Food UI

This little gem comes from an old co-worker of mine (hi Chris!).  You know how you buy a bag of chips?  And then you open it up.  And start munching away.  And about halfway through the bag, you start working a little harder to get to the chips?  Maybe the top half of the bag starts to collapse as you reach in.  Your hand maneuvers through the greasy walls to get to the rest of the chips.  By the end, your hand might be littered with stray chip debris, like a wet cat spit out of a sewer drain.

Here’s an idea that puts this scenario on its end – literally.  Instead of opening the bag at the natural seam at the top, open it along the long side.  Admittedly, it takes a little bit of work at first to make a hole in the corner and then carefully open the bag along the side. After all, these bags weren’t designed to be opened there.  But once it is open, presto!  You’ve effectively created a little bowl for yourself: wide opening and shallow depth for easy access to chips.   

Any chip manufacturer could build their bags this way, by putting the natural seam on the long end.  One side could still be in portrait orientation to accommodate how chips are displayed on a shelf.  But the other side could be in landscape to encourage and educate chip-enthusiasts in this alternate way to open the bag.  Imagine a whole new marketing campaign for sharing (“don’t feel guilty about eating that whole bag yourself”) or for big-handed folks (“tired of a world sized for small hands?”).  Come on, chip makers.  Let’s see your stab at a new bag design!

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Growing up Asian meant that I learned how to use chopsticks at a very young age.  Ever since, it has been a useful and practical skill.  I particularly like using chopsticks to eat salad, but that is another post for another time.

When I was little, McDonald’s once offered some sort of Asian-themed item (I can’t remember what it was) and provided chopsticks to complete the charm of their cleverness.  I remember noticing instructions on the chopsticks wrapper.  I pretended like I didn’t know how to use chopsticks and tested the effectiveness of the instructions.  They went something like this:

Step 1: Place one chopstick firmly in the V between your thumb and index finger. Anchor it against your ring finger so that it doesn’t budge when you shake your hand.

Step 2: Hold the second chopstick like a pencil.  Now you should be able to pick up anything!

I was surprised by how good the instructions were, and I’ve used them to help teach others ever since.

Recently, I noticed the instructions on the back of some chopsticks that were not quite at the level of explanation of McDonald’s.  I believe I got them with my Korean takeout.  Here’s what they looked like:

The Correct Method of Using Chop Sticks

If you were to put captions on each of the images, they would probably say something like this:

Step 1: Break apart the chopsticks.

Step 2: Put them in your hand.

Step 3:  Pick up food!

I love how there is an imperious statement at the bottom that says “The correct method of using chop sticks (you idiot).”  Of course “you idiot” is not on there, but it sure feels like it.

Another time, I was out enjoying a bowl of ramen, and I found this set of instructions:

You Idiot

The captions here might say:

Step 1: Put chopsticks in your hand.

Step 2: Make them say “ahhh.”

Step 3: Pick up food!

Not only are these instructions even more ridiculously unhelpful, the quality of the drawing is a bit rough around the edges.  At first I wasn’t sure there was a difference between Step 1 and Step 2.

I recently went to an Asian sit-down restaurant that reminded me of a PF Chang’s.  At this restaurant, I noticed the instructions on the back of their chopsticks sleeve:

What's up white boy

Step 1: Tuck under thumb and hold firmly.

Step 2: Add second chopstick hold it as you hold a pencil.

Step 3: Hold first chopstick in original position move the second one up and down Now you can pick up anything!

Hey!  Like a throwback to my old McDonald’s days!  (Barring the dearth of punctuation that is.)

Do more Americanized Asian restaurants gravitate towards chopsticks with better instructions given the clientele?  The first two pictures above were at pretty authentic places, where you would feel out of place using a fork.  (Except for this being the Bay Area, you’d also probably feel out of place if you weren’t Asian.)  Perhaps these places assumed most of their customers already know how to use chopsticks.  I can imagine someone in these chopsticks companies being told they need to put instructions on the wrappers, rolling their eyes, and tossing out these drawings (you idiot).

I stumbled across La Boulange in San Francisco while looking for a snack with a friend.  La Boulange is a delightful French café/bakery with an eye-glittering menu.

Each time I’ve gone, there is a line snaking past the bakery display.  The wait is a benefit if you are still trying to decide what to get.  However, the assortment of items laid out along the way is arranged like little booby traps in the decision-making process.

“Ok- I’m going to get the almond croissant.  Oh wait- they have macaroons!  I have to get some of those.  Oh wait- they have a goat cheese sandwich.  Should I get a sandwich instead of a small snack?  Or maybe just get the snack for later?  Now I have no idea what to get.”

By the time you get to the register, you are forced to make some sort of game-time decision.  Each time I go, I frantically try to remember where the booby traps are so I can place my order without hesitation (or without buying 3x as much food).

But this entry is not about the sweat-inducing order process.  It is about one particular booby trap.

The mini-BLT.

It is a miniature baguette just wide enough to accommodate a single thick slab of bacon, plus a little lettuce and sliced cherry tomatoes.  You can pick up this sandwich like a cigar and just take off bites down the line until you are done.  It is practically perfect sandwich Food UI!  Plus it is cute, a reasonable snack size, and hey- it’s got bacon.  Now I want to eat three.

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Guess who had pancakes for breakfast this morning…. 🙂

I bought Batter Blaster this week, and the verdict is quite positive!

A few days ago, I tried it out for the first time. The first batch came out a little flat and uninspiring, but that may have been my tentative wariness projected into pancake format. The second batch was much better and really came out like real pancakes in size and shape.

I don’t know if the pancake taste was the finest I’ve ever tasted, but it definitely held its own in terms of standard pancake flavor. Of course the syrup is a critical piece to this (and who knows how long that syrup has been in my fridge…). Also, I think I had a small mental block with regards to the taste- thinking this is too good to be true. Food that is this easy to make shouldn’t taste good.

By the end of the second batch, my anti-sweet tooth got sugar fatigue, so I didn’t try anymore. But it was very promising. This morning, I whipped up another batch. They came out great again, and I even made a set with chocolate chips.

After having used Batter Blaster, I realized another reason why it is genius. Besides the effort and the cleanup required with making batter from scratch, there’s also the issue of portion size. However much batter you make is how many pancakes you’ll have. And generally no matter how many you make, you’ll have the same number of dirty dishes.

With Batter Blaster, you could make just ONE pancake if you wanted. Or twenty! I am often cooking for one, plus I have a low tolerance for pancakes and sweets, so the idea of easily cooking just 1-2 pancakes filled me with glee. I would never make pancakes from scratch if I knew I were only making two.  Now if they could only figure out how to put chicken cordon bleu in a pressurized can…

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A friend of mine recently forwarded me a link to Batter Blaster, the solution for more convenient pancake and waffle making. I watched the video on their site (which is awesome) and realized that this is cooking UI for the extremely lazy.

I loved it.

The video really does explain it quite well. Instead of having to go through the time hassle, and mess of creating batter from scratch, you can just shoot it out of a can. No muss no fuss! I am so intrigued and would love to try it out, but there doesn’t appear to be a store within 25 miles of my ZIP code that sells it.

Of course the primary question that comes to mind is “How do they taste?” Presumably a pressurized can of batter is never going to compete with batter made with fresh ingredients. But hey, see the magic that Jelly Belly does with their flavors?

Next question: “What is it made of?” This must be a classic too-good-to-be-true scenario.  Or worse, is it comparable to another canned convenience: Easy Cheese* (blech!)?  The website lists an array of feel-good ingredients such as filtered water and organic wheat flour.  (It was also at that moment that I noticed the “USDA Organic” seal stamped all over the place.)  But wait!  There are some chemical-y sounding ingredients such as sodium lactate and dicalcium phosphate.   Hmm- apparently those are just lactic acid from beet sugar and a leavening agent.  Touché, Batter Blaster- you anticipated my skeptical ingredient-reading strategy.

Now I really DO want to try this. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to experience the convenience and sample the taste of this ingenuity. Can you imagine what camping trips could be like with this product??

 

* I just learned that cheese in a pressurized can is called Easy Cheese and not Cheez Whiz!  It’s kind of like that day when I learned that it’s not “Cup O’ Noodles.”  It’s “Cup Noodles.”  Yes- that sign in Times Square has said “Cup Noodles” this WHOLE TIME.

p.s. Ok- I just discovered that the website’s store finder ZIP code field is a little wonky.  There are indeed a plethora of stores near me that sell this.  I see pancakes for breakfast in my future…

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Every morning, I eat breakfast and read the paper from end-to-end.  Yes, I still subscribe to an actual physical newspaper.  You know… big sheets of paper with smudgy ink?  With the words arranged in columns?  “Bad dog”?

Apparently I don’t earn the Silicon Valley merit badge because I don’t read the news online like everyone else.  Shrug.  I just like the linear and comprehensive process of going through the entire paper.  Plus, I insist on getting the most local paper possible so I can also be up-to-date on local goings-on.  I love my paper.  I think the content is well written and the design is thoughtful.  It’s clear that the folks who work there think a lot about their readers and listen to their feedback.  I’m such a paper nerd that I actually requested a “Save the Merc” bumper sticker when they were rallying for their lives during major paper ownership changes.

Anyway, I digress.  One morning, I was munching on my cereal and flipping through the articles when my eye was caught by a simple ad in the middle of one of the pages.  It was an ad for The Counter, which is a gourmet burger joint with locations in tony Palo Alto and the upscale Santana Row shopping center in San Jose. 

Their main schtick is that you can customize your own burger.  Their “menus” are these cute little clipboards with a golf pencil and a single sheet of paper divided into categories of checkboxes (bread, meat, toppings, sauce, etc).  You just check off what you want in your burger and hand it in. 

When I first ate there, I was delighted by the menu.  Then half an hour ticked by with each of us still trying to puzzle out a good combination of toppings and cheese and sauces.  By the end, I was kind of craving a normal menu where I could just choose from a set of pre-selected configurations. 

To be fair, the construction is easier if you don’t maximize your possible choices.  I think you get something like 5 topping/cheese/sauce choices (plus you can pay extra for more).  Usually at around 3 you can make a pretty decent burger.  But you think, “But I get FIVE, so by golly I’m choosing FIVE.”  That’s where you get in trouble because then your flavors don’t often match so well.

Back to the newspaper ad.  Like the style of the restaurant, the ad was sleek and minimalist.  The focal point of the ad was a photo of one of their burgers.  Ironically there was nothing sleek or minimalist about this burger.  It was the most ridiculous burger I’ve ever seen.  I think it was meant to be some sort of eye candy.  (Don’t get me started on Carls Jr commercials.)  But my first reaction to seeing this picture was, “How in god’s name are you supposed to eat that monstrosity??”  It honestly made me NOT want to go get a burger.

eat me… if you can

I find elaborately plated dishes for the sake of fancy pants presentation really annoying.  The plate of food is majestically placed in front of you.  Oohs and ahhs ensue.  And then you hover over the dish hesitantly with your knife and fork, not quite sure how to begin.  A dish can definitely be elegantly and beautifully plated but still be accessible to eating. 

It seems that most culprits are ones of massive portion sizes (thanks America).  I wonder if it’s simply a blindness that occurs when presented with a sea of choices.  If you have all the choices in front of you, you are compelled to take a little from each one.  Like at a buffet, where you keep piling your plate with food and halfway through you realize you didn’t plan your plate space strategy so well.  Or kids at a sundae-making station creating impractical sugar mountains by adding topping after topping.  Or at The Counter where you get to choose from a glittering array of checkboxes.  Or perhaps a chef getting a little carried away with sprinkling a little of this here and piling a little of that there.

There is something to be said about the beauty of simplicity.  A dish where you can dig in without thinking twice AND is presented beautifully would be a true gastronomic masterpiece.  

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hot chocolateI enjoyed a bit of fresh air this weekend by going for a brisk hike with a friend.  Afterwards, we decided to treat ourselves to a hot beverage at Pete’s.  I opted for a hot chocolate, and we settled down to sip and chat. 

I must have been feeling all worked out by my hike, because I neglected my usual vigilance in stirring the hot chocolate throughout its lifespan.  I know this because when I drained the last of the drink, I sucked up a rude jolt of intense chocolate syrup that had settled at the bottom. 

This of course prompted a conversation about a new mug design.  It would be great if you could add a small paddle to the bottom of a mug that would slowly stir the contents of your drink.  Naturally you’d have to be able to remove the bottom somehow for easy cleanup.   I also noted that I would sell my mug through the Sur La Table catalog because these days it seems like that catalog is just full of single-purpose kitchen gadgets now.  We discussed our product specs in great detail and I returned home with yet another brilliant idea never to see the light of day. 

But then I thought, “SURELY someone else has thought of this.”  So I did a quick Yahoo search for “self-stirring mug” and got back a quarter-million results.  Oh.  Someone HAS thought of it.

When I checked out some of these products, I saw that most, if not all of the results, activate the stirring only when you press a button on the handle.  That probably works better- particularly if you don’t want lingering drops to be spun about when you get to the bottom of the mug.  Depending on the speed, you’d probably also just develop a vortex of doom with the continuous stirrer.  Unless of course you enabled dual-direction spinning. 

Well, I can sleep at night now knowing that some people are out there developing zany product ideas.  So when will I see it in Sur La Table?

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