The Chef and I

Let me describe the enemy in detail. First, this is the enemy of my attempts (and repeated failures) to stick to a diet. The particular enemy I am about to profile is just one out of many such enemies. I have chosen this one because this enemy has a number of characteristics that make him perfect for the experiment I am about to embark upon.

This enemy invites me at a moment’s notice to pull the tab on the easy open lid – proudly noted by red text in a yellow band that runs the entire circumference at the top of the can. It proudly states: ‘EASY OPEN LIDS ARE BACK’ twice around the perimeter, each instance of text followed by an arrow pointing upward, just in case the consumer is unaware that lids are typically found on the top of cans.

The fact that ‘EASY OPEN LIDS ARE BACK’ is on the label at all seems to indicate that some fool thought it a good idea to remove them at one point – probably the new guy who thought he could save a penny a can by switching to a more traditional can top that opened with a can opener. The announcement of this feature’s return, which means customers no longer have to exert any energy to find a can opener, takes up a lot of real estate on the label. In advertising, that label is the ‘slinky black dress, pumps, and push-up bra’ that makes the product stand out amidst the competitors to each side on the supermarket shelf and every square inch on that label matters.

That label is not an afterthought: perhaps more thought has been given to the label than to the ingredients.

Let’s pretend that some guy, let’s call him Barry, came along and convinced executives that by saving a penny per can, they could increase revenue by 10 million dollars per year. Barry was persuasive, as anyone rising to such a position would be, and money talks.

What Barry didn’t understand completely was his customer. Barry’s product was designed to be taken out of the can, heated on a stove top, or more likely these days, a microwave, put on a plate, and eaten. After the change, as sales plummeted and the dreams of multimillion dollars of revenue disappeared, Barry realized – just before he was escorted out of the building by security, carrying a cardboard box with pictures of his kids and that autographed baseball he kept on his desk – that his mistake was not knowing a huge segment of his customers had skipped the unnecessary, though perhaps civilizing, steps involved in heating and plating his product.

Instead, they just ate it straight out of the can.

Soon after Barry’s departure, the factory was retooled at some expense back to handle the easy open lids, and the label redesigned to herald its return so that the customers they lost would abandon that competitor on the shelf that also had the easy open can – the tipping point for that market segment’s product choice.

Now that they had parity again with their competitors on convenience and could again compete for the ‘eat-out-of-the-can-standing-up’ market segment, they could now compete on quality. Honestly, Barry could be forgiven his mistake. I’m sure he had based some of his pitch to the executives on market research – but how many people are going to admit that they regularly eat the stuff out of the can?

That’s the problem with market research. What people say and what they do are very different things sometimes.

Now with that crisis passed, the company had the opportunity to get back their lost market share – and maybe more – because, for the market they targeted, they had a good product.

First, they had name recognition. I can’t imagine anyone born in the last 80 years who has participated in the swirl of American popular culture NOT to be familiar with the name. They might also be hard-pressed to come up with the name of a competitor. The product also had a real person behind it, though that person might or might not cringe at what is being sold with his bastardized name on it these days, he probably would be proud and amazed at his immortality on store shelves 30 years after his death.

Second, they had a product that promised meat, pasta, and tomato sauce without needing an Italian grandmother toiling over a hot stove all day. For one US dollar, you could have the product of that grandma – or at least an approximation – with the pull of an easy open lid and a fork. Add an extra 3 minutes to heat, a plate, and glass of wine and you’d be that much closer to having that grandma – without the necessity of remembering to buy her presents on her birthday, remembering to visit her regularly, and not have to call to say hi and the discussion always being about how you never call.

The product is Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli in Hearty Tomato & Meat Sauce. The name ‘Boyardee’ is the most prominent word on the label. The second is the word ‘overstuffed’, done in a font that is designed to appear to be bulging itself to emphasize the point that these raviolis aren’t some stingy store-brand ravioli filled with a miserly smear of meat but they are packed with almost dangerous proportions of the beef you blood-lust for.

To make this point yet again, the label also shows an actual specimen of these overstuffed ravioli, appropriately covered in a handsome layer of sauce, cross-sectioned to prove the vast quantity of meat contained within, and placed upon a fork facing the viewer as if it is about to leap from the label and enter your mouth.

For weeks now, I had been craving this stuff and not knowing why. I hadn’t eaten it in maybe 25 years? It wasn’t a staple of my diet at any point in my life. I had it occasionally as a kid but it never made my grocery list when I began to do my own shopping.

Yet, for reasons unknown to me, I was haunted by the desire to consume a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli.

I did. And you know what? It was awesome. The label did not lie. The raviolis were generously stuffed, the sauce was perhaps a bit too much in proportion to the pasta but it was flavorful and sweet – and I was sure to consume all the tomato sauce in the can.

It was an almost perfect example of processed food. The food technologists who designed this perfectly engineered faux food did a wonderful job of balancing the flavors and textures. I was part of that market segment that used only can and fork – who needs heat and a plate? It was delicious anyway.

The bastards.

I’ve begun thinking about hunger again. Why are so many of us powerless to our hunger while in other spheres of our lives we can have tremendous resolve, self-restraint, and control? Why do we eat when we really aren’t hungry? Why do we eat things we’re not really enjoying all that much? Is variety our friend or our enemy?

I want to explore all of these in more detail, but I needed to do something today, as my diet has been an abysmal failure and I seem helpless to do anything to change course.

So today on my way to work I bought another can of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli in Hearty Tomato & Meat Sauce. I briefly thought of buying two and eating one in the car because I was hungry – but then realized that sorta defeated the purpose of what I was attempting to do.

When I got to work I put it in front of me next to my computer so that it would never be out of sight.

It’s ‘sleeping with the enemy’. It’s ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. If I wanted to I could have that easy open lid easily opened and the first tomato sauce-covered ravioli in my mouth in less than 10 seconds.

It’s been 5 hours, however, and the easy open lid remains unopened.

The premise here is I don’t have to crave for anything – it’s right here in front of me. I can have it anytime I want.

But since I have it – I don’t crave it.

Does that sound strange or what?




One thought on “The Chef and I

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