Pre-Fab Fixe Dinner

This past weekend was the 81st annual National Restaurant Association's Restaurant & Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, the largest industry gathering of the year. More than 2,000 exhibitors pitched their products in almost 900 restaurant-related categories, and I think I saw every single display.

But truth be told, rather than showcasing delicious new foods, the event confirms what has long been my suspicion: Today's corporate eateries are dedicated to finding better, more cost-effective, more productive ways to separate diners from their dollars, taste be damned.

As Steve Martin says in the classic movie The Jerk when learning why it's okay to cheat customers: "Aaah. It's a profit deal." Valley diners, keep this in mind before spending your hard-earned cash at our large chain restaurants.

Restaurants are big business, certainly. Consumers this year will spend more than 45 percent of their food dollar away from home, says the restaurant association, a huge jump from the 25 percent spent eating out in 1955. The industry accounts for 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, and with 11 million employees, is the largest American employer outside of the government.

With so much money involved, it's no wonder that hype increasingly competes with food quality in big restaurants. Visitors to the show were stuck with stickers, laden with brochures and summoned carnival-style to discover the most exciting, cost-effective, time-saving deep-fried chicken wing cooker ever to hit the market. Flavor? Sorry, the wings displayed were plastic replicas, but if real food were involved, it probably would taste pretty good, the sales rep guessed.

Most vendors at the show were selling low cost and convenience, pushing ease and speed of preparation as primary concerns for restaurateurs looking to cut corners. It's unsettling to find that "cooking" at large restaurants is trending toward opening jars, bags or boxes and dumping their contents on plates. Yet the tone show-wide was undeniable: Prefab foods offer "100 percent yield," global taste consistency, shelf-life extension, and serving requirements so simple that no staff training is involved.

But do we really want powdered cappuccino or espresso from pre-formed "pods"? I spit out an "instant burger," prepared in just 25 seconds and tasting like sneakers. Even a childhood favorite now is considered too complicated -- I was sad to see the debut of Smucker's Uncrustables Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, pre-made, just thaw and serve.

Not all is lost, though. Scottsdale's own China Mist Tea Company was on-site, too, showcasing its new Green Star Iced Tea, in flavors of natural, kumquat and blackberry jasmine. This is honest, fresh-brewed tea, and it's delicious.

In the meantime, I'll only be eating "real" food at our local, chef-owned restaurants.

Some highlights of the conference included:

Best New Product: Freaky Ice alcoholic ice cream. "As simple as it is ingenious!" boasts this 5 percent octane sorbet. Available in four flavors (whiskey and cola, rum and cola, cocktail, vodka and energy), the treat was "tested for months by a critical audience at parties, who received Freaky Ice with enthusiasm." The test subjects, unfortunately, wandered off in the third month and haven't been heard from since.

Most Confusing Statistic: One prefab pizza manufacturer tells us that "Americans eat 350 slices of pizza per second." Each? No wonder we need faster food production.

Best Bait Headline: "Forks Kill!" Okay, it made me look twice. I was disappointed to find that it was just a clever come-on by the Institute for Nutritional Health telling us that "fork overuse plays a major role" in the 300,000 deaths a year caused by being overweight.

Best Product Slogan: "Proud to Be a Leader in Kitchen Grease Recycling," from National By-Products Inc.

Stats We Can Use: I guess. Food Industry News also tells us that in women, men prefer brunettes by 36 percent, followed by blondes at 29 percent. Favorite eye color is blue (44 percent), curly hair is considered more attractive by two to one, and, this one I do like -- only 3 percent want a girlfriend sporting the "preppy look." Hooters management, take note!

After Dinner Mint: A sign posted in The Hideaway of Cave Creek asks, "Wanna Treat Your Sweet to Some Meat?" If you do, join them for their Thursday night steak fry, served from 5 to 10 p.m., for just $8.95. I'm not vouching for the food quality, but the atmosphere is a biker-bar blast, with Harleys rumbling next to the small bar's wooden porch, and a flurry of hand-signed dollar bills decorating the ceiling.

 
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