12 May 2011

Taste of Penn Part I: Overview

In order to generate student enthusiasm/democracy in choosing the vendors for next year's Penn Dining program, Bon Appetit (our caterer) decided to sway all the current people on a dining plan with this huge food-free-for-all. To the typical student, it was just a mountain of samples. I noticed that a lot of students actually were paying attention to the vendors' speeches, although most just walked around, picked up samples, and left. Of course, it was a subtle advertising gimmick because JT, who complains about Commons food--okay, don't we all--, said that "this would be the only reason I'd get a dining plan next year", which of course is a hyperbole, but it still shows how stealthy/skilled businesses are at manipulating us.

The theory was that students would sample food from vendors and choose the ones that they wanted in next year's dining halls. Because I have connections went to a "student focus group/give your opinions of the dining plans" dinner a few months ago, I had the marketing manager's email, so I contacted her about the list of caterers because I really couldn't remember them all. She emailed me back with this list:

Against the Grain, Applegate Farms, Organic Beef Stadium Hot Dogs, Barilla, Dr. McDougall's Right Foods, Flint Hill Farm, Food Should Taste Good, General Mills, Jack and Jill, Kegel's Produce Incorporated, Kellogg's, Kiss My Face Corporation, Lundberg Family Farms, Market Access Culinary, NuGo Nutrition, Pulmuone Wildwood, Inc., Rockland Bakery, Smithfield, and Springfield Creamery/Nancy's.

There was also a Danish bakery (with a Danish name that I can't recall) that didn't have its name on the list.

The ones in bold are the vendors with whom I talked (yes, discussions happened.). The ones that are italicized AND bold are links, meaning that I'm going to make a separate blog entry about them, because I spent more than 5 minutes talking to them, and they showed me some interesting perspectives in the food marketing world (why am I a Biology major? Why am I not transferring into Wharton?).

I didn't bother talking to every vendor because
1. Applegate Farms, Organic Beef Stadium Hot Dogs, and Smithfield had animal flesh products.
2. Barilla sells pasta. There is always Barilla pasta in my house for some reason. It's not that novel for me.
3. Food Should Taste Good's representative wasn't present at the table so I just grabbed some chips and moved on.
4. Jack and Jill had one representative who was occupied with scooping ice cream for other people. Jack and Jill is currently the ice cream vendor in all of Penn's dining halls. A few months ago, I checked the ingredients list on its website and pretty much every flavour has HFCS (speaking of which, I will blog about my Nutrition paper later) and, again, ice cream like this isn't exactly novel.
5. Kiss My Face Corp. isn't a food company. I just took the free lip balms and soaps.
6. Kegel's and Market Access Culinary... I know one of the vendors in the list is responsible for making the fries at our dining halls, and I suppose it's either of these two, but I can't remember. I did ask how they make waffle fries, and the representative said something about using a special type of potato cutter, but it was pretty vague.

So now, I will talk about the vendors in bold.
1. Against the Grain - gluten-free bakery products.
Using tapioca and other flours as a base, the gluten-free baked goods by Against the Grain were amazing! The quality of the raisin bagel and cheese pizza were really high, and honestly tasted like wheat flour bread! Sure, it was a little dryer, dense and glutinous, but the overall flavour and texture was strikingly similar to wheat flour baked goods; there were holes, the bread was squishy, and it could be toasted! While I was chewing my bagel piece, I listened to the representative talk to two other girls about gluten-free baking. One of them asked whether a gluten-free diet was healthier compared to a gluten-including diet. This was the moment I was waiting for! I wanted to see how the representative would answer this question. Would he lie and say that gluten-free foods are healthier, in order to sell his product? Would he claim that gluten makes us fat? Would he say that gluten is a nasty chemical?
He said something along the lines of, "Well, celiacs are allergic to gluten. You know, some people say that gluten-free is associated with [certain health stuffs], but there really isn't enough scientific evidence to say for sure".
Now that's what I want to hear.

2. Flint Hill Farm
The representative showed us a video of cows and fed us some cheese and buttermilk. I don't think that I like buttermilk (I've never had it before)... The mozzarella was pretty good, and Flint Hill Farm apparently supplies the mozzarella in my sandwiches when I get Express at the dining halls. I don't recall much, but there was a lot of clutter on the desk advertising the farm...

3. General Mills
I was unaware that I was at the General Mills table when the representative offered me some oat bars. There were two types; the original soft-baked one, and a chocolate chip one. Both were pretty standard. I asked him what made his company stand out, and he said "well, all the brownies in your dining hall come from us, using this brownie mix here, and these bars come premade; all you have to do is bake them."
So our dining halls don't actually make the desserts from scratch. Not cool, in my humble opinion.

4. Kellogg's
Apparently Kellogg's makes the black bean burgers at the dining halls. I ate a sample of quesadilla with a mashed-up-black-bean-burger-patty filling, which kinda defeats the purpose of it initially being a burger patty. The representative offered me a recipe that I declined.

5. Rockland Bakery
To further ruin my impression that the dining halls make their own desserts, I learned that Rockland Bakery basically makes all the baked goods beforehand, and our dining halls just bake/defrost them. Also, apparently Rockland Bakery makes cherry cheesecake and lemon bars, which I have yet to see in our dining halls! What is it with feeding us hard sugar cookies instead of cherry cheesecake!? In response to "What makes your company cool?", the representative told me, "Well, we supply all of your desserts". Sigh. I did tell her that I loved the key lime pie that they make, but she looked at me skeptically and said "Uh huh." and offered me more dessert.

6. The Danish Bakery
I'm not super fond of danishes with jam in the middle, but the one I had was ridiculously buttery and flavourful. The jam was pretty tart too, and everything was so flaky I was scared that I'd end up having to eat the pastry with a spoon. When asked "What makes your company cool?", the representative told me that all the butter comes from Denmark (pastries are shipped here frozen), where the cows are fed a ton of grass and such and are therefore super fat. All that milk from the cows also comes from the winter, when the cows are even more fat, making the butter super fatty, flavourful, and nutrient dense (compared to other butters, of course). I don't know how truthful this all is, but the danishes were definitely pastry, not bread. Rockland Bakery danishes taste like smooshed dense white bread with glaze and jam. This company's danishes taste like flaky pastry with a nice crispy sugary touch on the exterior, and more airy pastry in the interior.

The other vendors will be the topics of other blog entries.

If I ever become a food writer/critic/socialite, this is what I envision my job to be: going to trade
shows/expos/food sample events and just taking free stuff. However, chances are that I'm just gonna be working in a lab.

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