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Breeding like blue-box bunnies

It's rarely on sale, but it's always for sale at the co-op: Annie's Homegrown (Totally Natural, Made With Organic Pasta) blue-box Macaroni and Cheese. The co-op is usually pricey and a box is always more than a dollar. I never buy any.

Yesterday salon put up The bunny vs. the blue box, Annie's vs. Kraft, a rant of sorts by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (“She aspires to be the bad girl of American food writing.”) that generated plenty of venomous responses in the Letters section.

I'll summarize my points, drawing from the article and the letters in the process.

As the author points out, the nutritional data or value is about the same when it comes to Annie's and Kraft.

Annie's has the same number of calories (Annie's 270, Kraft 260), the same amount of sodium (Annie's 550 mg, Kraft 580 mg), protein (Annie's 10 g, Kraft 9 g) and fiber (Annie's 1 g, Kraft 2 g), and a bit more fat (Annie's 4.6 g, Kraft 2.5 g) and saturated fat (Annie's 2.5 g, Kraft 1 g).

When one points out that's the box contents, not the prepared product, and that with Kraft you add half a stick of butter and with Annie's only a pat and perhaps yogurt or such, what you're not realizing is that you could prepare the Kraft with a pat and yogurt, or Annie's with half a stick. The box is what matters. The difference is yellows 5 and 6.

Annie's Mac and Cheese

Others argue they would rather support a smaller commercial venture over one tied to a multi-national holding company that also makes cigarettes. Fine, do as you will. Will kraft suddenly become okay if the holding company spins it off?

Annie's is not organic” (sure, they make some things organic);all natural” means nothing. Even if it were, organic does not always imply better. While it's another topic entirely, it's often not the organic that's important, it's correlated matters (see salon's raw-milk article for a comparison: raw milk may or may not be better for you, but for raw milk to be safe it has to be cleaner to start with than dairy-factory milk, which, through pasteurization, kills off dangerous microbes and sterilizes other impurities), which is to say, there is not necessarily anything inherent in the organic part that's good for us, just general practices in the production of non-organic foods that are questionable.

Kraft Mac and Cheese

In short, the products are nearly identical. Annie's is not an underdog, it is not an organic producer, small-town or small-farm operation—believing such only shows your gullibility. So what it comes down to, assuming you want to make mac and cheese, is that Annie's costs several times more. You are paying more for something that is not better, but which gives you irrational warm-fuzzies inside ... brand loyalty and class consciousness.

This is a dialectical approach—for Annie's, against Annie's, then let's synthesize, but this A vs. B approach leaves out several options (which can, however, be taken up when the synthesis is a new this for the continued dialectic). Obvious option #1: there are other boxed mac and cheese packages out there that have the same ingredients but which are much cheaper and which are not owned by Kraft or a similar multi-national. They're your low-overhead, low-margin, high-volume “generic” “brands” and things like Shurfine and Western Family. Less evil than kraft, about as evil as Annie's, and cheaper. And—just considering the box—just as healthful.

Janet Lee Mac and Cheese

Obvious option #2: why do boxed mac and cheese at all? The arguments for are: flavor, speed/ease. The flavor argument is easily done away with. If your kids prefer Kraft/Annie's over homemade mac and cheese that has little to do with the superiority of Kraft/Annie's and everything to do with your inability to cook mac and cheese properly. As letter writers pointed out, if you want yours to taste better to/for kids, add 2–3 times the salt to your homemade batch. That is the major “secret ingredient” in boxed m&c; your kids only demand boxed m&c because you started giving it to them—if you didn't go down that path in the first place ... I digress.

Then speed/ease: boxed “food” is quick and easy and in this age, when in a 2-parent home both work and many families are single-parent, there is not much time to prepare meals. This is a fact. You can't expect one parent to give up working for the sake of family meals; there are other considerations, and even if that would/could work, it does not help the single-parent homes. The old argument “work smarter, not harder” applies. Cook smarter, not harder. Boxed foods are not smarter; they are a bandage to deal with time and time management issues. Prepare batch meals on the weekends (casseroles, baked and broiled and roasted items), and put them in the fridge or freezer to be reheated. Use a slow-cooker. Teach you kids too cook, damn it. Eat more salads and soups. When you go basic and not gourmet, only complex items and meats take a lot of time.

And when it comes to m&c—hell, no m&c at all is an option. Homemade m&c is an option for family meals. It is best baked and takes longer; it can be made with only boiling/cooking the pasta and making a white sauce with cheese, but let's face it: it's starch and fat, no matter how you prepare it. If anything it should be a mid-day meal to get you through the rest of the day, not an evening-just-before-tv-meal. On top of that, m&c is not a MEAL ... it's a component in a meal.

—January 30 2007