Thursday, July 19, 2012

Never Buy Whipped Cream

Water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (including coconut and palm oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, and less than 2% sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, and beta carotene (as a coloring).

Or nonfat milk, cream, sugar, corn syrup, maltodextrin, inulin, (chicory extract), cellulose, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 80, artificial flavors, carrageenan, with nitrous propellant.

Or whipping cream or heavy cream and a little bit of effort.

The next installment in my internationally acclaimed (on the internet now, so it's true) series about food to never buy in the store for various reasons, is whipped cream. One of the biggest challenges American convenience food producers faced in developing their products is that most food doesn't have a shelf life. It comes from a plant or an animal that has been killed, and the second that living thing dies, it begins to degrade. The longer its dead, the less of what makes it food, instead of trash, remains.

Humans throughout history have been dealing with this problem and have solved it in various (and sometimes delicious) ways. Salting, smoking, and fermenting came first, followed eventually by freezing and pressure canning. However, all of those techniques have limitations, and once you add in the desire to grow the food in Nebraska, process it in Pennsylvania and eat it in California, the challenge becomes that much greater. The chemicals and procedures become more drastic, and, as a result of those chemicals and procedures, the amount of sodium and sugar you need to add to the food to make it taste like food becomes even greater. Though we can forgive early food scientists their ignorance, it's now clear our food system is creating at least as many, if not more problems than it solves.

But in some ways whipped cream stands out. It is air and cream and, as you can imagine, a fragile mixture of the two does not keep well. The first list of ingredients is for Cool Whip and the alphabet soup at the end of the ingredients list are the chemicals needed to make it seem “whipped.” The second list is for Redi Whip, which uses nitrous oxide, to essentially whip the contents as it distributes them. In truth, the convenience whipped creams aren't nearly as terrifying as I feared; the stabilizers aren't particularly bizarre so the only stand out is the corn syrup. But as with all food convenience food products, both of these promise to save you tons of time. Because of them you'll have to time play with your children or something, but if you've got a hand mixer, those products save you five minutes at best. (And, if we're talking about quality time with the kids, you can totally make them do it.) They save a bit more time if you have to hand whip the cream as that requires a whisk and damn near ten minutes of vigorous whipping, but most of us could use the exercise anyway.

Not only does the whipped cream you make from scratch taste better, it can taste anyway you want it. We add some confectioners sugar and vanilla extract, which is delicious, but you can add pretty much any extract. Almond. Hazelnut. Mint would be very nice. You could also add a little brandy or Cointreau or some other liqueur. If you're about to top a pie, grating some nutmeg in might be lovely. Or you don't have to add anything at all. If you're not a fan of sweets, don't add anything sweet. Once you decide to not open a tub, you're free to flavor pretty much any way you want.

There's a lot of talk about freedom these days, which is somewhat ironic to me, given how many Americans pay for convenience with their personality. For some reason, the ultimate American expression of freedom has become owning a gun you have no use for and making a bad decision about health insurance.

But with food, we're willing to trade our individuality for a couple of minutes of saved time. We choose pre-packaged, homogenous foods over stuff we could easily make from scratch, ceding our “individuality” to massive corporations many of which (Unilever, Nestle) gasp! aren't even American owned. According to our blog commenting selves, it's all about personal expression, but at dinner time it's all about convenience and familiarity. We can do whatever we want, but time and time again, we eat McDonald's or Applebees, instead of asking our smart phones for something different. What does it mean to be free if you're going to wear the same clothes, read the same books, watch the same shows, and eat the same food? Is true freedom, the freedom to just book a Disney tour and cede the experience of a foreign culture and nation to a corporate monolith? Does freedom come with any responsibility to use it? And if not, if we do have the right to let somebody else handle the cooking for us, if freedom also means, choosing to be free of responsibility, why exactly, are so many of us, so angry, about a healthcare bill that does no more than gently prod a few million Americans into a responsible decision? Or is this just another example of Americans wanting all things all of the time, without shouldering or even confronting the burden of creating all of those things all of the time?

Sure, whipping cream takes a few more minutes than opening a tub or depressing an aerosol nozzle, but if freedom and individuality are so damn important in this country, I'm pretty sure those few minutes are worth it.

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