The Easy Way Out

I read something this week that fits our Foodie Friday theme and ends the week with a stimulating thought. There is an ongoing flame war between Mark Bittman, a well-known food author, and Josh Ozersky, who is an award-winning food writer as well. The battlefield is Time Magazine and the subject is “industrial food.” If you’re interested in the blow-by-blow, you can read the articles here, but their conversation about our food system makes a broader business point in my mind.

Ozersky defends chain restaurants and other cooking shortcuts this way:

I think very few of us are in a position to eat all our meals cooked at home, using the “good” ingredients beloved by food writers. Rare is the household with only one person working, and usually long hours at that… We are Americans, and it’s very hard for us to extricate the way we eat from the way we do business, our kitchens from our counting houses.

PHEW!  I agree with the last half of that statement, but I think he’s missing the point, and it’s a good one to think about beyond food.  I must have spoken with a dozen young folks who are just starting out on their own about how easy it is to make versions in as much or less time of things they’d buy frozen or as take-out than it would take to buy, thaw, and “cook” the easy version.  It would taste better, it would probably be healthier (less salt for starters), and most importantly, would be cheaper.  To paraphrase Ozersky’s words, more of us really are in that position than we realize.  He thinks great ingredients aren’t available everywhere – he’s wrong, frankly – and that cooking them takes more time than any working folks have – wrong again.

That said, the issue isn’t about the easy way out in buying ingredients – in my mind, it’s that we all used to taking too many shortcuts.  We know that creating something is harder than buying something, and we confuse the availability of off the shelf, inferior products with a good answer to the problem. That’s the business point too.  Part of it is a lack of skill, part of it is a perceived lack of time and materials, part of it is fear.  I’ve encountered a number of people who do analysis by a machine or a spreadsheet and don’t have an understanding of what the reports mean although they can spit back what they say.  Others think the market is bad and accept bad deals in the name of feeding the revenue hunger.  If something goes wrong, blame the vendor.  As with the young person that eats fast or frozen food all the time, over time they have larger issues.

I love a good shortcut in the kitchen and in the office, but the easy way out at the expense of a quality product is unacceptable.  Rationalizing taking that easy way out as a necessary evil when in fact it’s a means to a lower standard and isn’t necessary at all is short-sighted.  In fact, the easy way out might not be easier than doing it right in the first place.

Let me know what you think.

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