The generic gourmet returns

Soaring food prices help cooks rediscover the money-saving goodness of supermarket store brands

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Generic ice cream from the 1980s.
Wikimedia

It was during yet another depressing recession. I was a broke fry cook and writer when I pitched an odd food-focused radio variety show to KGNU-FM. Born in the summer of ’82, The Generic Gourmet Show featured music, humor, news and affordable cooking ideas combining low-cost ingredients and scratch cooking. 

The show name echoed the short-lived, early-’80s  “generic food” phenomenon. Cans of peas, cartons of milk, boxes of crackers and even beer were offered in minimalist white packaging with black lettering, and only the barest amount of information and zero graphics. Supermarkets devoted whole aisles to generic goods. 

I liked the generic idea because it was Warhol-esque and also spotlighted the fact that we only bought Birds Eye and Green Giant because we were blanketed daily in advertising. 

The Generic Gourmet Show attracted the attention of a prominent Boulder literary agent. We shopped The Generic Gourmet Cookbook to major book publishers, but the economy was improving and generic goods weren’t always that tasty. 

Forty years later in the summer of 2022, rising supermarket and restaurant prices, inflation and supply chain worries have us taking a fresh look at generic’s grandson: store brands. 

Private or store brands have come a long way since the black-and-white days. No longer segregated in its own lonely aisle, store brands sit next to the famous name foods. That makes sense because they are virtually identical in quality and taste.  

Big-name food manufacturers produce store brands that compete with themselves. (Photo credit: John Lehndorff)

Ironically, the big-name food manufacturers quietly produce the store brands that compete with themselves. The store brands you’ll find in the Boulder area include Kroger (King Soopers, City Market), Great Value (Wal-Mart), Signature (Safeway), 365 (Whole Foods Market), Kirkland (Costco), Market Pantry (Target) and items at Sprouts, Natural Grocers and Trader Joe’s. 

In the past few months, I’ve visited local grocery stores and the price difference between the same name and store brand foods on the same shelf was truly stunning. Comparing some organic and natural food store brands, the savings was sometimes dollars. Store brands have expanded from cans to frozen appetizers and shrimp, spices, cheeses, plant-based and baked goods.  

And the taste? To my buds, there is little or no difference. Obviously there are artisan brands that are better and more expensive. 

If you are shaking your head side to side, do a side-by-side taste comparison tonight. Buy a name brand food and its store brand equivalent and serve them (minus any packaging). See if you can taste a difference and, if you can, is it worth the extra bucks?

Small changes make a big difference when you are trying to feed a family. Math is not my strong suit but I figure that simply switching out name brand for house brand on items you already buy you can save at least 15% on your weekly grocery bill.

The Nibbles Index: TV Diners

48: The percentage of Americans who watched TV during their last meal at home. Source: Datassential’s The American Meal report  

Local Food News: Even more Half Fast 

Boulder’s Le French Cafe is once again open for bistro dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings. … Opened in Boulder in 1996, the carefully pronounced Half Fast Subs sandwich eatery has opened a second shop near Colorado State University in Fort Collins. My Half Fast fave is The Gobbler, a festive hot sub layered with roast turkey, bread stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. … BOCO Cider has Bougie d’Pomme on tap—it’s the fortified cider equivalent of sherry. Boulder County apple juice pressed in ’21 was aged in barrels before being distilled into apple brandy and then blended with more apple and barrel-aged cider. … Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing is canning fall Pumpkin Spice Latte Nitro ale made with Boulder’s OZO Coffee. 

Rescue Fruit and Bears

Boulder-area apple, plum and other trees are full of fruit that often goes unharvested. This leaves edible food to rot and endangers bears attracted to the feast, usually close to homes. Community Fruit Rescue is a non-profit that uses volunteers to harvest the trees. The fruit is divided between the pickers, food banks and the tree owners. Any excess goes to feed rescued wildlife. To volunteer your tree or your time, contact fruitrescue.org.

Words to Chew On

“When you really pay attention to what all five senses are telling you about food, you might automatically start to eat in a different and more pleasurable way. You might eat less, but appreciate what you are eating more. You reconnect with your own body and its relationship with food.” —Bee Wilson 

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at KGNU.org). Comments: Nibbles@BoulderWeekly.com. 

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