Killer Valentines, and How “Top Chef” Made a Surprising Point

Apologies for the lack of post yesterday — I fell into some sort of black hole at work, from which I have barely clawed myself this morning, and couldn’t devote any attention to the blog.  But believe me, in the midst of doing intergalactic battle and swatting down asteroids in Outer Office Space, I was most definitely keeping my eyes and ears open to food news, revelations, and all other things potentially Red, Round, or Green.

So much blog fodder, so little time to post.  However, I’ve been DYING to share something with you all — an abomination the likes of which I never thought could exist — a hideous creature whose appearance in L.’s Valentine grab bag from Pre-K sent my forehead crashing immediately to the tiled countertop in frustration and disbelief.  The Killer Valentine.

It was small and red and cardboard-y and friendly-looking, just like all the other valentines his classmates gave him.  I didn’t immediately notice that anything was amiss, when J. brought it to me for examination as I chopped the vegetables for dinner.  “You’ve gotta look at this,” he said, the expression on his face a strange mix of concern and restrained laughter.

As I gave the thing closer inspection, the pale words imprinted on the background, behind the signature of the child who’d bestowed it upon L., became startlingly clear.  “FREE HAMBURGER.”  And then I recognized the iconic Golden Arches.

Oh.  My.  God.  McDonald’s does VALENTINES????

Yes, friends, my child came home from school with a Valentine that was actually a piece of clever fast-food marketing.  Happy Valentine’s Day.  Now go clog your arteries.  Nothing says “I Love You” quite like a McCoronary.

Seriously, though — this is wrong on so many levels that I can’t even begin to discuss them all here.  First, there’s the significant marketing aspect; we all know that McDonald’s has come under fire before for targeting their ads to children, and this little McValentine was a barely concealed piece of malfeisance in that arena, as far as I’m concerned.  Secondly, there’s the fact that the whole idea ratchets Valentine’s Day up a few notches from a candy-and-sweets kind of junk food festival to a full-on MEAL of craptastic choices.  The conversation hearts apparently weren’t enough; now American children have to celebrate everything with a Happy Meal, too?  Thirdly, as a cultural phenomenon, the equation of expressing one’s love with offering up free burgers is just mind-boggling.  At a bare minimum, I’m feeling really bad for all the young ladies out there whose suitors might feel especially justified in celebrating their love by treating their Valentines to a date at the drive-thru — after all, not only does McDonald’s offer them the perfect opportunity to do so, but it also makes the cheap date even cheaper with a freebie!  Score!

Oh, I’m all for the frugal Valentine’s celebration, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that in this case, the McMarketers appear to be out in full force, luring unsuspecting citizens to eat faux food out of their hands.  If we’re going to do Valentine’s Day with little kids, people, can we at least make it a Valentine’s Day that’s free of branding?

But speaking of branding.  You may have figured out by now that I spend a portion of whatever TV-watching time I have engaged in the mindless consumption of foodie reality shows.  Yes, I’m that person — the one who looks forward to Sundays for “Worst Cooks in America,” Wednesdays for “Top Chef,” and hopes for a decent epsiode of “Chopped” or “Iron Chef” in between.  Last night, my Wednesday evening guilty pleasure was heightened by the fact that “Top Chef” was set not in some swanky restaurant kitchen, but at one of my personal favorite places on earth: Target.

Tar-zhay, as we all know, is like Disneyland for budget-conscious people with young children who can’t quite bring themselves to join the legions of  Wal-Mart shoppers.  For me, and for most of the Tar-zhay devotees I know, it’s become an accepted law of the Universe that one cannot possibly walk into a Target store with a conservative list of items and expect to actually get out of there having stuck to said list.  Along the way, I always manage to remember that L. needs new superhero underwear, J.’s socks all have holes in them, and P.’s favorite playground ball has deflated; and then of course there’s bound to be some small, inconsequential item — like an area rug or an ottoman — that leaps into my cart while my back is turned.

Tar-zhay is attractive to me and many others for two reasons: 1) price and 2) selection.  Last night, the “Top Chef” contestants were sent to take advantage of both, as they stormed a deserted Target store at midnight to spend three hours cooking a meal for store employees — using only items, from food to utensils to cooking appliances, that could be found in the aisles of the store.  At first, I enjoyed the challenge simply because it was “Top Chef” and I like the show.  But after a few minutes, I found myself sitting up a little straighter and taking notice, because playing out right before me on my very own television set was a somewhat elegant representation of the power of food accessibility.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been keeping at least half an eye on the new Wal-Mart initiatives that aim to make significant changes in the dietary habits of Americans by, among other things, placing Wal-Mart superstores in “food deserts” and stocking the shelves with a broader selection of fresher, healthier foods at Wal-Mart’s legendary low prices.  I have conflicted feelings about the whole issue, which I won’t go into here; but last night’s “Top Chef” unwittingly presented me with a glimpse into that post-Wal-Mart-grocerification world (yes, I just made up a word — I’m not being graded or anything here).

What did I see?  I saw contestants making lovely dishes, including fresh vegetables, lean protein, and even seafood.  I saw them cooking those dishes on portable grills and burners, in microwaves and toaster ovens, and even with an iron — not a waffle iron, a clothing iron.  If you’ve seen “Benny and Joon,” you’re picking up what I’m putting down.  I saw people who, for all intents and purposes, walked into that store with nothing to eat and no way to cook, creating affordable and functional “kitchen” spaces and using them to prepare actual food.  From raw ingredients.  No processing involved.  And yes, those people have massive culinary skill and training; and yes, they went in there with an intention and a motivation to find ways to cook something great with limited resources.  But still, it seems to me that somebody who lives in a food desert, somebody who has a hard time getting decent groceries, could find real, affordable food at a place like Tar-zhay (or, gulp, Wal-Mart).

It’s by no means the whole answer, but I found myself feeling hopeful.  I doubt very much that the “Top Chef” folks intended, in any way, to make a quasi-political point about food accessibility; however, just by setting up this challenge and airing it, they showed that it may be possible to eat fewer processed foods simply by stepping through the doors of a big box chain store.  Now if only Target would start giving out Valentines with free food deals, too….

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9 Responses to Killer Valentines, and How “Top Chef” Made a Surprising Point

  1. Pingback: It’s a Kids Eat Dogs World | Red, Round, or Green

  2. sarah says:

    I was shocked to find lolipops and fruit chews/candy in my 16 month old’s valentine bag! But then again, I guess I am not really that shocked.

    I have great hope for Wal-mart, because I have to. Urban areas aren’t the only food deserts. I live in a very rural area and The Superstore is all we have. It’s an hour drive to buy organic chicken at a regular grocery store. And sadly an hour and a half to the nearest Target.

    • Um, yeah, I know. There were all sorts of candies and things coming through the door, between Valentine’s Day and some birthday parties we were invited to attend.
      I’m so happy to hear from somebody who actually relies on Wal-Mart out of necessity; you represent to me a large segment of our country’s population, but a segment with which I’m just not familiar. I’ve been fortunate my whole life, no matter where I’ve been, to live within 20 minutes or less (driving distance) of a decent grocery store; and my sister, who is an urbanite living far from a decent comprehensive grocery, has found an affordable online grocery delivery service that gets her most of what she needs. However, she also has a farmer’s market in her neighborhood to help her with the quality question, so she’s never had to lean on whatever the service provides and hope for the best.

  3. James says:

    You do recall that the other mass-market, candified consumer holiday has long been sullied by the touch of the McEmpire, yes? How many years do you recall the horror as some, probably, well-intentioned household opted to forgo sugary freebies on Halloween, and instead doled out individual slips of paper entitling the bearer to one free small french fries? I see this as simply one marketing executive’s realization that one sugary holiday is as good as another for enticing children to ask for a trip to the Golden Arches.

    • Yes, I do recall the Halloween french-fry coupons (though, thankfully, we have not encountered any such nonsense with our kids). And you’re right, this is just a marketing exec springing upon opportunity — figuring that any chance to offer a convenient solution to a harried parent who has to do something for his/her kid’s friends on a holiday should be taken advantage of posthaste. But you know, the thing is…Valentine’s day is a much smaller sugar fest than Halloween. It’s not solely centered around actually amassing as much candy and junk food as possible. And while I disapprove of the marketing McDonald’s does to kids anyway, I feel like it’s even more egregious when it’s sprung on them in the midst of exchanging Valentines with their classmates. I mean, what next? Happy Thanksgiving…forego the turkey and have a Big Mac on us? Happy New Year…you’re probably bored on New Year’s Day anyway, so come and eat? Happy Easter…have a free egg McMuffin, ’cause that’s what Jesus would do???? It’s the stupid little insidious things like this that just get into people’s brains after a while and become a non-event, and that’s when we stop questioning the fast foodification of our culture.

  4. Kim B. says:

    re: the McValentine. Oh. My. God.

  5. McMarketing to children on Valentine’s Day! Good Grief!!

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