Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Tuesday Food Politics: Trader Joe's Defeats The Tyranny of Mustard

This is another post I wrote a while back for now-stalled (failed?) blogging project. I will be writing more about Trader Joe's soon, b/c Joe's is just that good.

I came across an essay by Jesse Friedman called "Knowing its Audience: Trader Joe'’s and the Reenchantment of Food Shopping". Key quote:

"With Trader Joe's, predictability does not mean the bland comfort of identical experiences, but rather the reliable quality of every product offered...To establish the consistent quality of new products, founder Joe Coulombe instituted "“a winning concept…born of necessity": a good, old-fashioned tasting panel composed of store employees. A whimsical hand-painted sign in one store describes the panel'’s philosophy as, "“If we don't lick our plate, we won't sell it,"” a statement in no uncertain terms of the company'’s commitment to selling delicious products...If all this quality assurance fails, customers are assured of a no-hassle refund on any product they don't love, encouraging forays into new, yet safely delineated, territories of culinaria...Today'’s Balsamic-Marinated Portabella Mushroom Strips have replaced the Bagel Pizzas of the previous decade, yet are predictably healthy and, most likely, delicious, and satisfy the clientele'’s desire for some adventure."
For someone who is adventurous yet budget-conscious when it comes to food, Trader Joe's is perfect. I find myself grabbing food items I never thought I wanted and just trying them for the heck of it. More often than not what I've tried is awesome, and I trust Trader Joe's to sell delicious products at a good price.

So what does this have to do with mustard? Psychologists have pretty much nailed down in recent years that we are lazy, irrational, and easily-scared when it comes to the choices we confront every day. One psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has argued that we'd all be better off if we had fewer choices. We'd be less stressed, less anxious, less paralyzed by the dizzying array of options and choices that confront us everyday, and just generally happier. Radley Balko has facetiously called this argument the Tyranny of Mustard, in reference to the 100+ mustard choices we face at the local mega-mart.

An article in Reason last year by Virginia Postrel reviewed the recent criticisms of choice. She gives good reasons why the arguments may be overblown, but also lists ways that we can successfully reap the benefits of nearly unlimited choice while avoiding the debilitating side effects:
"Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time. They decide to be vegan, to write strictly metered poetry, to wear natural fibers, to date born-again Christians, to buy Japanese cars. They happily shop at boutiques, use blogs to guide their reading, and hire interior designers. They let expert gatekeepers narrow down their alternatives.

These choices about what and how to choose are not only voluntary but meaningful. They help define who we are. And they preserve the essential value of abundant choice. Most people, most of the time, are less interested in choice per se than they are in the benefits of variety. They want to find what truly suits them.

Hiring an interior designer or wedding consultant is not, as The Washington Post’s Mallaby suggests, a way of “deliberately avoiding choice.” To the contrary, these specialists are valuable because they don’t simply limit the number of options. They limit those options to ones you’re likely to like. They do not hand you a one-size-fits-all solution à la Social Security. Unlike the Schwartz prescription for “less choice” overall, these gatekeepers do not reduce your chance of finding what’s right for you. They increase it."
By "outsourcing" some of my food choices to Trader Joe's, shopping is more fun, more productive, and more successful.

Interestingly, the dijon mustard at Trader Joe's sucks. I guess I can't have everything.


John said...

Indeed, the Dijon at TJ's does suck, even when disguised in Caesar salad dressing. There is some funk in it, the origin of which I haven't been able to determine. Grey Poupon or nothing!

webdiva said...

I love having choices, having grown up in a South Side Chicago neighborhood where there were plenty of ethnic delis around that had foodstuffs so different from those at the local supermart. Then I moved to the North Side and discovered Treasure Island, which to me is still better than Trader Joe's (where yes, the dijon sucks). Both have North Side locations. Oh, heaven! And the mustard choices at Treasure Island are much better.

I'll shop at both when I get a chance, as well as it the local markets, supermercados, etc.; though alas, I no longer live north nor close to either store. To a foodie, however, driving 40-45 minutes for the good stuff is always worth the trip -- or we wouldn't be foodies, right?

-- webdiva in Chicago
foodie, journalist, lindyhopper, lounge lizard, and so much more