About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Uncle Ben's Express To Lethlean's Hell
From John Lethlean's recent article on Uncle Ben's Express rice.

'If you want rice but cannot get it together sufficiently to simply rinse and cook some of the stuff on a basic heat source, or in a proper rice cooker, allowing the 12 or so minutes it takes for it to be ready in time for everything else you planned for dinner, you're pathetic. You're wasting the household budget and I think you should be ashamed.'

Well John, tell me, where are your articles railing against instant couscous, two minute noodles and five minute polenta - from a vast array of manufactured convenience foods, why single out just Express rice for a serve? What's up with the Mother Superior tone that's reeking of food snobbery? Worst of all, you've just called pathetic the tens of thousands of ordinary, hard working Australians who use this product.

You're ahead of me in as much as you've actually tried the stuff, but what of those who choose to not cook your way, or, simply don't know how, it's their choice to eat this rice, one they needn't be ashamed of, especially if it stops them from getting something else less healthful, like take-away. It isn't such a big stretch to imagine someone coming home dog-tired, unable to think past popping their dinner in the microwave and giving it a zap.

Sure, it's never going to be as tasty as rice cooked your way, but some people really don't care about the difference, they just want to be fed; for them, food is fuel, nothing more. The quicker and easier it is, means more time to do something else. That's what they're paying the extra for, it's buying time and also peace of mind.

Doubt the peace of mind? Check out this non sequitur.

'What is hard about cooking rice?
Give it a rinse. Add the correct amount of water. Seal the lid with foil. Put the pot on a very low heat. And wait.
The only difficult bit of that is adding the right amount of water, which is a bit of a learnt, intuitive thing.'

If someone had never cooked rice before, it's not so easy after all. That's why this stuff sells.
  posted at 8:45 am

At 2:43 pm, Blogger gigi said...

Neil, this is why I love you; you're a foodie who gets it for the rest of us.

You've never tried it? I can only say that I grew up on it, and truly, it is not so awful. As my mother used to say, "a little buttah a little salt, it's rice. Eat!"

A good cook knows how to make use of their products, regardless of pedigree. And if John Lethlean cannot get it together sufficiently to make use of the ingredients and cooking pots ('proper rice cooker'; qu'est-ce que c'est? :) the rest of us generally use, then he is the one who should be ashamed.

At 6:22 pm, Anonymous kitchen hand said...

It's just more typical snobbery from The Age, the food section of which used to have a stock line for reviewing cafes in suburbs beyond the inner city: Who would have thought you could find a decent meal in darkest (insert suburb here) ... .

At 10:52 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I am blissfully unaware of John Lethlean but ever so grateful for his snobbery and writing because without it . . . we'd not have gotten this from you Neil. I've not ever had Uncle Ben's Express rice either but I grew up on Minute Rice which has got to be about the same. I think gigi's mom's got it right with "a little buttah a little salt, it's rice. Eat!" And John Lethlean can sit down and shud'up!

At 11:20 am, Blogger Kalyn said...

Good for you. Nothing more annoying than someone who decides to judge what other people should be eating.

At 3:58 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi gigi, I love your mom's comments! Did you know butter is the secret of life? Don't the French also say Vive la Difference!

Hi kitchen hand, funny you should say that. In a writing course I just completed, one of the things we looked at was a Lethlean review of an outer suburban restaurant that was rather scathing and the overriding impression was that he was very happy to be heading home from such a far flung culinary outpost.

Hi tanna, hear, hear!

Hi kalyn, and the manner in which he wrote it was irritating too. The AA Gill/Coren Giles style of writing seems so alien to the major body of his work. Lethlean usually writes subtly and with elegance. Not this time though.

At 4:11 pm, Blogger Serenity Later said...

just my two cents but i kinda agree with lethlean on this one - these instant rice/pasta/meal dealies can be dreadful. i understand that they fill a void in the market for time-starved people who just basically want something on the table. However, considering that rice is a rather important staple food consumed by many people in the world who somehow find ways to cook it with or without a fancy ricecooker or a microwave, etc., rice can't really be as complicated as these time-saving meals would have us believe. And more importantly rice can be so tasty when prepared with one's own hands, whereas these products rarely are - but you're right Lethlean can be quite supercilious in his saturday columns.

At 11:39 pm, Anonymous ntsc The Art of The Pig said...

I'm with serenity later, the tone is dreadful and snobish.

However who ever he is, is correct that Minute Rice or Express Rice is fairly dreadful. I didn't like rice as my mother only used Minute, now I have it as the starch two or three times a week. My wife even showed me how to do it.

At 12:29 am, Blogger Jack said...

I was also surprised, yet pleasantly amused by Johns dark tone in this piece, but I agree with him.
Worse than all of this, is the preboiled and peeled eggs that you can get at the supermarket. Boiling an egg is the benchmark slang for the most basic of cooking so, nothing surprises me after seeing this.
I'm happy with a little snobbery with my food if it shocks others into realising that it really is not that hard.

At 9:47 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi serenity, I have no problem with saying that rice cooked the way John suggested tastes better than Uncle Ben's Express. I'm not trying to be PC either, but I just think that using words like ashamed and pathetic was over the top, it's just rice.

Hi ntsc, it was the tone that caused me to write about it, I think Lethlean could have done it better, normally he does; when on song, his writing draws you in.

Hi jack, before I wrote this piece, I showed it to a mate to whom this type of product is probably aimed at. Most of what he said I can't repeat, though Gordon Ramsey would know most of the words. The thing is, there are people who really can't cook and don't care about it, like my mate. As he said with his engineering hat on, he finds it pathetic that someone can't weld two pieces of metal together - it's about the choices we make, whether to learn to weld or cook, there is no shame in either choice.

At 10:28 pm, Blogger Marie Antoinette said...

I have to say I agree with Lethlean. I should declare that I don't have kids, but I do work and study, look after kids regularly, and maintain an urban food garden in my backyard that supplies much of my vegetable nees. So my life is not replete with spare time.

Basically, I think these kinds of convenience foods, which seem to have been experiencing a boom time over the last 5 or so years, are selling us all short on so many fronts: health and nutrition, environment, community, life skills, and much more.

Cooking isn't easy, but it's a life skill that is vital. Cooking for loved ones is part of the social glue that holds families and communities together. Knowing how to shop and cook fresh ingredients is a health issue.

Pre-packaged foods are big on food miles, packaging, and embodied energy. These kinds of products and the advertising associated with them are all about persuading us that cooking is a luxury - something we don't need to make time for, or invest time in learning.

I don't think Lethlean picked up on al these issue - his focus is cooking - but I don't think that means he's a food snob. I've read pieces he's written on pretty humble simple food.

marie antoinette

At 1:25 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi marie, I agree with you that everyone should learn how to cook, but the simple fact is that people like you and me are in a minority. Big food corporations couldn't exist otherwise. I did a taste test on this product and honestly, it was no worse than my mum's plain boiled rice. Lethlean is right that rice cooked his way is superior in both taste and texture, but his cooking time was short, absorption rice takes twenty minutes, cooking and resting, Uncle Ben's Express two minutes all up and no pot to scrub. That's attractive to a lot of folk.

At 4:43 pm, Blogger Lucy said...

Yes, I thought it was a little snobby, too, Neil. I mean, it's true that cooking is an important skill to attain, particularly in terms of health, but then some people are just wired differently.

My best friend is the worst cook I've ever met, but she's the cleverest person I know.

Off to learn how to weld...

At 12:38 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi lucy, to use that very 80's phrase, different folks, different strokes. I'll let you in on a secret - I can't weld either.

At 11:06 pm, Anonymous Elliot said...

I just tried Uncle Ben's Express Rice for the first time and it's quite acceptable. I'm going to buy some for those occassions when I'm in a hurry. Not as good as the steamer but that much of a food snob I am not!

At 10:21 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi elliot, perfectly put, it is acceptable. If you put some well flavoured stew or some such thing on top, one would hardly notice the difference.

At 1:33 pm, Anonymous Tim said...

I'm amazed that you even read past the first paragraph, because that's as far as I ever get in JL's articles. Smarmy dross, written with all the elegance of a constipated elephant.

A packet of Uncle Ben's to anyone who can read beyond this line in his latest review: Hey, pal, those big red things hanging decoratively outside SiChuan Dining Room on Glenferrie Road, part of the shrine-like ornate facade, yes, the long pointy things: they're not firecrackers.

At 7:45 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi tim, do you swear on a packet of Uncle Ben's Express that you're not JL taking the piss? If you aren't read this
, you'll like the research.

At 1:42 pm, Anonymous Tim said...

Jeez! I use one colon and look what I get. I won't dignify your accusation with a rebuttal, except to say that the real JL would have found many, many more opportunities for unnecessary punctuation within a 100 word passage.

I did read your post about processed food and it’s nice work. The definition of ‘processed’ needs to be considered though, as your other readers mentioned. If by toasting hazelnuts to make them palatable you’re processing them, then I processed a delicious steak on the barbeque last night. Perhaps a better comparison to modern-day processing is preserving. When did someone first salt their fish so it would keep for the winter rather than eat it fresh?

I’m looking forward to your piece on GM crops.

At 8:43 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi tim, thought I might have been to subtle, hoping you would discover the name of the author whose linked article I was rebutting in part.

You have discovered the point of the post exactly. Heating food is a process and yes, you did process your steak to make it more digestable, though doesn't saying cooking your steak sound so much better? This article

might be of interest.

I'm sitting on the fence regarding GM crops. I get the risks, but the benefits are undeniable too. That said, if this drought of ours continues and they come up with a GM wheat crop for example, that grows without water, I'm all for it.

At 12:38 pm, Anonymous Tim said...

Ah yes, much too subtle for me. You have overestimated my attention to detail. This is yet another article that has had me turning the page by the end of paragraph 1 on a Saturday morning. “Was there really any need to be out for dinner at all?” Well, considering his occupation I should imagine there was a jolly good need. I fared a little better this time though – I got as far as the clumsy use of “fallacious”, which reeks of too much reliance on a thesaurus at the expense of context.

I’m with you on the GM thing. I’ve been following a company listed on AIM in London called Futuragene (FGN), whose interest is getting crops to grow in hostile environments. The share price has been hammered in the markets, but of course there could be any number of reasons for that. Regardless, it will be interesting to see the reaction if this or a similar company does lay the proverbial golden egg. Will the markets join me & thee on the fence or will they pile in? Will so called ethics and HRH Prince Charles come into play, or will the almighty dollar (well, pound) prevail?

ps - I lied before because I did make it through JL's polenta article this time. How come there was no tut-tutting about the chef's use of instant polenta?

At 11:40 am, Blogger grocer said...

instead of slagging off these "convenience items" (which I actually abhor) perhaps food writers could focus on de-mystifying how easy it is to do some of these things. (just an idea...)

I'm with Jack on this - and the peeled, boiled egg thing - OMG! no wonder I don't go in those places! Apparently you can get frozen scrambled eggs too! I think that should be outlawed!


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