Ken Leighton 5:45 p.m., July 27
Consumer Reports Scrutinizes Celeb Food Products: Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes
I know you don't really believe that Wolfgang Puck is standing over a giant hot cauldron seasoning soup for the millions or that Emeril is yelling "Bam! when his mustard turns out perfect. Everything that goes out under a celebrity name is made by some huge food-biz contractor, supposedly according to the celeb's specifications. I remember when Puck first leaped into the canned-soup business. He chose a bad contractor and the products were miserable. (I tried two soups, and they were worse than any regular brand.) After a year or so, evidently somebody told him the truth, or maybe he actually tasted (!) a can of soup himself, he fired that contractor and hired another who is apparently doing a better job.
The results of food-celeb mania in mass-produced foods, Consumer Reports found, are highly uneven. They tasted a number of "celeb" brands against each other and against mass brands.
In the cookware field, Emerilware (whether nonstick or uncoated) rated "Very Good." I concur — I own an Emeril casserole that cost half the price of Le Creuset and is slightly lighter to handle and every bit as good — and doesn't carry the whiff of rapacious business dealings that clings to Le Creuset. (Around 1970, Le Creuset reputedly played big bully and forced the excellent, less exorbitant Belgian (?) Descoware out of business, creating a monopoly for themselves on heavy-duty enameled cast-iron cookware. I prefer my old Descoware to this day, so I am always glad to see a lower-priced challenge to the French Connection.)
On the other hand, with food machines, Wolfgang Puck's blender rated "Worst," and with food processors, neither Puck nor Emeril rated near the top. Best stick to the good old Cuisinart.
On top of the pasta sauces were two celebs: Giada De Laurentiis Tomato Basil (at Target for just $3) and Mario Batali's more garlicky Marinara ($8) were both "fresh-tasting." Lower-ranked, a bit spicy, and even more garlicky was Lidia's Marinara from chef-author Lidia Bastianich. The easier to find Francis Coppola Pomodo-Basilico (in our markets, "Mammarella") rated merely "good" — spicy, a big tangy, but very salty. Emeril's (now owned by Martha Stewart Enterprises) and Newman's Own ranked lower for palpable dehydrated seasonings and a tomato-paste flavor.
Among the canned soups, Wolfgang Puck's Tomato Basil Bisque, creamy and thick, ranked a rave on top of the tastings, and his Minestrone Organic ranked "good" (mushy veggies and pasta brought it down.) Bookbinder's Vegetarian Zesty Tomato (from a famous restaurant in — is it Philly? ) also won milder plaudits for its southeastern flavors. I've seen this brand at Ralphs but don't know whether they sell this variety.
Among the condiments, Emeril's Mustard rated low, without much explanation. I haven't tasted it, but I wonder whether those tasters in Mt. Vernon, NY, have ever tasted Zatarain's Louisiana Mustard. If Emeril is trying to make a better Dijon, he loses, but if his influence is Zatarain's, I might try it.
Among the salad dressings, we're probably hard-pressed to find a local source for top-choice Rao's (from a famed NYC restaurant) but we might encounter the Silver Palate Salad Splash Balsamic Country or Cardini's Light Balsamic (which CR called "impressive for a low-fat dressing.") The tasters didn't much cotton to Newman's Own Balsamic Vinaigrette ("oily feel, dehydrated flavors") or Emeril's.
So, don't let the stars get in your eyes. A few of these products sound terrific, if we can find them locally. Only a few are worth the trouble.