The Snack and the Canelé
Thrilled and delighted to introduce Pâticheri’s first guest post, by grad school friend and fellow blogger, Michael G. Powell [presented here with many thanks to Michael and a bow to the inimitably delectable little slow-to-produce fast-to-consume snack that is the canelé].
The autumn before last, I took a trip with my wife to the southwest of France. I flew from Los Angeles to Toulouse, by way of one too many layovers. My wife, already in Europe, flew from Frankfurt directly to Toulouse. I remember vividly how good she looked when I landed; well-rested and happy, compared to my weariness and exhaustion. While waiting for my flight to arrive, she had stopped by a small airport cafe for a canelé—only in a Toulouse airport. A refreshment, just something to pass the time. I think she had a glass of rose wine, too.
The south of France is split in two. In the southwest is Provence. This is the Mediterranean side, where they cook with olive oil and eat more seafood. The wines are lighter and everything feels like sunshine, soft and luxurious. In the southwest is Dordogne. This is the Atlantic side, where they cook in duck fat and butter. The food is denser, but not heavy, like their red wine, the famous Bordeauxs. They eat cassoulet and preserve meats in fat as confit.
I could go on about the Dordogne, but what I really want to get around to talking about is what happened when I went home. After planning this journey for many months, I had to make a last-minute change of plans. Instead of flying directly back to Los Angeles, I took a two-day detour.
I had been asked by a major consumer packaged goods (CPG) company to participate in a brainstorming workshop to examine the products and the experience of a common grocery store department: the checkout.
A little bit of background on me, my training and my current occupation is probably in order. I have a PhD in cultural anthropology from Rice University, which is where I met our gracious blog host, Deepa Reddy. Following my time in Houston, I moved to Los Angeles and found work outside of academia, at a strategy and design firm that focuses mainly on food retail. In other words, I design grocery stores. We also work with convenience stores, restaurants and even a good number of other place-focused destinations, from urban districts to universities, an electric car company, a major motorcycle brand and others. But our most consistent clients are the grocery store chains of North America. We typically don’t work with the major players, like Walmart or Safeway, but the regional chains who need a more strategic approach to their market in order to compete with or simply survive Walmart.
So, back to this east coast CPG workshop: an alarming personal dissonance had emerged for me, not simply a result of jet lag. I think it began with group introductions. The moderator asked everyone to tell a story about a favorite ending experience. A major theme of our workshop was how the grocery store checkout, an ending, fit into the overall shopping experience. My thoughts turned to my recent trip to the Dordogne. So, prefacing my story with a warning that this might sound pretentious, I briefly explained how the French commonly complete their multi-course dinners in the southwest with a small glass of Armagnac, a brandy much like Cognac but made in much smaller batches from a different AOC. Others in the group talked about similar kinds of desserts, treats and indulgences.
What we wanted to figure out was simple: What to sell in this area? And why? At this point in a grocery shopping trip, the basics have been covered and the grocery list has been checked off. Maybe a snack? It has become customary to expect snack foods at the checkout, personal-sized food products easily and quickly consumable. These could represent small, private, even intimate experiences. Could checkout become a more meaningful destination, rather than a messy junk drawer of knick-knacks, candy bars, magazines and random stuff?
By the end of the day, the conversation had drifted away from personal preferences and towards business matters. Though expected, it felt like discord for me. One phrase stuck out in my head: “the velocity of cookies.” By “velocity,” they meant to describe sales volume as a function of time.
To look at food from the perspective of a CPG company or a grocery store is to reexamine the food world. Food retail is a low profit margin business that must focus its efforts on high volume sales. In America at least, the scale of food retail creates successful companies, not the richness or complexity of food products. This is critical, because food companies that sell large volumes survive: velocity iscritical. Yes, boutique and specialty shops exist, but they constitute a tiny fraction of American food sales. Farmer’s markets, for instance, represent less than 1% of all produce sold. I don’t dismiss these important smaller food producers and retailers, but I want to focus on the mainstream for now.
What was jarring to me was not the alienating business of a cookie’s “velocity,” but the strange juxtaposition of experiences—moving from slow to fast. Consider the canelé, a small French pastry, carefully crafted, with a soft, custardy center and a caramelized crust. And compare it to popular brand-name American cookies: hard-baked, homogenous, sugary and processed. This is not simply a matter of taste. Consider the occasions on which we eat, or could eat these small treats. Consider the large-scale social trends that impact the way people eat and the traditions of eating occasions. Before we condemn these major food companies out of hand, consider the relationships between eaters, daily schedules and the rituals of food largely outside of their control. This is not an apology for the food industry, but an evaluation of how people actually live. Consider whether we want cookies to slow us down, or whether cookies are just trying to keep pace with us.
For starters, consider the snack.
In relatively plain numbers, the frequency of snacking appears to be on the rise in America. Using the acknowledged problematic definition of the snack as “consuming one or more food and beverage item, including plain water, at one sitting,” a Department of Agriculture study found that 56% of Americans claimed to have eaten snacks three or more times daily in 2007 and 2008. That’s up from 42% in 2001-02, and just 11% in 1977-78. Further, Department of Agriculture researchers found that the percentage of children reporting they had eaten three meals on the previous day decreased over those years, while those reporting they had eaten a snack rose by more than 40 percent.
Americans consumed $68.1 billion in packaged snack foods in 2008, up from $60 billion in 2004, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer research group.
Global market research firm NPD forecasted that the number of in-home snacking occasions will increase by 19% from 2008 to 2018, and snacking visits at fast-food restaurants will grow by 9% from 2009 to 2019, outpacing the expected 8% overall growth of the restaurant industry.
Recognizing this growing frequency, how can we understand what the snack is?
According to market research firm Mintel International Group, 62% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 consider french fries or onion rings snacks, compared to just 35% of those 65 and older. In other words, younger Americans may have a more expansive definition of “snack” than older Americans.
Is this all just a matter of collective personal preference? Something in the air? How to explain the snack, its emergence, evolution and ubiquity?
Consider “the snack” as a cultural form. What are its outlines and parameters? What are its rules? Did it ever have any?
If one solid rule exists to define the snack, it is simply this: a snack is an eating occasion that occurs in-between meals.
But after that rule, the snack becomes much more challenging to figure out. As I see it, there are two basic categories of snack: traditional snack occasions and random snack occasions.
Traditional snacks are culturally-prescribed social events, like afternoon tea and Elevenses in the UK, Merienda in southern Europe and “second breakfast” in Bavaria. Random snacks are biological or psychological necessities that help us deal with stress, boredom or tiredness. These are not social occasions, but individual or personal occasions: grabbing a cookie from a plate in the office kitchen, eating a muffin at Starbucks, stopping by a vending machine, a bowl of oranges on the kitchen table, recharging with an iced coffee, etc. For most people, these occasions emerge seemingly at random during the course of a day. They typically feel like necessary sustenance or maintenance, occasions for returning us to some normal or functional state.
Yet, all eating occasions have cultural implications. As far back as the late 19th century, anthropologists described the cross-cultural codes of eating, which distinguish us as human beings. As Garrick Mallery wrote, in American Anthropologist, July 1888:
Brutes feed. The best barbarian only eats. Only the cultured man can dine. Dinner is no longer a meal, but an institution.
Mallery’s description of “barbarians” and “savages” is mostly a fiction. But he makes an interesting and imaginative point about the evolution of structured eating occasions:
- Anciently (and still in the lower stages of culture) no regular hours for meals were observed. The avocations on which subsistence depended were spasmodic, at least in success, or periodic, in terms of seasons, not hours. Savages eat when they can get food and continue to eat so long as the food lasts. The history of civilization, as shown in the establishment of regular pursuits, division of labor, and inventions (among which improved artificial light is important), may be traced in the changing hours of refection.
The meal, and the structure of eating throughout the day, is a social construction. It has, or should have (or did have?), rules, customs and rituals. This is what makes a meal a meal. Similarly, anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about the possibility of “Deciphering A Meal,” like a language or a code, patterned over the course of the day, the week, the season and the year.
So then what is a meal? Because a snack is clearly a food eating occasion that happens in-between meals, you can’t figure out what a snack is unless you know what a meal is.
Mary Douglas never defined a meal, because it’s relative to a social context. Based on the work of Louis Dumont and Adrian Mayer, Douglas suggested that a hierarchy of meals and meal occasions exists that reflect social hierarchies. So, by carefully tracking eating occasions and habits, Douglas hoped to find an underlying relationship between eating habits and social structures. She created a system to guide researchers in their recording, examination and analysis of eating occasions. When she created a classification for “snack” it referred to highly ritualized occasions, like “afternoon tea” and “nightcap.” And then there is a non-category of eating, which Douglas referred to as “nourishment.” She accorded nourishment a lowly status, not even giving it a proper research code. She called this kind of eating “outside…categories.” Nourishment is a biological necessity that gets us to the next meal. But, “if likely to interfere with the next meal, such eating is disapproved.” There is something basic, biological and even animal-like about this concept of nourishment.
But Douglas’s category of “snack” doesn’t exist in America. Today, what she calls nourishment has become the basis of our notion of the snack. We have few, if any formal snack occasions, like England’s afternoon tea.
Has nourishment been elevated to a new status?
Maybe not. Perhaps the meal has been downgraded, displaced, relegated to the category of “when convenient” but hardly perceived as necessary. If a snack is an eating occasion that happens in-between meals, it is inseparable from daily meal patterns. So if the meal is in crisis, then that might make sense of our anything-goes attitude to snacks. In other words, the breakdown of structured meals may have thrown the snack into disarray.
Miriam Weinstein’s book The Surprising Power of Family Meals provides a portrait of the meal in crisis. Based on a wide array of epidemiological, sociological, anthropological and psychological research, Weinstein suggests that the loss of family meals, especially the practice of eating dinner together as a group, is correlated to all kinds of negative outcomes for kids, relationships and health. Admittedly, it’s a nostalgic book that speaks to nostalgic people. But Weinstein asserts a critical social fact, too. She tells stories about families who never eat meals together, families whose parents cook dinner and then retreat to the bedroom to let their kids eat what they want and families that don’t even own a kitchen table.
Weinstein criticizes snacking. Citing a Harvard economists’ study linking snacks to the obesity epidemic, she states, “we haven’t dramatically changed the amount that we eat at meals. We have, rather, increased the amount we eat between meals. Food is now available everywhere, all the time.” The report, authored by David M. Cutler (et al.), was published in the The Journal of Economic Perspectivesin 2003, and simply posed the question: Why have Americans become more obese? Focusing on a calorie-intake perspective, the authors argue that “the increase in caloric intake [in the American diet] is because of greater frequency of eating, not eating at any one sitting…the number of snacks in the typical day increased dramatically over this period [from 1977-79 to 1994-96].”
Weinstein has a term for the new habit of constant snacking, which she takes from a dietician: grazing. Grazing is an interesting word, the practice of leaving animals out to pasture to feed all day long on a field of grass. We have the freedom to consume as much food as we like, available at relatively low prices. Another apt metaphor might be scavenging. There is a sense of disgust that lingers in some snack occasions, because we know—and even joke about—how unhealthy this is. There are few prescribed limits to these eating occasions, they rely almost completely on our personal preferences.
We snack alone: at our desk, in the car, standing in front of the sink or while inspecting the contents of our refrigerator. If you spend as much time as I do inside the convenience stores of North America, you would see a lot of people choosing single-pack treats, opening them as they leave the store and consuming them in the parking lot. This is not tea time.
So should we all stop snacking? I would forcefully argue no. But what are the alternatives?
Nostalgia for the family table and other traditions is nice, but it does not seem like the only solution. New rituals can emerge, rituals that could be more relevant to the way we live now.
People are consistently on the move. We live in the era of the snack. But we don’t have to accept the randomness and anti-social nature of the snack. There are opportunities for more social snacks, or for the snack to develop into an a new, more unexpected cultural form. Imagine informal snacks that are more social, yet also unpredictable. Imagine all of the ways that snacks could engender new possibilities for relationships, as well as unanticipated conversation. Imagine a snack that is not simply nourishment or escapism, but exploration and learning. At the very least, one question should be posed more often: What is a snack?
June 25, 2012 Addendum: Canelé or cannelé? There seems to be at least some confusion over the correct spelling of this finicky little French pastry. Some say the canelé recipe is proprietary. Others say it’s not, that the use of the “double n” is an enduring spelling error. “Canelé” seems normative, so I’m finally going with it. After all, so what if it is proprietary? Consider it free play with cultural forms!