Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Graham Crackers & Ovaltine

Two popular food products from my childhood are still around, beating the odds against the inertia of obsolescence which is the hallmark of capitalistic enterprise.

Ovaltine, and Graham Crackers.

New products these days seem designed to capture and dominate a market, perhaps for no longer than a decade, then are bought and consolidated, disappear, or are transformed into a newer iteration. In our hurry-up culture, things don't last very long. We're impatient and easily bored, and want new stuff thrown at us constantly. Heaven forbid we should have to live with anything long enough for it to seem familiar. Familiarity in the marketplace can be fatal. You've got to move fast to keep the money flowing.

The marketing of mass-produced consumer goods goes all the way back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The major innovation of marketing theory in the 20th Century was the "invention" of demand through creative advertising, supplying a product that people didn't know they needed until they were "sold" on the idea first. People will buy anything--even a rock in a box--if you can con them into it. Value is a very fluid substance--it can be manipulated to apply to almost anything.

In the realm of gastronomy, early food "scientists" invented products that were sold on the principle that they were healthful--not just good-tasting, but good for you too.

Diets are strange. The human body is very adaptable to different kinds of diets. Our taste and cravings developed over time, suited to the needs of sustenance and the availability of certain kinds of nutrients. We respond to sweetness, apparently, because certain key nutrients we needed were contained in things that were naturally sweet, like fruits (which, in turn, developed carb sugars in order to facilitate their own reproduction). The human body didn't anticipate that one day food marketers would fill up otherwise "empty" foodstuffs with sugar, tricking the body into consuming them with no net gain in nutrition.

A lot of food products aren't any better for you than what you could otherwise obtain in cheaper, more natural forms. Apple flavored soft-drinks, for instance, aren't nearly as good as real, homemade apple cider--they're just more "convenient." Our ancestors probably had a primarily vegetarian diet, with only occasional helpings of meat. As the human tribe settled down, grains and nuts occupied a higher proportion of our meals. The diet we consume today appears to consist more of things that can be effectively preserved and marketed, than of things that might make us healthier, and longer-lived. What we eat today seems more a consequence of the efficiencies of the market-place, than any actual physio-chemical need. (Conservatives will say that the market is just responding to what people want, but I don't think serious people believe that hoary old myth, anymore.) Image- and taste-making are what consumption now revolves around.

Occasionally, enterprising souls have hit upon the idea of selling attractively appearing and tasting products which are also good for consumers. This seems a hard combination to beat. Eating something healthy that looks appetizing, and tastes good too! If advertisers had their way, we would never eat apples, but apple-flavored candy instead.

When I was in kindergarten, I remember we had afternoon "naps"--maybe they thought we were still babies, and needed more sleep. Most of the boys, as I recall, hated this part of the day, because we were bursting with energy, and wanted to have recess continue indefinitely. The girls were a little more tractable. I can't remember, but it was either just before, or just after, these naps that we had our afternoon "snack". It wasn't free. We had to bring "milk money" from home to be included, but I think everyone did. They gave us a little half-pint carton of whole milk, and a couple of Graham Crackers. The Graham Crackers were sweet, and easily breakable into fourths. They were just sweet enough to be considered a treat, but not so sweet as to be thought of as candy, and therefore unhealthy.

A little later, I picked up on Ovaltine, and began asking my mother to purchase the stuff at the grocery store. It came in those days in glass jars with screw-lids. The stuff didn't quite look like a flavor mix: It wasn't a powder, it was more like curly little brown flakes. Unlike canned cocoa powder, it didn't seem to want to mix well with milk, so you had to agitate it a good deal to make it. The best part was that the resulting liquid tasted very like chocolate milk. Parents didn't like to buy chocolate milk for their kids in those days (sweets! bad!), but they'd pop for Ovaltine every time.

Any referance to the origins of Ovaltine would involve a discussion of chocolate, or cocoa. Wikipedia has a long detailed entry on Chocolate, and on Ovaltine (or, as it was originally called, Ovomaltine, by the Swiss, who invented it). Cocoa (not to be confused with Coca, another plant which grows in South America, which has well-known (since pre-historic times) stimulative properties) had been used in Central America for thousands of years, before it was discovered by Western Europeans, who added sugar and fat and spices to it, to make it into the more familiar cocoa drink we know today. New World Indians apparently drank mixtures of unsweetened (or sweetened) cocoa which we'd probably think tasted very bitter indeed. They apparently thought the stuff would make them more potent--and there's nothing like the probability of greater potency to get a horny young chieftain's attention. Certain chemicals in cocoa do seem to have a soothing effect on the nervous system; but it's doubtful it was the Viagra of its day.

Cocoa beans on the tree

It wasn't until the turn of the 19th Century that cocoa was combined with malt and eggs to make Ovaltine, in Switzerland. To my surprise, the Ovaltine formula has not been fixed, and is still sold in several countries, in differing mixtures. In England, the factory that produced their version, even had a nearby health resort for disadvantaged children until the 1960's. There are versions sold today in Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It's become the world's poor man's milkshake, and shows no signs of going out of style. Products with this much durability are really rare.

The Graham Cracker story is different and less complicated. They were invented in New Jersey in 1829 by an enterprising Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Sylvester Graham, which was originally sold as a digestive biscuit. Digestives are foods, eaten after a meal, thought to aid in digestion. I don't imagine it was supposed to be a laxative, probably just a "soother" of the intestines. Today, Graham Crackers are frequently ground up into powder and used as crusts for pies and desserts. Graham flour is composed of fine-ground white flour, coarse-ground wheat bran and germ. It resembles, in color and texture, coarse-grained whole wheat bread.

I haven't had Graham Crackers in years, but we ate them often as children. I don't think we thought of them as health food, though the permission this claim created undoubtedly contributed to their wide popularity. Almost everyone knows about Graham Crackers.

The whole "natural foods" industry has been in full flower now for a quarter of a century, but its roots go back at least a century and a half. Controversy has evolved about labeling, whether or not certain foods can be labeled as "healthy" or "lite" (light on calories) or nutritious.

Lang Lang Langen-dorf bread! Builds strong bodies twelve ways! In the meantime, Ovaltine and Graham Crackers keep chuggin' along.

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