Thursday 1 November 2007

All Lost in the Supermarket

Do you like baked beans? I mean, do you really like baked beans? Do you love baked beans, adore them in all their leguminous glory, revel in the luscious mouthfeel as your teeth meet each pliant kidney-shaped carapace? Then have I got the place for you. It's a little country I like to call "England."

Here is the baked bean section of an Asda Superstore I shopped at the other day:

A quick can-count suggests more than two dozen different varieties of baked beans. Of course, much of this is the same basic product offered by different companies. But there is a noticeable diversity in the product line. For example, there is the mildly fortified, as in the contents of this can:

Baked beans (or "beanz" in the jokey parlance of bean-king Heinz) with pork sausages. That's surely in keeping with the traditionally porcine nature of the product. (Other Heinz offerings include baked beans with vegetable sausages, Cumberland sausages or chicken nuggets. I didn't know what a Cumberland sausage was. It's made of pork but must differ in some critical way to a plain pork sausage.)

Then there's this:

Heinz Italian beans, or what the label describes as "baked beans with herbs." The serving suggestion shows a slice of Italian bread smothered in beans and what appears to be mozzarella cheese. A single uncooked bean, its head adorned with the laurel wreath of the Caesars, surveys his boiled, sauce-slathered legions. Beani, Beadi, Beaci.

This surely must be the zenith of the bean-maker's art:

"The Full Monty" is an entire English breakfast--bacon, sausage link, button mushroom, beans--in a single can.

You'll note that this is not a Heinz product. I'm sure that deep in the bowels of Heinz House, lab-coated scientists are even now concocting a response to this latest salvo in the bean arms race. Their mantra: If you can put an entire bean-centric breakfast in a can, why not, say, a complete dinner: shrimp cocktail, rocket salad, poached Chilean sea bass, tiramisu, beans.... Or, better yet, a cream tea: scone, strawberry jam, Devonshire clotted cream, beans....

I can see the slogan: "Heinz Mean Cream Teaz."

A Consumer Reports
I'm not going to be one of those Americans who kvetches about the lack of selection in British grocery stores. I'm in a different country. I should expect that I won't be able to find my particular U.S. brand of low-fat, salt-free, baked, sour cream-and-onion potato chips. The trade-off is that I will be able to find roast lamb-flavored potato crisps, something I've never seen in the States.

I am annoyed by one thing, though, and that's how hard British supermarkets make it for consumers to compare prices. Many shops have a little shelf label indicating the unit pricing, a staple at the Giants and Safeways of my homeland. But how how helpful are they? Here's one for a box of dishwasher soap tablets:

The box costs 6.78 pounds, or 22.6 pence per tablet. I wonder how that compares with another brand:

It's 9.72 pounds for a box. How much is it per tablet? Well, it's 10 pence per 100 grams. I'd have to take out my triple-beam balance and determine how much a single tablet weighs, then do a quick calculation. And even then I'd get it wrong, since I was an English major.

This was at Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, by the way) but I've seen the same obfuscating hijinks at other British supermarkets. Though Asda employees have the coolest uniforms (black and electric-green outfits that make them look like minions from a Bond film) my English friends tell me the chain is at the bottom of the barrel. I think the order, from top to bottom, goes something like this:
Marks & Spencer's Simply Food
Feel free to make your own suggestions. Where, for example, does Waitrose belong?

What a Treat
And how was Halloween? Great, actually. More trick-or-treaters came to our Oxford door this year--41--than came to our Silver Spring door last year. They were mostly dressed in homemade costumes. They were polite, fawning over our decorations (three flickering jack o'lanterns and a crepe-paper spider; modest by American standards), petting our dog and saying "thank you." A few of them didn't quite get it: They said "Happy Halloween!" after we opened the door rather than "Trick or treat!" But My Lovely Wife set them straight.

And I didn't see any overturned cars, burned-out rubbish bins or crucified Old Age Pensioners when I walked the dog this morning. Could the media have over-reacted?

One last thing: Check out this story from The Washington Post on how dentists dread the day after Halloween. This year they've dubbed it "Black Thursday" for all the damage it inflicts on braces.


Anonymous said...

Marks and Spencer, whose Oxford shop I knew quite well, undoubtedly has food of quality but you often have to pay extra for it.
Beans of all sorts are good for you, though not a surfeit of baked beans. Pythagoras advised his followers to avoid beans, for reasons which are not hard to find.
A cultivated friend of mine was a Waitrose regualar, possibly for its wines.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed a happy Halloween with no trouble and happy children, and I dare say that was probably most people's experience. However away from the screaming headlines the problem of anti-social behaviour at this time of year is real as this chat on the Home Office Crime Reduction website reveals

Unknown said...

Yes, the Brits and their beans - find it hard you could go on for so many words with out mentioning that staple of English cafes - beans on toast.

Which, I discovered, is quite tasty. As is the chip butty (buttie?), fried bread, and a host of horribly bad for you but nonetheless savory everyday English fare.

Erin said...

I'd put Waitrose a step above Tesco but below Sainsbury. We shop at a teeny tiny Tesco in central London and lack of selection was one of the biggest adjustments I had to make. Although we *do* have roast chicken flavored chips (crisps) that taste exactly like roast chicken and herbs...which is why they are pretty disgusting for a crisp.

Anonymous said...

Oh my, Waitrose is at the top of the list or just below M&S (M&S limited stock keeps quality high but you can't get everything there). We make a special trip to the Cambridge Waitrose whenever we rent a car--the lamb burgers are incredible.

Suburban Correspondent said...

The bean thing - is that residual from the post-WWII era, when no one had any other comestibles? Or do the Brits just truly have bad taste in food?

I haven't been able to touch baked beans since our unfortunate camping trip in the Shenandoahs during Hurricane Floyd (we forgot to check the forecast, okay?) with 3 kids and another on the way. In fact, I haven't even been camping since, either.

Although, with the recent hotel bedbug epidemic here in the States, I'm considering rethinking my anti-camping stance.

Anonymous said...

I'm becoming puzzled by the number of comments I've read by people from Washington complaining about things they encounter that are taken for granted in my nieghborhood. Prices, for instance: the shelf pricing in both of the large supermarkets in my town show the same confusion about unit pricing (not to mention just plain inaccurate math). Is Washington really that wonderful? I've taken to carrying a calculator everywhere.

John Kelly said...

I don't think Washington is that wonderful, but I do recall that the unit pricing is pretty consistent. Perhaps I'm wrong. And there's a lot I love about English stores (and food). I tucked into a nice English breakfast on vacation last week and one morning even had a kipper! It took me forever to eat that bony fish.

Unknown said...

Well, if you've had a kipper for breakfast, you should be ready to move on to a Scottish breakfast dish made with them - kedgery - rice, kippers, boiled egg, butter and spices. Lovely.

Anonymous said...

We had a huge turnout for Halloween in Woodside Forest this year.