Hamburger Helper and the Entropic Degradation of All Things


I eat Hamburger Helper. Of course it’s bad for me, and of course I know better. “It’s ironic,” I used to explain, back when irony meant everything, but it’s not ironic at all. The shit tasted good, back then, and good in the way that good things taste when someone else is paying my rent and buying me clothes and comic books. So when I left home HH is what I took with me. Others my age/circumstance maybe maintained an affection for Ho Hos, or Flav-R-Ice, or Breakfast Squares. But me, I was raised in a place where deliciousness had only two aspects (salt, grease), so the idea of salt and grease and cheesiness was my idea of luxury and fame and reward for any accomplishment imaginable-better than Ponderosa, better than Long John Silver’s. It was like having a foie gras machine in the cupboard. And I am not alone.

General Mills, the manufacturer and brand-owner of HH, leads the dry dinner mix market with $400 million in annual sales [PDF]. And I’m probably not alone in that I generally (or otherwise) eat pretty conscientiously-cooking from scratch, using organic/local ingredients when I can afford it and keeping the processed and fast foods very scarce. But HH (specifically, the Cheeseburger Macaroni variety) is my friend. It’s been with me since elementary school, when the family made it every second week, and it’s stayed with me as I moved out on my own and grew older.

So it is this embarrassing devotion to the stuff that enables me to say, in my experienced opinion, that HH has changed, in how it is fabricated and how it ultimately tastes. First off, General Mills altered how the end user makes it. If you are unfamiliar, it is a pretty simple procedure-brown one pound meat, add a couple cups liquid and the packaged macaroni and seasoning packet, then simmer till done. The change is in the fluid: it used to be a couple cups of water, and now the instructions stipulate one cup water and two cups of milk, milk which is, obviously, to be provided by you. This would seem to be an improvement, adding actual milk instead of relying on whatever dehydrated milk substitute was buried in the seasoning packet, but to me it is not. Understand that this seasoning packet was the single best thing about cooking the HH yourself, because the flavor goop tasted just like your HH was going to taste, but it was concentrated and in powder form. Which meant that as the skillet simmered, you would rip that packet apart looking for every lost bit of flavor goop that might be stuck in a corner in there. The milk substitute was an intrinsic part of this flavor goop, and without it, the flavor goop is different. I think it’s worse, but objectively, it’s different, and when you are talking about a meal item that you are married to out of nostalgia, different is not a desired effect.

Also, the macaroni included in the box is demonstrably different. Sadly, I have not saved any HH from 15 or 20 years ago to provide iron-clad proof, but the pasta is now flimsier. Specifically, it is a wider bore of macaroni, and thinner walled. The macaroni in the box was never anything you’d send to relatives in Italy, but it was passable. In fact, it was how I learned to cook pasta al dente, before I ever knew what al dente meant. After one too many ruined batches with the macaroni cooked to soggy hell, I realized that care and attention should be paid to the timing of the cooking experience in order to maximize eating pleasure. It’s basically how I learned that pasta was something that could be tanked by operator error. And the redesigned macaroni is not far enough away from soggy hell for comfort, under the best of circumstances.

The more convincing argument for these changes (more convincing than spite, or a number of appealing conspiracies) is simply free-market economics. GM has a brand, an old brand. GM needs to keep this brand relevant so that brand will continue to be consumed. HH was rolled out in 1971, and was positioned to appeal to families suddenly absent a “housewife,” or to stay-at-homes wishing to save time in the kitchen. HH sexed up the casserole and kept it out of the oven with a single-skillet cooking method, revolutionary at the time, when even boiling an egg required an array of pans and dishes. And it legitimized simple (and cheap) hamburger as a base ingredient in a world dominated by chops and roasts.

It’s now nearly forty years later, and appeals to kitchen management are sitting in the museum next to the rotary phones. But a global recession is in play, and value was always a subtext of the HH pitch. So a year ago, General Mills reemphasizes the value and starts an ad campaign retrofitted to a more modern appeal. At the same time, GM plays with cutting prices-in a suburban supermarket two weeks ago, HH was on sale for a buck a box, which is unprecedented, in my memory. The price has averaged $2.25 or so for the past ten years. And to lower the price and maximize profit, corners must be cut-just like the old saw about an airline saving millions by decreasing the number of cherry tomatoes in the salads they serve.

So say, hypothetically, that General Mills decides to lower the cost of making HH, so changes the production method and shaves a fraction of an ounce off the pasta included-and also makes it a bring-your-own-milk party. The result would be savings per unit-and a product that does not taste like I remember it tasting.

At least, I hope that’s the explanation, good old fashioned profit motive. What that says about the world is disquieting but at least we’ve been soaking in it forever. And no one is buying HH for its haute appeal or its minerals and vitamins. At a buck a box you’re getting what you pay for.

Altogether sadder, however, would be that this was not a decision by General Mills, but just being the way things go, another example of entropy, tugging everything towards the middle and then below, without anyone noticing, a quiet inexplicable reverse engineering of lowered expectations. It would be difficult to reproduce this under laboratory conditions, but if you talk to enough people about how they’re doing and the like, you get a sense that there is some fundamental force that pushes things that way.

It’s a minor complaint, and it’s a complaint that does not appear on the list of things that I’m actively worried about. In fact, I continue to be a customer, and even the one-generation-later version of HH is something that makes me feel better when that list of things gets unreasonably long, or has items on it written in all caps. But on this list there is a Way Things Used To Be line item, and there’s even a general Entropy subsection, and so each successive unit of HH that I purchase, cook and consume ends up reinforcing the list in discrete ways.

And I’ll bet the vast majority of HH consumers have absolutely no measure of irony in their meal-purchasing decisions, actual or claimed. HH is not a walk down memory lane for them. It’s what’s for dinner, and it’s marketed to them as such, as the margins are whittled and whittled away, whether by choice or by habit, until someday there won’t be any margins left. This is a theme that is increasingly easy to stub your toe on.