The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 10, 2009

Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup 2009: More Great Ways to Spend Your Valentine’s Night Sleeping on the Couch

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 4:15 pm

I think that over the course of my several posts on the subject, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s day.  Part of this is that I don’t think I’ve ever engaged in any significant observance of the holiday since I made it out of fourth grade, but part of it is that with all the kitschy, cheesy and/or downright questionable Valentine’s Day merchandise out there these days, it seems harder than ever to find something that’s actually meaningful.  If, on the other hand, you’re feeling noncommittal, lukewarm or downright cynical about the whole thing, there’s no shortage of bad Valentine’s Day gift ideas out there.

Before I go too much further, I should emphasize that the items I have found here are much more the exceptions than the rule.  Most of the Valentine’s Day merchandise available out there is fairly reasonable, or at least inoffensive.  This is, of course, not a bad thing when you’re dealing with third graders, but if you’re in the situation of trying to win someone’s undying love and affection, you might need to set your sights just a bit higher than inoffensive (You’re probably also going to need a lot more than a heart-shaped box of chocolates, but that falls outside the scope of this article.)  In most cases, using a little bit of common sense should be more than sufficient to keep you out of trouble.  The problem is that there are also a surprising number of items out there that would NEVER make a good Valentine’s Day present under any circumstances.  For the purposes of this roundup, we will be sticking to merchandise found within mainstream retail stores, where the vast majority of items on offer are family-friendly, although as you’ll find, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all are necessarily in good taste.  After the jump, a look at some of the not-so-great Valentine’s Day gifts on offer this year.

If you missed last year’s post, you may also find it here:

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February 7, 2009

Here’s What Death By Chocolate Looks Like

Filed under: Food — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 3:11 pm

For those of you who might have read my article last week providing an in-depth look at what’s hiding behind all the chocolate coating of the Whitman’s Sampler, I have to confess something about that particular article:  I can hardly stand to look at it right now.  This isn’t because of anything particularly wrong with the article itself (at least not that I know of, I haven’t bothered to go back and proofread it again after posting,) but as I would find out a few hours after I finished it, I was in the process of coming down with the stomach flu while I was finishing it up and writing the part about all the specific candies.  In order to make sure I knew what I was talking about I had to sample a couple of pieces again, and without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that some of those pieces decided to come back for a special encore presentation around 3am that night, along with most of that evening’s dinner.  It is clear that the candy itself had nothing to do with me getting sick (the Galloping Crud has been going around the family, and it was obviously my turn to get it,)  it’s just a case of bad timing.  Nonetheless, right now I’d have to say that chocolates have fallen a number of spots down my list of my favorite things, at least for the time being.

That said, if you still plan to be getting your current or prospective sweetheart and/or Valentine chocolates for Valentine’s Day, I would strongly recommend that you stick to something reasonable, and avoid overdoing it.  For example, the items below might be considered overdoing it:

To be honest, you’ll probably be hard pressed to even find a heart-shaped box of chocolates that big at most places (I only found one store in town that even carries these sizes,) but in the event that you find yourself tempted to show your affection in quantity rather than quality, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The nutritional information on the Russell Stover chocolate assortment contained in these boxes indicates that a serving of two pieces contains 150 calories, six grams of fat, four grams of saturated fat and 21 grams of carbohydrates.  I didn’t look at the number of servings in the 40-ounce box, but the giant 52-ounce box contains 43 servings, for a total of 6,450 calories.  In the interest of not scaring people off, I’ll leave the other numbers to the reader to figure out if they are so inclined. 
  • These chocolates have a “best before” date of May 1st on them.  If you believe that your Valentine is going to be able to finish off 52-ounces of assorted chocolates before then, go right ahead.  Of course, there’s also the need to find somewhere to store that giant heart-shaped box while it’s in the process of being consumed (the box is practically big enough to take up a whole coffee table by itself.) 
  • At $29.99 for the 40-ounce box and $39.99 for the 52-ounce behemoth, you might be paying too much for the quantity of chocolate on offer.  As you can see above, there are a couple of different 16-ounce assortments on sale for $6.99 apiece, a price that could yield a full 64 ounces of chocolate for $27.96. (your mileage, of course, may vary.)  This way you’ll not only have more chocolate for less money in more manageable packaging, but you’ll also have backups just in case your Valentine doesn’t work out.

So when you’re shopping for your Valentine’s Day gifts this year, be sure to think carefully and weigh all the pros and cons before you make the kind of commitment necessary to bring your Sweetheart a 52-ounce box of chocolates.  After all, the last thing you want is for a box of  Valentine’s Day chocolates to last longer than the relationship does, right?

For more not-so-great Valentine’s Day gift ideas, watch for my second annual Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup post coming later this week, chock full of great new ways to ensure you’ll be spending your Valentine’s Night sleeping on the couch.

February 2, 2009

Sampling the Whitman’s Sampler: A Guide to America’s Favorite Box of Enigmatic Chocolates

Filed under: Food — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:55 am

(Please Note:  This page is unofficial, and is not associated in any way with Russell Stover, Whitman’s or any other seller or manufacturer of candies.  If you wish to contact the manufacturer, you can find them at the Russell Stover homepage.)

As anyone who has been reading this Blog for any length of time is well aware, I am probably the last person you would want to rely on for any sort of relationship advice, unless for some odd reason you are looking for tips on accomplishing your lifelong dream of living out your life as a hermit living in the middle of nowhere, unblemished by any of that pesky human contact stuff.  I think that I would like to at least make an attempt to avoid this scenario, but that’s beside the point for now.  I probably can’t (and really shouldn’t) try to advise my readers about how to win the heart of their chosen Mr. or Ms. Right but still need some sort of vaguely seasonal content to tie in with the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday.  Last year around this time, I put together my first annual (or so) Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup, and since this year’s collection of heart-shaped and jewel-encrusted merchandise seems to be sufficiently kitschy to warrant such a post once again, I am in the process of collecting the photographic evidence for such a collection once again. 

In the process of putting together such a collection, I find myself often staring at shelves full of quality (or otherwise) chocolate confections.  The sheer number of different choices to be found on the shelves these days is staggering (as I will discuss in further detail in the upcoming post as outlined above), but among the Johnny-come-latelies and trendy designer chocolates with a pricetag to match can be found the venerable Whitman’s Sampler, an old standby which was around long before most of the other chocolates on the shelf, and will most likely continue to be around long after many of the others have been relegated to the closeout rack  of history.  Whitman’s was founded in 1842, and has been producing the classic Whitman’s Sampler since 1912, leaving a trail of classic advertisements that remain sought after by collectors.  The company also has a long history of supporting the military throughout the various wars they have fought, and during World War II workers in the Whitman’s factory would often add handwritten notes of encouragement to boxes of chocolate being sent to the troops overseas.  From the 1960s through the early Nineties, ownership of the company changed hands several times before it finally landed with Russell Stover Candies, where it remains today. 

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Detail from a 1942 Whitman's ad. Click for the full ad (source: graphic-design.tjs-labs.com)

Unfortunately for the recipient of this charming little box of history, none of this makes it any easier to figure out what’s hiding inside all that rich chocolate coating that your current suitor has presented you with.  Oddly enough, I have found that there doesn’t seem to be much information on this topic on the Internet either.  As with any other self-respecting company these days Whitman’s has their own website, but it seems to be mostly geared toward selling products by mail order (although if you dig through the Russell Stover site a bit you can find a school project section that provides an overview of the history of Whitman’s,)  Information on the actual contents of the venerable yellow box of chocolate seems to be surprisingly hard to come by.  The lid of the box includes a “map” naming each type of chocolate in the box (in three different languages, no less) but in spite of this, the whole thing still seems rather vague.  While this type of thing might be great for someone with a sweet tooth and a hearty sense of adventure, I figure that there are some people out there who just might want to have a bit more information before they just bite into some random piece of candy.

In light of this (and because I would feel a whole lot less guilty about eating a whole box of chocolates by myself if I could somehow justify it as being for “research purposes,” I have taken it upon myself to dive into the Whitman’s Sampler, try each piece out and report back on my findings.  After the jump, you will find the results of my “study” of this classic box of ambiguous confections and brief impressions of each of the various candies found within.

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January 1, 2009

The Remains of the Holidays

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 3:06 pm

For another year as they have for centuries, the Holidays have now come and gone.  As enjoyable as Christmas and New Years Eve are for some people, the whole Holiday thing seems to come to a rather abrupt end after New Year’s Day, leaving us with 2 1/2 months of Winter to deal with before the Spring Thaw arrives and it’s safe to leave the house again (although with December’s wild weather and last year’s snowfall in mid April, I don’t think I’d necessarily count on that just yet.)  Sure there’s Valentine’s Day and Groundhog day thrown in there somewhere, but unless you consider the vague interpetation of rodent mumblings to be a reliable indicator of future weather conditions, there’s not much to celebrate there (and given my state of apparently perpetual singleness, I will just refrain from discussing Valentine’s Day at this time.) 

As the Holiday season returns to its standard place off in the semi-distant future, the time comes to clear out its remnants.  Back before Christmas I had actually intended to put together another kitsch roundup as I did with Valentine’s Day and Easter last year, but the combination of pixie dust and heavy snowfall occupied much of my time and ability to get around, so I wasn’t able to collect enough photos for the purpose.  On the other hand, as the Christmas merchandise has gone on closeout all through the land, I have noted an odd trend in Christmas candy:

For some reason, it seems like the standard peppermint candy canes don’t seem to be cutting it anymore.  This is nothing new, of course.  Different flavored (and colored) candy canes have been showing up for years now, but this year it seems like there’s an awful lot of candy canes out there impersonating other candies (in flavor, at least.)

Moving back to the clearance table in the back of the store, we see Dum-Dum candy canes (wouldn’t that be considered an upgrade for those things?),  Jelly Belly candy canes (in several different varieties,) Smarties candy canes, Jolly Rancher candy canes, Starburst candy canes, and probably at least a couple of others buried in this pile somewhere. Even the plain old peppermint candy canes can’t just be themselves in this mass of differentiation;  They ended up getting Disneyized for no apparent reason other reason than to Disneyize them (apparently the Vast Kroger Empire licenses the Disney brand for no other reason than to plaster random Disney logos on a number of their house brand products, but that’s another post for another time that I might not ever get around to.)  I don’t have pictures here, but I also noted at Target recently that they’re selling a number of other candy-branded candy canes, as well as a few types of soda-flavored candy canes.  Anyone else happen to remember back in the day (oh, say, about five years ago) back when candy canes all tasted pretty much like candy canes?  Me neither.

In the meantime, with the New Year’s Eve celebration now in the books as well, there’s the pesky problem of what to do with all the leftover champagne in the store.  The easiest thing to to is to just mark the stuff down by $20 a bottle and call it good.  That way you not only get the bargain-hunting wine snobs to come take the stuff off your hands (just make sure you don’t tell your friends that you got the stuff on sale, or who knows what they’d think of you?)  You might even manage to rope in some people wanting to get an early jump on the meaningless “year to date savings” number at the bottom of their receipt.  Somehow, I managed to get something like $200 in apparent savings last year, although the question is exactly how much money you’re supposed to be “saving” when most of that number comes from purchases that you probably wouldn’t be making if the item wasn’t on sale?

 

Of course, there’s one definite advantage to being a teetotaler here:  it makes it a whole heck of a lot cheaper to celebrate New Year’s Day.  Especially if you celebrate it the way that I did, and went to bed at 11:30pm last night (which, given my typical night owl sleep schedule, is rather unusual, to be honest.  Regardless of how you celebrate it, a Happy New “Year to all, and here’s hoping that just maybe we might even have a sports team in Seattle that doesn’t lose an embarrassing number of games in 2009.

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