For my final two years in high school, I worked at a Boston Market. It was the best job I'm probably ever going to have.
From the hours of 4:30 p.m. until roughly 10, a few nights a week, I'd don a red apron, throw on a black hat, and hang out in the back to make sure the store's various side dishes (mashed potatoes, string beans, stuffing, etc.) was stocked and ready to go up front, all the while listening to whatever I wanted on the CD player. On top of that, my best friend worked up front, so any downtime we had -- and besides the hour-long dinner rush starting at around 6 p.m., there was a lot of downtime -- was spent horsing around. Sword fights with chicken spits, making fun of oddball customers, chatting about the cute girls at school, even the occasional home run derby off the store roof. It was pure joy. And I got paid for it. Not much, but enough for a 16-year-old acne-tinged kid living with his parents in suburban Chicago.
One of the only memories I have regarding how Boston Market was run as a business was being impressed by their strict belief that imperfection was perfect. When you carved up a turkey sandwich, the slices shouldn't be uniform, but a little off-center, a little mangled. When you brought up a new batch of mashed potatoes, before placing it in front of customers you had to give it a few scoops with the serving spoon to give it a clumpier look. Even the pot pies were made in such a way that no two could look alike. Sure, there was an ideal way for a pot pie to look. But only one out of a hundred did, and the rest were perfect in their weirdness.
The reason for this adherence to a strict policy of "imperfections are perfect" is easy to understand: They wanted to recreate the experience of a home-cooked meal. And nothing says home-cooked like one corner being a little longer than the other, or one section being a bit crispier than the rest. Trick the customer's eye into thinking that what's in front of them was made from scratch -- spoiler to anyone who's ever eaten at Boston Market: sorry, it wasn't -- and their taste buds will follow suit. It's not surprising, then, that the creative Powers That Be behind the highest profile processed foods are trying to do the same.
For example, take what Kraft Foods is doing to distinguish their brand of "deli sliced" turkey from the rest of the packages hanging in the lunchmeat section of your local grocery aisle:
A team at its Madison, Wis., research facility studied the way people carve meat in their kitchen, using the variety of knives they typically have at their disposal. Instead of the traditional slicers found in delis, the goal was to build a machine that would hack at the meat as a person might, creating slabs with more ragged edges, said Morin, the Kraft engineer.
Which isn't to say that the actual meat is different from the other Kraft brand turkey offerings, just the look and texture. They've become the food version of those hipsters who spend hours and hours in front of the mirror to achieve the right "vagrant chic" look to impress others with how little they look like they actually care. They're dressing up by dressing down.
Now, none of this should surprise you. At this point, if a Big Food company advertises its product as being "homemade" -- or, in Kraft's case, from the "carving board" -- no one is being fooled into thinking that's actually the case. But when you're in the store looking over the possibilities, you may subconsciously be tricked into spending the extra money for a product that, frankly, is simply carved a little more imperfectly than the rest. Once again reminding us all that it's no longer safe to trust your eyes in the grocery store, unless those eyes are reading the back of the label.