.

"Let's put in a movie," you say. The television is playing a Baby Einstein that gives them things to say in different languages. It won't hold your attention.  He pulls you by the ear to lay down by him in his closet.  You lay down by him in his closet.

6:10 a.m.: He is back asleep.

You creep quietly out of the room. You go back to bed. Sitting upright, eyes half open, propped up on pillows, wishing that all the sleep you did not get this week would come at once.  If they -- the people that do things -- can ever think of a way to pile sleep upon sleep, to have 8 hours of sleep layered on you instead of coming in waves, sleep piled up on you like blankets when you have the chills, what a miracle!

Seven a.m.: Mr F knocks on the door. He wants to be in the bed. He wants to be on the floor. He wants you to tickle him.  He wants to swing wildly back and forth nearly hitting the chandelier, motioning you away when you try to slow him down. He wants to spin and sing and smile and spin and swing and smile.

You want coffee.

Last night, you did not set up the coffee pot with water and grounds so that this morning you could simply hit the switch and brew it. You went to bed one minute earlier because of that, and now you will have your coffee one minute later because of it, a minute here a minute there a minute everywhere.

The last of the pills for your cough: it should be done today.  They taste terrible. You eat a black jellybean to mask the flavor left in your throat.

You drink some of the coffee, finally.

It's more... better if you turn off all the lights in the house and you and Mr F sit in the light that is neither light nor gloom -- it is something in between, neither hopeful yet nor dark still.

You want toast.

Mr F is slowed down now: he is on the chair, he has the blanket wrapped around him. He sits and looks at his bare belly, wearing only a pair of gym shorts, his belly is wrinkled and he watches it move.

You watch it move.

Upstairs: voices.

This part of the morning is over.