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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Food / Drink ... Society ... Zen ...

There’s a reflection on the evolution of ice cream into “frozen dairy desserts” in today’s New York Times Dining and Wine section. The “De Gustibus” column writer, Dan Barry, had a case-in-point with Breyers Ice Cream. In Mr. Barry’s younger days (which were also my younger days), Breyers was what a middle-class family bought for special occasions. It was real ice cream with lots of butterfat. Today, Breyers mostly offers concoctions of milk, corn syrup, whey, carrageenan and various vegetable gums; real ice cream is left to the high-cost snobs and “artisanal” producers such as Haagen Dazs, Ben and Jerrys, and Glace. Allegedly, the masses want cold stuff that is very sweet and very smooth, more so than the rich stickiness of high-fat ice cream.

And so “frozen dairy desserts” is mostly what they get, most of the time. As in the days when Breyers was real, most people still like to splurge now and then, and thus may stop at Cold Stone or pick up a quart of Turkey Hill premium. But more and more freezer space in the supermarkets is taken up by those “frozen desserts” (including some Turkey Hill offerings).

Mr. Barry regrets this trend. To be honest, though, I don’t. Sure, the big food producers are making a ton of money mixing up cheap ingredients (including thin air! modern quasi-ice creams are whipped to contain a lot of tiny bubbles) and selling them at a nice premium as to quench the public’s desire for something sweet, cold and smooth. But if people like it . . . well, what can one say? The market is big enough to still make room for real ice cream, along with variations that cut down on fat, sugar, and dairy contents (for veg-heads like myself; I rather enjoy Rice Dreams, Soy Delicious and Soy Good). Ice cream is definitely NOT undergoing a “market failure”; most local supermarkets devote a least one full 60 foot aisle to refrigerated dessert products.

Mr. Barry did make a comment in his article, however, that brought back another interesting memory from my younger days. In several of my past blog entries, I discussed author Robert Pirsig and his “thinking man’s best seller”, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. ZAMM was first published 39 years ago, in April 1974. One of the key themes which Mr. Pirsig focused his contorted life story around was the idea of “quality”. During his time as a college teacher, he set himself out to ponder the nature of “big-Q” quality. He spent a long evening and most of the night staring at the window, wondering what Quality — and life — meant. Love, truth, goodness, quality — lovely butterflies that you can see but can’t catch, admire but can’t control.

Later on, Pirsig tried to formalize his Quality ponderings into a systemic written examination of philosophical concerns, via a “Method of Quality” or MOQ. But he never caught the imagination of the public, nor of the academicians. It seemed as though he had betrayed the spirit of his reflections in ZAMM, thinking that he really could catch and utilize the elusive notion of quality to understand himself and the world. Zen itself sort-of teaches that words can’t capture these things. But Pirsig and ZAMM were never really about Zen.

So, I found the following sentence in Mr. Barry’s article somewhat ironic. Mr. Barry, in contending that the world is going downhill and the rise of frozen dairy desserts is just another sign of the coming of the devil, noted how Breyers has engaged in Orwellian double-speak. It has replaced the motto once found on its packaging, “all natural”, with Mr. Pirsig’s beloved word, i.e. “quality”. You’d think that Mr. Barry would be offended by the mis-use of Robert Pirsig’s sacred word. However, instead of bewailing the irony of using “quality” to describe the cheapening and debasement of the once-pure world of ice cream, Mr. Barry said that quality “is one of those impressive words that loses impact the more you think about it.”

Hmmm . . . quite the opposite of what Mr. Pirsig felt about “quality”. Robert Pirsig believed that quality was an apt metaphor and a summary of all that is (or once was) right in the world. Dan Barry appears to feel that it’s ultimately just as hollow as the stuff that corporate America tries to sell with it (including those airy frozen desserts). Yea, a lot has changed in the four decades since Robert Pirsig took that motorcycle journey across the heartland. Pirsig turned out to be mostly a “one hit wonder”, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is being forgotten. If Mr. Barry is right, ZAMM will not be remembered 100 years from now, and it probably won’t be showing up on any professor’s “great books curriculum”.

So, does the word “quality” really lack quality? Or has it just been so exploited by capitalist or political forces (including the owners of Breyers) that it has become hollow for us, despite the fact that ultimately there is or at least was some real significance to it? Is it thus not unlike like main-line religion? And democracy? Humankind finds words and concepts for the sacred, then wears them out. It’s great that it helps to give the common Joe and Jane the choice of hundreds of types of affordable frozen desserts. But how can and will we express and share our search for the holy, for true meaning in life, if anything and everything we say is craftily twisted to sell a product or make a politician king? (Or should we just “go Zen” and just stop talking about it all together?)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:43 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, You’ve set me to think of my dad again. He used to say that when a company produces something very good, they very gradually begin to skimp on it, and change it. Eventually, people don’t buy so much of it any more, and they come out with a “new and improved” version of whatever it was. Breyers seems to have gone that route, even if they are calling it “Quality” instead of “real” ice cream.

    Then too, I agree with you in that I’m always very suspicious of things that are “whipped” to make them smoother. All “whipped” means is that one is buying air.

    And I find myself wondering if your ZAMM idea of “quality” is not akin to my dad’s idea of (what he called) just plain “good work”. It seems that the concept of pride in doing an excellent piece of work, no matter how mundane the work may be, is a long gone idea. Case in point (and while I’m sitting here): I am constantly amazed at the fact that some time ago I bought a printer/ copier/ scanner, etc. It’s supposed to be one of the best on the market, even recommended by “Consumer Reports”. While it does work reasonably well, I find it cheap—to say the least—in so many ways. One can just see where money was saved on the product. Another instance of pride in work gone down the drain—perhaps because no one individual can look at it and say, “I made that”. And the company obviously has no desire whatsoever to “stand back” look at its products and say, “We are responsible for a really great piece of work going out to a lot of individuals who will use this for a long number of years.”

    I find myself wondering if this lack of pride in work started when the concept of obsolescence was introduced into the production of things used by consumers these days. Was it back in the 1960s or the 1980s? I don’t remember.

    As to your point about the influence of “capitalist and political forces”: I think of hearing Al Gore on David Letterman (he’s got nothing to lose any more politically) when he said that the Congress no longer works for the people but works for the lobbies who pay them massive amounts of campaign money. Now there’s an instance of “good quality work” for the people the congress person represents gone to the service of a particular group willing to hand out big gobs of money to the Congress person. This is not “frozen desserts” or even a product one can hold in one’s hands, but it’s an intangible work done for the people the Congress person represents. Even there (or should I say most especially there), where one would expect excellent work, the work is lacking in quality—to say the least.

    Seems no matter how one looks at it the concept of having pride in a good piece of work done well is long gone from our society in so many ways. MCS

    [MARY — one of Pirsig’s first examples of his “QUALITY” concept was a welding repair shop that did things right — they made a repair to his motorcycle with pride and skill, and only charged him a few dollars. So, Pirsig and your dad were pretty much on the same page. Jim G]

    Comment by MCS — April 18, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

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