#popculturefoodie episode 1: The Casserole

Today kicks off the start of my new weekly series called #popculturefoodie. Each week I will be discussing the history and popularization of iconic American foods.  Today’s installment is “The casserole”.


tater tot casserole

The casserole a staple on the American dinner table since the 1940’s. A dish that’s serving up deliciousness during its prominent hundred year run with Americans from providing a quick and nutritious meal for the family to finding a way to utilize the plethora of left over’s and random items in the pantry to the ability to “not screw up the meal if cooked wrong”.

The history of the casserole spans back to prehistoric times where it was discovered that cooking food slowly in a tight covered vessel could help to break down meat structures and soften vegetables and roots. In modern times, the first casserole recipe was found in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) and was a two-ingredient recipe of rice and meat to be steamed for forty-five minutes and served with a tomato sauce.

While many of us only remember the casserole from re-runs of Leave it to Beaver and the Brady Bunch (sorry millennials for the GenX references), the casserole roots in America run deep. The history spans back to The Great Depressions of the 1890’s & 1930’s where it was first seen as a way to stretch meat, fish and poultry and anything else they could find. It was a dish that could easily be made with whatever ingredients when food was scarce during WWI and the stock market crash of the 1920’s.

It wasn’t until after WWII that the American housewife transformed this once boring and rudimentary dish into an iconic American classic. Casting canned tuna and canned pea wizardry with the creation of the tuna noodle potato chip casserole bonded together with the introduction of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup (a necessity to be kept in the American pantry) in 1934. This versatile can of amazingness can be held accountable for numerous casserole favorites to include the Tater Tot Casserole (cream of mushroom soup + ground beef + tater tots) and the infamous green bean casserole that is a requirement for every Thanksgiving Day table.

While the traditional casserole that we all think of tends to be pretty “Americanized”, many immigrant variations were also introduced to the American cooking scene in the 19th century as they brought their local flavors and traditions with them to the new world. These traditional dishes evolved into regional favorites as the melting pot truly combined at the turn of the century and now can be seen across the US in various forms.

The New England stove traditionally held a mixture of baked beans and molasses, and on the coast, Yankee Oyster Pie was born as a popular favorite utilizing the abundant ingredient and traditional flavors of the original British Settlers with it’s multiple layers of oysters, oyster crackers and lots of butter, cream and Worcestershire sauce.

In the South, jambalaya could be smelled cooking and other Irish, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and South American flavors were modified and adapted to accommodate a large supply of shrimp, seafood and other items prevalent in southern cooking.

In the end, the casserole is a great way for the average cook to make something extremely yummy in the kitchen without much training and fear of overcooking. In recent years there have been many attempts to make the casserole “healthy” or “allergy free” with new variations, but I will take my mom’s tuna noodle casserole any day of the week.

Below is an old school tuna noodle casserole recipe featuring a box of Kraft Macaroni & cheese and potato chips. A true classic and one of my favorites as a child.

Bon Appetit.

tuna noodle Kraft


Remembering Superbowl LII (sorry Patriots fans) or at least the commercials

doritos blaze

It’s been one week since Superbowl LII, do you remember who won?  If you are a Patriots fan you have probably already forgotten, and Eagles fans will be riding this high for another fifty-seven years.  Being a Cleveland Browns fan, the only real hope of a Superbowl appearance these days is the team buying a spot during the game.  What’s on my mind and many advertisers this week is, can you recall your favorite commercial and what brand it was for?

I’m sure like the other 100+ million Americans, you joined friends and family last Sunday and prepared the necessary game day snacks, iced down the refreshments and got the house ready for the big game party.  Like the average viewing party host, you probably spent well over $80 in the process.  In fact, its estimated by the National Retail Federation that consumers would spend around $15.3B, yes, billion, on Superbowl activities this year.  That’s a big investment from consumers, but don’t worry because advertisers also coughed up a lot this year to make sure that you were entertained.

After seven days, I am sure that you remembered the Superbowl was clearly sponsored by Toyota.  Hopefully you enjoyed the commercials that ranged from financial services, automobiles and mobile technology to food and beverage as much as the game.  You may have even caught Justin Timberlake’s entertaining performance at halftime that was subtly sponsored by Pepsi.  This is what every brand manager that purchased a spot during the superbowl is having to explain this week to their leaders, did it work?

It’s hard to imagine to ridiculous amount of money that companies spend on this single day to make sure that their name was remembered.  With an average :30 spot cost of around $5M this year, it’s estimated that marketers spent over $410M for you to remember their products.  That’s a lot of cheddar and the real question is, was it worth it?  Did they make a lasting impression in the minds of the viewers?

Thinking back to Sunday, what were your top three commercials, and can you recall the brands they were associated with?

As a foodie and a researcher, I particularly paid attention to the commercials in the food and beverage space to identify some of the winners and losers fro last week.  I always start with the simple question of, did I remember their brand or not?  Did it move me emotionally or make me laugh and now will I go out and buy their product?

This is what we do as researchers, we analyze, we ask questions to try and measure this success through recall and click thru’s, but the real test that we don’t quantify is how did it make us feel?  Did the commercial motivate us to change behavior, think differently about a brand and why?  To me, it always comes down to understanding the “why” and not just measuring the what.

Of the many commercials that were shown Sunday night, some left emotional tugs at my heart and some simply left a tickle in my side.  It has been proven that when commercials produce some bit of laughter, they have a higher threshold for recall, but do they make a bigger impact?  Does laughter make us dig deeper into our psyche for recall than sorrow, joy or fear?  Does it go deep enough to make us change our behaviors and how many layers of connection are needed with the viewer to make your message stand out?

In my opinion, today’s consumers in this multi-media driven world are not just looking for a simple commercial anymore, they are looking for a fully integrated campaign that takes them away from the TV and creeps into their personal lives.  Today’s campaigns need to create layers and experiences, not just laughter.  The more that you can connect with the consumer emotionally, visually, personally and interact with them, the higher success you will have at generating recall and potential for future sales.  They won’t just remember the commercial, but the experience it created.

Scanning the field of commercials this year, I felt like the best example of this layering or multi-channel experience was the PepsiCo cross promotion between Mountain Dew Ice and Doritos Blaze.  Not only did they create a memorable audio experience and visually stimulating set of commercials featuring two unique popular culture icons, but they did an excellent job of integrating this campaign into social media and beyond.  Doritos even generated additional buzz with the conspiracy theorists in the Game of Thrones world stating that this ad clearly confirms that Tyrion, is actually a Targaryen.

They creatively featured an interactive Snapchat filter that allowed you to go for either side – hot or cold.  In each of the areas of augmented reality they created a personalized experience that you could then share with your friends and family.  It gameified the commercial, turned it beyond the screen and made it a self-promoting platform.  I will be interested to see the results of how well this campaign worked in the days to come.

Campaigns also integrated hashtags and other ways to keep the commercial alive beyond the screen, but I was motivated by and even tried the snapchat filter that mysteriously disappeared from my view within hours after the game ended.  As I am not a SnapChatter, this was a serious investment of time and effort on my part.  I stared at the screen and it transformed my face into an icy wonderland or fiery wasteland based upon which way I moved my head.  I was transported to another place with the help of my friends at Doritos and Mt. Dew.  Well played Frito-Lay.

In conclusion, brands need to create an experience, not an ad.  Experience is everything these days and the more you can personalize it to the consumer you are trying to reach, the better.

This year, I specifically studied the numerous food and beverage commercials to try and answer the age-old question of “did I remember?”  I wanted to rank each commercial on the level of impact they left.  Now this was not a scientific study by any stretch of the imagination, but I judged them on engagement, impact, emotion and the overall message they delivered, either serious or comical.

Below is my ranking for each. You may agree or not agree with my rankings, but hopefully you at least remember each of these commercials, for the marketer’s sake.

14) Coke: The Wonder of Us – I liked the individuality and element of customization that this commercial portrayed, but it was just boring at a time where I am looking to be entertained or amazed. This campaign of individuality has been used for any years now and I look to Coke to be more creative.
13) Diet Coke with Mango – I couldn’t figure this one out and felt at times like I was way too old to be able to do so. Other than weird, it was another boring ad from Coke.
12) Budweiser Water – while emotional and nice, they’re not even American owned anymore so this one fell short in the end. I will not be picking up a twelve pack of Budweiser anytime soon.
11) Wendy’s – I get the point of fresh beef vs. frozen, but I still don’t see a lot of  difference when I am looking at your perfectly square patty. While it was witty, it wasn’t remarkable and while it’s fresh, it still looks processed.
10) Stella Atrois & Water.org – another commercial, while emotional, didn’t do much for me to go out and buy Stella, but it did raise awareness for Matt Damon’s water.org cause bringing it into the top ten.
9) Pepsi Generations – good usage of their old ad campaigns and creating that nostalgic impact that soda can have, targeting a younger generation that continues to reject it.
8) Michelob Ultra: I Like Beer – funny, but not worthy of a top five spot.
7) The Bud Knight – Dilly, Dilly. I did remember that, so it got across one point, but overall the set of ads didn’t do a lot to generate any real interest or excitement.  While funny, the ad is kind of played out so keep digging Bud Light.

6) Michelob Ultra: The Perfect Fit featuring Chris Pratt – this had entertainment value by featuring Chris Pratt, but didn’t live up to the hype of the media.  He played a funny role, but a bit predictable and I was expecting just a little more creativity.
5) M&M’s Featuring Danny DeVito – witty, funny and good usage of the perfect little round celebrity plug to put this one in the top five.  DeVito is always funny,  but the “do you want to eat me?”  This was a little creepy.
4) Jack in the Box Big (#JackvsMartha) – while the product they were promoting didn’t look very appealing, the confrontation made me laugh and the match up of Jack vs. Martha is a great plug to keep things moving in social media.  My money is on Martha as her time with Snoop Dogg in the hood will pay dividends in a street brawl.
3) Pringles WOW – funny execution, a bit hokey, but the ad made me think of Pringles in a whole new way of flavor layering.  Overall, great job of creating a multiple purchase opportunity with a particularly old and boring flavor portfolio.
2) Doritos Blaze (#spitfire) vs. Mtn. Dew Ice (#icecold) – like I mentioned earlier, a great example of tying multiple connection points with the consumer, but as far as the overall ad goes, it was well done, but didn’t quite have that final ingredient to make it #1.
1) Avocado’s from Mexico (#guacworld) – This was a very funny way to get across a simple point, avocados don’t only go on chips.  As one of the favorite dishes for most Super Bowl parties, guacamole surely got a lot of buzz off this nicely done ad. This is one that will be replayed many times as we continue to strive as humans towards the idea of a perfect, utopian society. Just make sure wifi works.

A trip to the UnderBelly via Chef Chris Shepard

When looking for restaurants to enjoy in the random cities I get to visit, I always check a couple of sources to make sure my palette gets pleasured.  Luckily, being in the industry I get the luxury of referencing my DineAround publications from Datassential, they never steer me wrong.  

I also tend to scour endless websites that break down each city by culinary districts and flavor neighborhoods as I seek out the shadey locations that only the local foodies talk about.  Like many, I also enjoy some good food porn from time to time as well as I try to determine where to dine.  

Ironically or not, these amazing places fall in the typically “transitioning areas”.  These areas are always the up and coming and trendy sections of town that tend to scream good food, dancing, shopping and style.  Gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor these areas always lead the big cities and the rest of the country with their openness, creativity, edgeiness and general flamboyance.  

The call last week was Chef Chris Shepard’s UnderBelly.  This is his journey through the food scene of Houston, where in the underbelly of the city “lies an endless array of ingredients and cultures” that shapes his cultural influence.

He provides a great hipster vibe from when you walk in the door until you leave.  From the display of canned and preserved ingredients used in his dishes to the recycled book menu’s and daily changing dishes built from what he finds that morning in the markets, the overall look and feel is exciting, flavorful and fun.  Being known for his nose to tail approach, cured meats and interesting flavor combinations I dove right into the charcuterie plate.  

The charcuterie plate featured an array of traditional favorites and a salami with an interesting flavor twist.  While they were all delicious, his adventurous efforts didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  The mustard and pickled veggies are always a nice compliment to the fatty goodness, but while the meat was delicious, it was nothing above average.  

Here are the featured meats:

Vietnamese Salami – looking for the Vietnamese part of this one was a struggle.  As it was delicious, just tasted like salami. 

Mortadella – typical, like fancy bologna but has a nice spicy, peppery finish

Cured Pork Belly – melts away in your mouth like butter.

Coppa – melts with slight smokiness and sweetness

Molenzino – coppa type with nice salty finish

For my main course I tried to once again embrace his southern heritage and creative flavor spirit and went with the grilled chuck flap, braised greens and beet salad.  All three of these were nicely done, the beef was well marbled and cooked prefectly with a solid char and bloody center.  The greens were a prefect mix of bitter and sour and the beets, while slightly bland, complemented the dish solidly.  Overall, the main course was delicious and lived up to his underbelly theme.  

For dessert, I went with his staple and crowd favorite, the vinegar pie.  This was probably the most interesting part of the meal.  It was kind of like a key lime pie, but made with sugar cane vinegar.  While it had the awesome vinegar bite you would expect, the overall product was disappointing.  The crust was extremely thick and didn’t quite meld well with the sweet acid filling.  

The peanut brittle on top was a great idea, but the overall texture was extremely hard and sticking to your teeth, so while it was a good thought, I probably would have left it off.  

Overall, the hipster appeal was definitely there as the ambiance was Southernly inviting and elegant.  The food was creative and while I appreciated his story, vision and overall flavor combinations, the bill was a bit excessive for the flavor delivery and culinary impact.  In the end, while I would consider coming back the next time I am in Houston, it may fall back to the end of the list with so many other choices.

Starbucks found themselves a Unicorn this week 

In the hunt for the ultimate drink, Starbucks has struck gold this week with its introduction of the Unicorn Frappuccino.      In the words of the Barista at our local Oconomowoc Starbucks yesterday, “sorry, but the whole country is out”.   This is one day earlier than advertised, making the craze for this unique creation, even that much more successful.  

The drink takes a break from the normal hum drum latte and transforms the drinker to a magical world of pink and purple.  The sour and sweet combination makes the tongue sing with fantastical excitement.  This magical mixture of sour mango and sweet blue raspberry provide a perfect melody of deliciousness.  Like my favorite candy, Sour Patch Kids, it gives you a quick hit of sour, but finishes sweet,  like the naughty little creatures they are.  

When you look at the hysteria and happiness that this drink has created over the past five days, I would say that Starbucks has again successfully made many people happy and hyper.  With a mere 59 grams of sugar, it may not be the healthiest of treats, but it may be the most fun!

Kiss me, I’m Irish.   At least for today

It’s amazing how many people suddenly become Irish on March 17th.  Even if your great, great, great Grandma knew an Irish guy in her town, you are magically transformed into a leprechaun and have green Irish blood running through your veins.  Actually, according to the US Census, only 32.7 million US residents claimed Irish ancestry in 2015. This is more than seven times the population of Ireland (4.6 million), but less than 10% of the US population, so why is it that we all want to be Irish for the day.  

I thinks it’s the Guinness.   In fact, according to USA Today over 13 million pints of this lovely, black gold will be consumed on St. Patrick’s Day.  

Since I am, at least 1/6th Irish, I find it appropriate and a ancestral necessity to support the other 56% of Americans who plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but do we really know why?  Do you know who St. Patrick was and why we plan to fork out over $5.3B in 2017in his holy name?  

Like over 30% of US households who plan to cook a special meal for St. Patty’s Day, my daughter Cate and I figured it appropriate to showcase our favorite Irish dish, Shepard’s pie, with you today from our favorite crazy chef and useles vat of food knowledge Alton Brown.  His recipe, while is traditional in spirit, always has an Alton flare that adds that tasty amount of yum that Cate and I both enjoy. 


I also figured it appropriate to attach yet another set of useless St. Pattys Day knowledge for the reading enjoyment.    

Enjoy this recipe, a room temperature pint of Guinness and top of the morning to you.

The New Multicultural American Kitchen – 3 flavor trends for 2017

ABC Family's "The Fosters" - Season Three

The make up of the American household today is quite different than it was just thirty years ago.  In one generation, we have gone from the nuclear family with it’s one mom, one dad and two kids all of the same race to a country of single parent and multi-cultural rentals.  The American dream of owning your own home in the suburbs has fallen to the wayside with the recession of 2008 and a millennial generation that’s more concerned with their phone plan than their life plan.

We currently have more single households in the United States than ever in history with a whopping 34% of children’s today living with an unmarried parent, this is up from just 9% in 1960, and 19% in 1980.  This combined with a fast growing Hispanic population and increasing bi-cultural households has made for quite the change over the last thirty years.  Hispanics made up a minuscule 6.5% of total US households in 1980 and now make up almost 18%.

Not only are we seeing a dramatic change in the overall make up of the household, but the US household is now a multicultural melting pot of Black, White, Asian, Indian, Mexican, Russian and anything and anyone.  Gone are the days of the traditional one man, one woman same race household, today we see no boundaries and no barriers to what makes up an American home.  Even American popular culture has figured it out with shows like The Foster’s which features a multi-ethnic family mix of foster and biological teenaged kids being raised by two moms that recently completed it’s fourth season on FreeForm.

I know this is a lot of data to take in, but it says one clear thing to me, the times they are a changin and so are our palettes.  Today’s kitchen is dramatically different than it was fifty, twenty, even ten years ago and will continue to evolve as cultures mash up and consumers bring their cultures and culinary heritages together in the kitchen.

With this changing dynamic of the American household comes a revolution in the kitchen. With the meshing of these different ethnic backgrounds comes a fusion of authentic flavor profiles and mixed cooking styles.  The millennial generation has not only brought an openness and multicultural influence to the kitchen, but also an appreciation of authenticity and a palette for exploration of new spices, flavor combination and cooking techniques.  The increasing pace of life and access to data through technology has also created a need for new portable formats and requirement of healthy functionality that can be consumed anywhere and anytime.  Day part barriers have been demolished and three squares a day now only refers to the number of bars you have left on your battery life.

As this generation continues to grow older and establish families, they will also be merging their culinary styles that they grew up with.  As acculturation takes hold and this generation becomes Americanized, they will refuse to lose sight of their roots, but blend it into their lifestyles and culinary creations.  They are striving for authentic recipes, flavors, and dishes but are also willing to merge with their counterparts and create an entirely new platform of cooking and flavor.  Hispanic-Asian, Korean-Mexican, Cuban-Vietnamese, Peruvian-Japanese, Italian Indian.  Each of these cooking styles offering its own spectrum of flavor and spice, but being merged with one another to create a fantastic fusion of flavor and form.

As the millennial generation will continue to lead this quest for fantastical fusion flavors the sky is the limit.  I see many combinations coming to fruition in the near future, but here is where I see the next wave of flavor heading.

1) Latino-Indian – as Americans we continue to be scared of curry and Indian spices, but the palette is starting to open and the Mexican platform seems to be a good way for these two formats to merge.  They share similar handheld formats and spices like cumin and cilantro that seem to make an easier connection.  Samosas have a strange resemblance to an empanada, so I could expect to see a yellow curry and potato empanada or a green chili and chicken samosa in the Trader Joe’ frozen aisle in the near future.


2) Mexican merging with Vietnamese cuisine – both formats have similar hand held varieties that seem to work well together.  Tortas and bánh mi will fuse together as these two formats continue to make headway with consumers.  You may see a carne asada bánh mi on a food truck near you soon.


3) Japanese Italian – this format is been running through the streets of Brazil for many years, but this will finally start to take hold in the near future as Japanese street food and Italian profiles become mainstream.  Think about how delicious a pizza filled steamed bun would taste.  It’s the upscale Hipster hot pocket.


The Ultimate Halloween Candy Beer and Wine Pairing Guide

Alright the weekend is upon us and you are probably wondering how you are going to survive another weekend of candy crazed kids.  In addition, Are you wondering what to do with all that leftover Halloween candy?

Well luckily I have your answer in this post.  Since everything these days is called a “craft” something, I thought it be appropriate that we learn how to pair our craft beers and wine with our kids Halloween candy.  

As I saw many plastic cups in parents hands while walking their kids through the labyrinth of the neighborhood candy maze, I thought it be appropriate to provide these survival guides to get you through the weekend and be ready for next year’s adventure.

I am a believer that just about anything can be paired with beer and wine and as you will clearly see others do share my opinion on this topic as well.  So my recommendation this evening is after the kids have gone to bed or while you are checking their final stash of candy for razor blades and needle, you pull out the candy bars, the sour patch kids, and all of the other goodies you love and finish your evening off right. I could even see a candy pairing party for this weekend so keep your calendars open and enjoy.

Beer Pairing Link: https://beerandbrewing.com/EcUoq4GNMGMMIksOK02as/article/halloween-candy-and-beer-pairings

Wine Paring Link: https://www.vivino.com/wine-news/the-candy-and-wine-matchmaker

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