American Brands: In Praise of Average

This cup of Maxwell House in front of me is a perfectly balanced pre-breakfast drink all by itself. Funny, because yesterday I noticed its pecan notes pair well an afternoon piece of leftover chocolate birthday cake. Good to the last drop!

I predicted that  it would be alright to have around when I bought my first can of it in many years, back on March 12th. I even gave it that highest of consumer ratings, “It won’t go to waste,” but didn’t yet realize I’d be buying more and more of it – even after the unemployment benefits finally started.

It’s easy to remember Thursday, March 12th, 2020, because I manage a restaurant – a very good one – and Thursday falls on my weekend. I could already see the great shutdown coming, but we had plans: a mom, a dad, and a ten-year-old daughter, whom they pulled from school to come see us, so we weren’t going to cancel on them

I had an idea for a fun picture to take, to re-stage a family photo of my own mother from her childhood, with a round smile, surrounded by food. We always figured it was something her grandparents intended to send back to post-war Poland: Look how much plenty we enjoy.


Good to the last drop.

The shelves at my local supermarket that morning were more picked over than usual, and I felt the tension in the air starting to course through me. I reached for a box of Ronzoni spaghetti and grabbed three of them just in case.

I typically stroll through the coffee aisle without stopping: to my bourgeois but left-of-center taste, coffee is something you bought from a local roaster, or possibly from a food co-op with uplifting images of unionized-looking coffee bean pickers. But this photo needed some kind of coffee, and a plain brown bag wouldn’t do.

After some texting my mother told me my memory was off. There was no table full of food. That photo was merely one of her with a large loaf of bread in her hands. That’s the nature of memory – we might be remembering the point of the memory, then reimagining the truth to suit it – but I digress, and I’d already bought the Maxwell House.

Unpacking the groceries, I remembered what Andy Warhol, another Polish immigrant, said about Coca Cola: “What’s great about this country is that … the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too …. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

“Is that what’s great about this country?” and “Are Cokes really good?” are just two reasonable questions, but I get his point in the abstract. Any vision of the American cornucopia without classic brands would not be accurate, and one of their pleasures is in breaking bread with the rest of the country.

Convenience and cost are two more good things about national brands, and another pleasure is of course nostalgia: Nabsico Shredded Wheat tastes like childhood to me. I remember seeing, in a European History 101 textbook, a woodcut print of medieval peasants harvesting leeks, and hardly knowing what a leek was. You probably couldn’t find leeks in my suburban New Jersey town in the 1980s, but I’ve since learned a few things to do with them, and one is to chop and sauté them and dump soup stock over them – and if I add some dried egg noodles, then it’s suddenly like I’ve been eating leeks since at least the 1400s.

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 9.39.56 AM

“New Look: Same Great Taste.”

The connection, I’m seeing now, is deeper than nostalgia. It’s basic comfort – and I don’t just mean the warm feeling of a spoonful of Campbell’s. It’s the sense that the sky is up and the earth is down. I was not surprised to read last month that in Poland a no-nonsense style of restaurant from the Communist era is thriving right now: that would be my childhood, and my earth and sky too, if my mother’s grandparents didn’t have so much get-up-and-go.

It also seemed like lucky timing for Land o’ Lakes to finally move on from its Native American mascot this month, of all months – with panache, I might add. You can make demands when you’re in demand, and brands and the comfort they bring are indispensable right now.

Lots has been said about how much cooking and baking people are doing while they’re home on quarantine, and my family of two (plus cats) was no exception, till the quarantine wore us out. I’ve complained over the years about how foodie culture has ruined that oft-abused and misunderstood concept of hospitality, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, fussing over parsley when I could be listening, really listening, to friends I rarely see.

Now that we are all talking about what things will be like after quarantine – prematurely, in my case, since I don’t see restaurants being nearly the same for a while – I sense that a lot of us will have had the gourmand demon exorcised from us. We’ll be ready to get together with friends, and we won’t much care about the garnishes.

So when you finally get to entertain friends again, let’s not kill the fatted calf every time. And let’s not be too eager to show off our quenelle skills. Reach for cream of mushroom! Love them with luminescent Green Giant peas. And if you must show off with a homemade dessert, bless them with a shoofly pie made from the the holy trinity of Grandma’s molasses, Domino’s brown sugar, and Hecker’s all-purpose flour. And of course brew a fresh pot of Maxwell House.