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When Food Marketing Lies Aren't Bad

Sometimes the lies we create about food can actually do good.
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By Josh Chetwynd

It's easy nowadays to trip over blogs lining up to criticize food marketing. They complain that the misleading wording on boxes (no trans fats!) is killing our kids. Then there are the fast-food switcheroos -- commercials in which the fancy-looking hamburger on the TV is so falsely big and juicy (seemingly as large as your flat screen) that it wouldn't stand a chance of getting into the box the chain sells it in.

I don't begrudge such bloggers or viewers their ire. Sure, we want an honest read of what we're putting in our bellies. That said, I'm here to argue that under certain circumstances we should be willing to accept a little huckstering when it comes to food products.

OK, I know you want to stomp off in a huff, but here's the reason: Sometimes the lies we create about food can actually do good. Food marketers (even before they actually had such a title) have a long history of making up stories about how our favorite dishes were accidentally discovered or came from unexpected inspirations.

The chocolate chip cookie mistake?
There are numerous examples of this type of chicanery, but my favorite is the chocolate chip cookie myth. Many sources have long claimed the chocolate chip cookie was inadvertently created by Ruth Graves Wakefield in Whitman, Mass. One day in 1930, the story goes, Wakefield was preparing another type of cookie when she realized she didn't have everything she needed for the dough.
Pressed for time or unwilling to trudge out to the grocer, she cut up some Nestlé chocolate bars and threw them into the mix thinking they would work -- as a replacement for the missing ingredient (there is some disagreement over just what was missing). Much to her astonishment, when the batch came out of the oven, the globally-renowned chocolate chip cookie was born. This account is so popular that it was still in popular rotation when the cookie celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1980 and persists today.

Wakefield, who would go on to work with Nestlé, appears never to have publicly contested this marketing ploy that helped sell chocolate chips.

In reality, it's likely Wakefield knew precisely what she was doing. She was an expert cook who had written numerous recipe books and had a pastry chef working with her when she devised the famous recipe. "Certainty in place of guessing eliminates failures," she once wrote. She doesn't sound like someone prone to haphazardly throwing ingredients into a bowl and going for it.

Tapping into food origin myths
If you need more food fantasies to prove the gimmicky origin trend, consider:

Maple syrup. To this day, trade groups from Michigan to Massachusetts tell the story of an Iroquois chief who one day threw a tomahawk into a tree. When sap started to pour out of the trunk, his wife inadvertently discovered the syrup. This legend is highly unlikely.

Ice cream cones. The International Ice Cream Association keeps retelling the story of a vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair who saved the day by fashioning a waffle-like treat into a cone to hold ice cream when a neighboring ice cream seller ran out bowls. Many historians have poked holes in this food myth, but it continues to be a selling tool for the product.

Eat up the fantasy
So why should we embrace these stories instead of insisting the record be set straight? Well, on a superficial level, they're fun. They generally have engaging drama and conflict (I can see the TV show already). But more important, they give us insight into who we are. Myths about food's accidental discoveries and unexpected inspirations fulfill our desire for fate to guide us to a pleasing result.

Perhaps they even provide us with a little inspiration of our own. In some cases, like the chocolate chip cookies back story, these tales give hope to toiling chefs -- if they keep trying long enough, Lady Luck may ultimately help them create the extraordinary. To the rest of us, the stories offer a glimmer of hope that the big break could be just around the corner.

If these truth-stretching tales provide an interesting context and offer some motivation, why fight them? At the end of the day, even if it's too far-fetched to believe, a good story is hard to resist.

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Josh Chetwynd is the author of "How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun: Accidental Discoveries and Unexpected Inspirations that Shape What We Eat and Drink," recently published by Lyons Press.

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