Home Style Chunks

I set the five cans on the kitchen counter, awaiting Ellen to conduct the taste test.  I will only try one, since to open all of them would be too wasteful; my choices include Harvest Moon, Wild Buffalo Grill, Mediterranean Banquet, French Country Café and New Zealand Summer (which is of course our winter).  Each label is decorated with a rustic water color painting of the ingredients.  Harvest Moon has a picture of a cornucopia with some pheasant feathers sticking out surrounded by fall leaves and a few miscellaneous vegetables, the Mediterranean Banquet depicts a bag of brown rice and a bottle of olive oil in addition to a rack of lamb, and French Country Café says “Bon Appétit!” next to a roasted chicken, some apples and peas. When I shake the can, there is a sloshing noise which makes me nervous, particularly since the can also claims that it contains “home style chunks.”  Chunks of exactly what, I think.  Despite the homey labels, canned chunks bring back grim memories of cafeteria mystery meat and shit on a shingle.

The cans have been sitting on my counter for two weeks now as I have put off the taste test, but I have promised myself I will do it and Ellen is due to arrive any minute.  This scenario began to unfold when I went to the Grayslake Feed Store to pick up 300 pounds of corn gluten for organic weed control.  Grayslake is a bit northwest of our suburban home, just far enough away from Chicago to be in a semi-rural farming area, so in addition to lawn products they stock all sorts of animal feed.  As I walked in I saw a curious sign that said, “We proudly sell the Honest Kitchen Food, made from 100% human grade ingredients.”   I asked the salesperson, “What does human grade mean – do people eat this stuff?” 

The check out girl, incongruously adorned with black lipstick and nail polish and glittery mascara, turned up her nose and said, “Well I certainly haven’t tried it, but I suppose you could if you wanted to.  You do realize that this is dog food, don’t you?”  It turns out that the Honest Kitchen makes dehydrated food that mostly resembles an expensive bag of peat moss.  Apparently all you have to do is add water for a perfectly balanced human grade meal.    The term implies that the manufacturing plant undergoes more frequent and thorough inspections by the USDA, and human grade is distinguished from feed grade, which can include such extraneous body parts such as feathers, beaks and claws, or parts of “4D” animals, i.e. those that are dying, diseased, disabled or deceased. 

The in-store advertisement for human-grade food said, “We believe that your pet deserves the same nourishing foods that you feed your family,” and that “all the ingredients can be found in your kitchen.”  I am in complete agreement that pets should have the same diet as humans; in fact, “Leftovers” or “Table Scraps” would be ideal names for a dog.  It is the dog’s role to be the handy clean up crew for spilt milk and all those Cheerios that kids fling from high chairs.  My mother would routinely put gummy roasting pans with adherent pieces of  meat outside by the back door for the dogs to enjoy – they would do a more thorough job than any grease-cutting detergents or scrubbers.  This was also my mother’s delaying tactic for the final clean up – when entering through the back door you often had to tip toe around an array of pans that all appeared spotlessly cleaned.  Occasionally my mother would do a sweep of the bushes to retrieve missing pans that had been pushed in there by determined dogs.  In those hectic days when the household was full of children there was absolutely no need to purchase dog food.  As the kids slowly departed, the critical mass of scraps to support two dogs dwindled and my mother reluctantly started purchasing dog food.     

I was tempted to buy Honest Kitchen for our two dogs who have been subjected to exactly the same meal for their entire lives, but the food just did not look that appetizing.  My attention was drawn to the next items on the shelf – the Merrick 5 Star Entreés for dogs, which now stand on my kitchen counter.  Apparently, labeling regulations state that you can use the terms “human grade” in promotional literature or in store advertising, but not on the label itself, since people might get confused and eat it.  There was clearly no chance that I was going to mistake Merrick dog food for human in the store.  First off, I was in an animal feed store, and secondly I was surrounded by bits and pieces from the slaughterhouse floor.   Next to me was a big bin of pig hooves, which in human terms look the jumbo yellowed toenails that podiatrists make their living at.  There were other body parts, like femurs, and bins of rawhide tied into many different shapes – one selection was dyed to look exactly like a hot dog in a bun.   Behind me was a bin of pig’s ears and knee joints, which looked entirely human and still had little bits of ligaments attached to them. 

 But if I took the Merrick can out of this setting and put it on our pantry shelf, it could mix in perfectly with our row of canned soups.  Everything about the label is designed to make it look appealing to human palettes.  There are the names themselves, of course, and then the list of ingredients make you think of one of those fancy menus that try to dazzle you with quality sounding ingredients.  The Wild Buffalo Grill includes “cracked pearled barley,” which I suppose is much yummier sounding than plain barley.   The French Country Café includes “garden peas,” again a mystery since I assume that all peas come from a garden at some point.  Harvest Moon includes not just wild rice, but specifically “Minnesota” wild rice, and each can has a specific type of apple, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith or Fuji.   And then if the picture on the can is not enough, the store bins have actual pictures of the food to hammer home the human-grade promise.  But instead of putting Wild Buffalo Grill realistically in a dog dish, it is artfully poured into a soup bowl and decorated with a rosemary sprig for garnish. 

I have always thought that labeling is an interesting marketing exercise.  Most of the Merrick labels are consumed with the required information on the percentage of ingredients and nutritional value, but the Merrick family found themselves with a little strip of empty label where they could additionally extol the virtues of their 5 star entrees.  I envision some family member who was a frustrated writer, itching to let loose on the label.  Each can presents a way over the top vignette:

French Country Café:

“Whether it’s a corner café on the streets of Paris, a Cottage tucked along the French countryside or a trip up the Eiffel Tower with your significant other, they all spell the romance of France.  This savory delight inspired by the many culinary artists from across the pond will have your dog begging for more in a heavy French accent in no time.  The Merricks say Merci Beaucoup.”

When I first read this, I was confused by the term “significant other.”  Were they referring to a dog, or is this a very PC reference to a human companion?  I do know that dogs are routinely welcomed in French restaurants, where diners can slip them scraps under the table.  How about those culinary artists in France?  I am sure that they would be dismayed to hear that they were the inspiration for dog food.  I would also love to hear the audio of a dog barking in a French accent.

 Wild Buffalo Grill

“It’s winter in the Rockies at a quiet cabin with the one you love, a good book and a warm fire.  The taste of the west is on the menu tonight.  Buffalo and a host of tasty vittles are warming on the stove.  The Merrick family is happy to share this original taste with your canine friend.  The Merricks say Howdy and thanks.”

Hmm… same issue here, is “the one I love” a dog?  Perhaps so, since a dog in a cabin is a familiar American scene.  But if I am snuggled in with my dog, why am I cooking the dog food on the stove? The words “original taste” strike a slight disturb point for me, since originality in a dog food sounds a little risky.  Personally, I would have described the taste as “comforting.”

New Zealand Summer

“There is something so peaceful, so still about imagining a herd of sheep grazing on the grassy fields of New Zealand.  A simple life of a shepherd is not so simple but oh so comforting for the sheep to know that they are under His watch.  The hope is for a place someday that offers a peace that transcends all human understanding.  The Merricks hope your dog Baas over this dish.”

Wow, this vignette veers off into religious symbolism.   The capitalization of “His watch” must mean that the shepherd is God or Jesus Christ watching over the flock with a resulting transcendent peace.  That’s quite an aggressive agenda for a dog food label.  It is also a little confusing if you read this label from the point of view of the actual sheep.  While the label states that a simple shepherd must be comforting for the sheep, I can’t help but notice that the main ingredient of New Zealand Summer is lamb, and that the shepherd is ultimately leading the sheep to slaughter.

I have now spent quite a bit of quality time with the Merricks.  In recognition of their creative efforts to market in human terms, I come to the logical conclusion that a taste test is in order, but even though it is human grade, it does make me nervous.  All the scraps that my mother fed the dogs would be considered human grade, but I remember horrible pieces of greasy gristle and home-style chunks of fat.  I quickly eliminate Mediterranean Banquet and New Zealand Summer since their principal ingredient is lamb, which is a meat that I am pretty neutral on, but since I would never order it in a restaurant, why would I select it now?  Furthermore, the label specifies lamb liver.  As a kid, I enjoyed the liver and squash my mother served us; somehow the bright orange squash and rich brown liver made a visually appealing plate.  But then during my pathology residency I had to work in the autopsy suite and the morgue.  I routinely handled slippery, jaundiced and cirrhotic livers, which killed any thought of ever eating liver again.  That leaves me with either duck or buffalo as entrees, and I decide to go with Wild Buffalo Grill since the second ingredient is water.

The door bell rings and Ellen is here.  She is wavering in her resolve, but I am impressed by her loyalty to see this through http://sverigeapotek.se/.  My personal marketing strategy is to impress upon her that “tasting” dog food is critically different than “eating” dog food.  I certainly would not want my friends to think that I eat dog food, and my husband Nick is thoroughly appalled at this whole exercise.  But I point out that tasting consists of something as trivial as putting the tiny tip of your pinky into the “sauce” and briefly touching it to your tongue.  Eating on the other hand implies a deliberate and measureable caloric intake.  Satisfied with this framework, Ellen relaxes her defensive position of arms tightly folded across her chest, and she agrees that Wild Buffalo Grill sounds the most promising.  We shake the can as directed, and then also note that the label states, “Keep fresh water available at all times,” clearly disturbing advice.  Nick is watching us at the kitchen counter while he makes a traditional lunch of cold cuts, pickle and cottage cheese, and offers the helpful observation that all dog food recommends a ready supply of fresh water.  For our dogs’ sake, I wonder if I have been irresponsible by letting the toilet bowl serve as their emergency fresh water supply.

Back on task, we nervously peel back the top of Wild Buffalo and stare at symmetrical chunks swimming in shimmering sauce interspersed with recognizable peas and carrots.  One-two-three we each pinch off the smallest corner of a chunk and taste it, and conclude that it is not bad.  French Country Café is next and we both agree that Wild Buffalo tastes better.   While I acknowledge that dogs who have the privilege of eating 5 Star Entrée dog food probably eat better than a sizeable chunk of the human population, I also know that I have been deeply acculturated to think that dog food is repulsive.  So there is no way that our tasting will ever segue to eating, and we stop our testing at two cans.  I pour a sample of French Country Café into the dog dish and call the dogs.  Ironically the dogs do not taste anything, they simply wolf the food down in a couple of slurpy bites, beyond any possibility of savoring the efforts of culinary artists.  While I am sure that they were appreciative, I do not hear any barking in French.    

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (like post, stop, spot) and the number of dashed indicates the number of letter.  One of the anagrams will rhyme with either the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers. 

The Merricks want their dog food to stand out on the pantry shelf

And they hope the homey picture on the label will just sell ——.

If not, there’s a list of yummy ingredients and stories of how it’s made,

They’re no —— in there, but at least we know everything is human grade.

Wild Buffalo Grill is probably more nutritious than meals many children get

But I can’t —— my gag at eating home style chunks intended for my pet.








answers: itself, stifle, filets

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