Thursday, May 25, 2006

…With Relish!

The other day I popped four hot dogs into the microwave only to discover, a minute and 15 seconds later, that we were out of relish, a disappointing development in my lunchtime routine, but I didn’t want to waste four hot dogs so I suffered through them with mustard as my only condiment. Chagrin, as it was a bland affair, and I learned that you only miss something when it is gone.

If you’ll remember back a few days to the original post of the dachshund sausages, where I described in beleaguered detail the ins and outs of my horrific diet, and I told you that we are frequently out of one of the four elements that go into what I consider the well-rounded hot dog: the dog, bun, mustard and relish. For about a week or so, a lonely empty jar of relish sat in the refrigerator waiting to be replaced, and each time I would crave the delicacies of the cylindrical meats, I would remember we lacked one of the basic elements; with a heavy heart I would have to scavenge for something else. It’s like pouring a bowl of cereal only to discover you’re out of milk… sure, water will make your corn flakes wet and soggy but it lacks that certain something only cow squeezings can supply.

So, off to the store we go, down the condiment aisle, bee line to the little jars of mustard-injected relish with ample chunks of pickled cucumbers, cabbage and bell peppers…and what’s this? What to my glittering eyes do I see, but a new jar of relish looking at me. It appears as though my good friends at Heinz, realizing that I probably contribute more to the bottom line of the relish department than any living soul on this planet, have graced me with a new Premium Hot Dog Relish…just for me and for me only, as there was only one jar of it on the shelf; after 137 years of commitment to quality, they have decided to take it up a step, cast away the shrouds of mere common cucumber-based condiments and bequeath themselves to be kings among relish. Yes, kings among relish.

Well, my inner skeptic takes control of the PA and starts to shout: “What makes it premium? Why is it better? What’s in it?” "I don’t know," was all I could muster; I had no answers, which is really the only response I’m ever able to give my inner skeptic. He asks the questions knowing full well that I don’t have the answers (he checks the database first), so I’m left in a quandary. On the right is the regular hot dog relish, nothing special, nothing premium and certainly no wondrous mystery attached to its old label, the phrase “Hot Dog Relish” slapped into a seemingly blank label that could have ended up anywhere--I’m sure the label for Heinz’s 30-weight motor oil looks exactly like the one for relish; curse production streamlining… but then there stands the premium hot dog relish, shining new, untainted by time, marvelous in its grandeur, dare I say it? Okay, glorious. The label, a mouthwatering culinary effigy to the hot dog, displays “Hot Dog Relish” in an cylindrical reddish oval, reminiscent of the hot dog itself, and up above is the coiled banner containing the promising word “Premium” as if it were the motto on the family crest of the Heinz relish family. Underneath it all lays a pickle, curled up on the corners as if to smile at you and say, “Go on, trust me. I’m a condiment. I’m relish you can call a friend. I would never steer you wrong.”

I swoon briefly before snatching the jar into my basket… but “Wait,” cries the inner skeptic again. “Remember the Pepsi Challenge? Remember all that it taught us about product promotion and cross tasting?”

He has a valid point, so I toss a jar of the pedestrian, regular, every Joe relish in there as well. Let’s find out what makes the Premium oh so wonderful, but first, a small story about the Pepsi Challenge: I chose Coke. The Pepsi was warm. The lady had just opened a new can for me, and I think she had been keeping it under arm, as it seemed flat and certainly tepid. The Coke was effervescent, light, crisp with a clean aftertaste that made me sigh “ahhh.” So, when they say 4 out of 5 people prefer the great taste of Pepsi over Coke, I’m that fifth person, but don’t get me wrong, I drink whatever's cheaper; I don’t care where it comes from as long as it has that fizz, has caramel flavoring and it can keep me awake at night. I’m not going to pay $1.50 for two liters of Coke when I can do 99 cents for basically the same thing, allegiance to one side or the other in the Cola Wars means nothing to me.

Once home I did a comparison of the labels for each jar of relish, and the ingredients were spot on match of each other except for three very subtle additions: the Premium has extra mustard seed in it (as it is listed in a different order; the higher up on the list, the more of that ingredient is in the food), and for some reason five more grams of sodium, 100 compared to 95 in the original. The third important addition, in bold, at the bottom of the label, it says on the Premium jar, “Contains Soybeans.” It seems like an odd announcement until I ponder that people might have an allergy to soybeans… who knows? Also, Heinz must be particularly proud of its new condiment concoction because they include a Questions/Comments phone number on the label, whereas the old regular relish must have been an embarrassment. “Let’s not put the number on it,” they said in the label design meeting. “Maybe nobody will call.” From the back of the room, someone, mortified at being associated with such poor quality and resentful of the select few who got to work on the Premium label, asked: “Instead of Heinz, can we call it French’s?”

The best test for any food is the taste test, as it will separate fact from fiction, premium from regular. I’m not J.D. Powers and Assoc., but I was able mocked up a relatively believable blind taste test by covering the labels, mixing up the jars and spreading a liberal amount on two ends of a hot dog wrapped in a bun.

In a hushed tone: "What he doesn't know is that we secretly switched his regular hot dog relish brand with Heinz's new premium hot dog mustard. Let's watch!"

Product A: Deliciously thick texture, like cake batter with crunchy pickles doused in a heavy mustard flavor with hints of paprika and slight undertones of vinegar, onions and various unknown spices. That’s got to be the Premium as it just called to me, “I’m the royalty of relish playing my A Game just for you, tantalizing your taste buds—all of them simultaneously as if it were one long symphony of seductive delights in the form of relish—filling your mouth with the smooth creamy texture only Heinz is capable of delivering. Yes, Product A is the Premium, no doubt.

A little dejected, I took a bite of the opposite end of the hot dog, the one lathered in Product B’s offering and I knew it was going to be less than climactic, after all, it is the old recipe, the obsolete relish in the company of a first-rate spread… but wait, what’s this? Could it be? The delicious thick texture!… mustard flavor!… hints of paprika, vinegar, onions!… wait!… wait!… a delicate balance of spices known unto God. Could it be?

Kill the engines for a second here. I’m the sommelier of hot dog relishes and if I can’t tell the difference in a blind taste test in my own kitchen, what makes it possible for any mere mortal to discern the subtle nuances of the two? Impossible. This is a flat-out lie, a sordid perpetration assaulted on the American hot dog eating community, and I need to get to the bottom of this, toot sweet.

That’s it, I’m calling.

On the other end of Heinz customer service answers Andee, a delightfully cheerful woman whose voice only leads me to believe that she, and she alone on this planet or any other, loves relish more than I do. Never mind the small talk, I start right in.

Me: I was duped into buying your “premium” hot dog relish and I don’t see what is so premium about it. Is there some slight difference my highly tuned taste buds are missing?

Andee: You must be referring to our relish with the new label; we just recently designed a new label is all.

Me: So the word “premium” means absolutely nothing at all and the new relish is exactly the same as the old relish.

Andee: That’s right. It is a marketing tool, yes.

Me: Is this just a tricky way to get people to buy more relish by suggesting that it is somehow improved.

Andee: You bought some didn’t you?

Me: Ah, touché. Thank you.

I was so scathed by her aptly scorching remarks that I forgot to inquire about the soybeans additive, and upon further examination of the label, I missed the small blue ribbon on the bottom of the Premium jar that say it all: “New Look! Same Great Taste.”

Same great taste; they were right there, of course, the flavor of the Premium bottle is as comfortable as an old pair of slippers on a chilly winter evening, but the ruse is bitter. Well duped by a fancy new label, I’m only comforted in the fact that I’ve got stores of relish on hand now, but the marketing ploy has left a pickled taste in my mouth that I won’t soon forget.

With relish, I bid you a good day…but remember, condiments are not small candies found in a box of Trojans. Sorry, a little distasteful joke.

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