Sandwichettes and bits of Butterfinger

graham slam

Welch’s strikes back

It took 14 years for jelly titan Welch’s to come up with a competitor for the Uncrustables frozen sandwichettes from jelly colossus Smucker’s. (If Mr. Tidbit had any decency, he wouldn’t speculate that there might be a jealousy aspect to the two firms’ competition – that perhaps they are jelly green giants. But he has no decency.)

Here, in paraphrase, is how Mr. Tidbit described Uncrustables when they appeared in 2002.

They’re frozen undersized (3 1/2 inch) peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, crimped all around into crustless circles. Each weighs 2 ounces. You don’t microwave them; you let them thaw for 30 to 60 minutes. The miracle that they accomplish is sparing you the complex process of making a very cold sandwich yourself. Mr. Tidbit estimated that the Uncrustables sandwich costs about 2 1/2 times more than an actual sandwich.

Enter Welch’s new Graham Slam! (The exclamation point is part of the name, not an indication of enthusiasm on the part of Mr. Tidbit.) The Graham Slam! is a 2.2-ounce rectangular frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich in which the bread is replaced by graham crackers. The box proclaims that you can eat them frozen or thawed.

Although the difference between bread and graham crackers is significant, the biggest difference between the two products, at least to Mr. Tidbit, is that there’s a much higher jelly-to-PB ratio in the Uncrustables than in the Graham Slam!, making it easier to eat.


Down to the crunch

Mr. Tidbit bought Nestle’s new Butterfinger Baking Bits without even the most cursory examination of the bag. Had he done any more than glance at it (while cursing), he would have seen that the illustration reveals contents to be little miscellaneous crumbles of Butterfinger bars – some are just Butterfinger innards, some have bits of chocolate coating.

He assumed, when he first heard of them, that Butterfinger Baking Bits would be little crumbles of Butterfinger innards covered in chocolate – like chocolate chips. And he hoped that if they were added to chocolate chip cookies, an experiment he later performed, they would retain the Butterfinger bar’s copyrighted “crispety, crunchety, peanut buttery” texture.

No, they don’t. They pretty-much melt into the cookie, giving it a “peanut buttery” flavor, but a texture lacking in “crispety.” To say nothing of “crunchety.” There is a little of Butterfingers’ “stick-in-your-teethetiness.”


Al Sicherman


Al Sicherman was Mr. Tidbit, the author of Tidbits, the column about new food products that appeared in the Taste section of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. for something like 32 years.

( Holy crap! Can that be right? Yes, it started somewhere around 1984, maybe even a year or two earlier.)

Anyway, it’s been going on so long that it is a habit with him. He retired from the Star Tribune in 2007, and kept right on writing Tidbits as a freelancer until early March of 2016, when the Star Tribune realized there were far better things to put in that space.

Clearly unwilling to read the handwriting on the wall (it said “Nobody wants to read about the latest flavor of Oreos or how much more per ounce new Jif to Go costs than a normal jar of Jif”), he launched this blog, where he will continue to post weekly Tidbits columns for at least three years (he paid for three years of website hosting, so he needs to get his money’s worth).

He might also now and then toss in an otherwise allegedly amusing column written in his other oddly-third-person persona, Uncle Al.

But don’t count on it.

Uncle Al fails again (allegedly humorous column)

The melting of the last of winter’s snow is a painful reminder of the awful truth, but it was clear last fall:

Uncle Al has single-handedly failed to save the Monarch butterfly.

It is a tale of vaguely noble intentions, inherent laziness and the unending struggle between Nature and . . . Nature.

Uncle Al has been reminded frequently by reports in various media that the Monarch is threatened both by a declining number of oyamel fir trees, which Monarchs apparently insist upon when they roost at the southern end of their migratory path in Mexico, and here in the north by vanishing supplies of milkweed, which apparently is the only thing the Monarch’s caterpillars will eat.

From the beginning, Uncle Al felt that his options in this matter were limited. He has very few contacts in the oyamel fir trade in Mexico, and he is assured that he shouldn’t put much effort into suggesting to Monarch caterpillars that they might enjoy Creeping Charlie if they just tried it. (How do they know they won’t like it if they won’t even try it?) So he was left with planting milkweed as the only thing he could do to solve the problem.

He was happy to learn, early last summer, that free packets of milkweed seeds were being offered by some garden centers. For Uncle Al, this was a no-brainer: Save money and the Monarch. What could be better?

And, unlike many of Uncle Al’s other undertakings, such as installing new light fixtures, there would be no return trips to the garden center to acquire milkweed-to-dirt adapters, and then adapters for the adapters, etc. The whole endeavor would consist of just two steps: Get the seeds and plant them. He was done in an hour, Monarchs saved, still time to have a Little Debbie Nutty Bar and watch a couple of episodes of the Rockford Files.

Indeed, several weeks passed before Uncle Al thought to check in on the potential butterfly garden surely thriving in its remote corner of his back yard. He should perhaps explain to those not familiar with what he likes to call his thought process, that the spot he chose was already supporting a large quantity of other weeds without any attention from him, so he figured that milkweed would surely flourish there on its own as well.

What he hadn’t considered was that some weeds might be, well, weedier than others. Although he could spot several stalks of what seemed to be fledgling milkweed, as well as here and there some of the weeds he had noted when he planted the milkweed, the area had since been completely taken over by Creeping Charlie.

Thus he found himself on his hands and knees, weeding his weeds.

Had he still been writing a weekly bit of observational journalism for the city’s primarily-cellulose-based news medium, Uncle Al probably would have tried to stretch that single revolting development into a full column. (He was often that desperate.) But as he now has the privilege of reporting on his long downhill slide only when he feels like it, he waited until he could pass along the entire story in one depressing lump – and then he waited even longer out of embarrassment.

Weeding weeds, he could have opined in that fragmentary column, might be termed metagardening, but on reflection he no longer thinks so. If he were to continue writing this column about writing a column, though, that would be kind of meta. (Uncle Al hopes he can be forgiven for his halting familiarity with such meta-analysis. He has only recently become aware of using meta as a prefix for anything other than mucil.)

Anyway, now that he had seen what a battle his weeds were having to wage just to survive, Uncle Al realized that he’d not only need to weed them again once in a while, he’d probably need to water them now and then too.

Had he known how much effort it would take to save the Monarch butterfly, he might not have started.

Little did he know.

On the occasion of that first weeding, he was able to distinguish for sure only four seedlings that were certainly milkweed, although there were several similar-looking little items scattered a bit outside the area that he would have said was absolutely where he had planted the milkweed.

When he checked in again a couple of weeks later, lots more “similar” weeds had appeared even farther from where the milkweed had been sown. And now that they had grown, it was clear that they weren’t all that similar.

So it was going to be four milkweed plants. Not quite what Uncle Al had hoped for, but so far that summer he had seen only one Monarch, so the result of his labors could mean the Monarch population would quadruple in the next generation — an accomplishment of which he felt he could be justifiably proud.

The next time he looked, there were only two plants: The other two had been bitten off. Uncle Al suspected that bunnies might have made lunch — or more probably a bedtime snack — of them. This was an educated guess, based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, and the fact that every time he let his dog, Gus, out in the yard, one or more rabbits popped out of nowhere, shot across the lawn and disappeared under the fence.

Now even more desperate to save the Monarch, even if now by only doubling the next-generation herd, Uncle Al purchased a product held to be the rabbit equivalent of Weed B Gon, except for two things: It lacked a catchy name, and it wasn’t particularly effective. Uncle Al would have called it Rabbit B At Most A Bit Discouraged.

The next time he looked, in mid-September, the last two milkweed plants were still there, but all the leaves had been nibbled off, so what Uncle Al had was two sticks. He tried to cling to hope that a bud or two might appear on just one of them, ultimately maybe saving one Monarch, but the frost took care of that possibility.

He has to wonder whether his efforts this year might be better directed.


How much krill might it take to save a whale?



Tidbits: Rather imaginative beverages and a saucy bit



Botanical drinks?

New from Welch’s are three refrigerated “uniquely refreshing” drinks – actually “juice beverage blends” – called Fruit & Botanical. Mr. Tidbit has no idea what the second part of that name is supposed to convey. Various dictionaries lead him to understand that there is something plant-related in there besides the fruit, but they don’t explain why he should care. One dictionary notes that “botanical” could refer to “a substance obtained from a plant and used as an additive, especially in gin or cosmetics.”


The flavors are Cucumber Watermelon, Raspberry Hibiscus and Strawberry Blossom. OK; cucumber isn’t a fruit, and Mr. Tidbit vaguely recalls having long ago seen ads for something cosmetic that also involved putting cucumber slices over your eyes. He hasn’t heard of cucumber gin, but these days anything’s possible. A similar analysis of the other two flavors yields similar results. Mr. Tidbit will leave, as a homework assignment, the question of why anyone should care.

Shifting to his more conventional discussion, Mr. Tidbit points out that these beverages are 20 percent juice (filtered water is the first ingredient). And in no case is the named fruit juice the first non-water ingredient. Both Cucumber Watermelon and Raspberry Hibiscus are primarily apple juice from concentrate; Strawberry Blossom is primarily grape juice from concentrate.

There is cucumber juice (from concentrate) in the Cucumber Watermelon variety, and there’s hibiscus extract in the Raspberry Hibiscus version, although it’s the last ingredient – after citric acid “(for tartness)” and natural flavor, and it is listed as “hibiscus extract (color).”  There’s no strawberry blossom at all in Strawberry Blossom. The last ingredient is “natural elderflower flavor.”

Being uncharacteristically generous, Mr. Tidbit allows that – since the names of the other two varieties consist of a fruit and a “botanical” separated by an invisible comma – we should read Strawberry Blossom as Strawberry comma (unnamed) Blossom.

Where Mr. Tidbit saw them, the 59-ounce cartons had the same price as Welch’s more conventional refrigerated beverages.


Short, saucy story

There’s a new entry in the business of cooking sauces in shelf-stable pouches: Spice giant McCormick has jumped in with both feet, offering no less than eleven varieties: two oven-bake sauces, three slow-cooker sauces and eight skillet sauces.


Tidbits: Quinoa, pineapple and sort-of PB


Quinoa x 2

Of the recently rediscovered “ancient” grains, it appears to Mr. Tidbit that quinoa is the one turning up in the largest number of products from mainstream food companies such as Kellogg, General Mills and Quaker.

The newest one he has encountered, Uncle Ben’s 5 Grain Medley Quinoa Pilaf, goes them all one better: It contains (hang on to your hat) two kinds of quinoa! Mr. Tidbit had no idea that more than one kind of quinoa existed, but there they are on the ingredient list: whole-grain red quinoa and whole-grain black quinoa. Sure, they are the last two ingredients — below beef fat, corn syrup solids, malic acid and natural flavor — but it’s the thought that counts.

Pineapple for Easter

Easter is just weeks away, but there’s still time to find this year’s most unusual flavor of Easter egg filling. It’s from Russell Stover, which had already pushed the envelope on single-serve holiday treats (pumpkins, Santas, hearts and more) with such flavors as peppermint brownie and lemon cake. It’s dark-chocolate-covered Pineapple Whip. (The name should not suggest, as Mr. Tidbit must admit it did briefly for him, some oddly sweet tropical-island torture; “whip” just means it’s fluffy, as opposed to creamy.)

When is P.B. not really PB?

There has been no shortage recently of variations on peanut butter and peanut butter packaging from Jif, including almond butter, cashew butter and hazelnut spreads (including, of course, salted caramel), as well as Jif To Go (1 1/2-ounce convenience tublets of peanut butter — let’s call it PB) and Jif To Go Dippers (PB and pretzels for dipping).

Over at Skippy, it’s been only packaging variants, including 1 1/2-ounce Skippy Singles tublets of PB and the recent Skippy Baking 1/2 Cups of PB. Until now. Going in a different snacking direction than that taken by Jif, Hormel introduces Skippy P.B. Bites, half-inch “portable, pop-able” balls in two varieties.  There’s Pretzel (pretzel balls covered with a peanut butter coating) and Double Peanut Butter (what the contents list calls a “peanut butter flavored center” covered with a similar peanut butter coating).

The coating of both varieties isn’t simply peanut butter, which would be unacceptably gooey; it’s mostly palm kernel oil. And the center of the Double Peanut Butter version isn’t simply peanut butter either. It’s mostly sugar and flour. Mr. Tidbit doesn’t know why.

Al Sicherman