I Can't Believe It's Not Country Crock. (Or How I Met Cat Cora Under Shameful Circumstances)

PR people do not understand blogs. *

i can't believe it's not PR 006

Last week, some PR folks emailed to invite me to a cooking class / cocktail hour with Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef. Without a television for X years, the name did not make an impression on me. But I thought it would be an interesting experience, and maybe Ms. Chef would be cool, and I could see a fancy apartment and take a few pictures. I told the PR woman that, full disclosure, this is not primarily a food blog, and is certainly not any sort of professional one. She said they had found F + P through some blogrolls, and were hence satisfied. Whateves. There was a "secret ingredient" at the heart of the event, which was called "The Big Fat Truth." Suspicious, I did some googling, did not come up with anything, and assumed Ms. Iron Chef was launching a book or new show. I asked PR lady what the event was promoting, and received no response, not even "it's a secret!" In truth, I figured out what kind of event this was shortly before I left for the event, with a second round of googling, but went anyway because I was curious.

i can't believe it's not PR, oh wait, it is PR.

Enter Unilever. Tonight's event appeared to be bankrolled by the conglomerate's "soft spread" butter substitutes (although the place was so littered with Unilever's Dove soap, maybe it was actually promoting that?). Cat has lent her name to "The Big Fat Truth," a "public health" campaign that revolves around Unilever's "soft spreads" like Country Crock and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, meant to promote healthy fats (all for it) as opposed to butter (though I'm for butter though, too, in moderation) and push "soft spreads" as the ideal fat (you lost me).

I have to go to work this morning, so I will not bore you explaining in detail why I am not a "soft spreads" girl.** Having grown up with a diabetic parent, our fridge was stuffed with every butter substitute, including all the Unilever brands and some liquified Parkay and a confusing type of spray-on butter. And no one lost any weight or got any healthier from eating them (to be fair, most of these brands have ditched the trans fats, but at the time, no one cared about those). Americans just need to stop finding substitutes for real ingredients and instead change the way they cook and eat.

But mainly, I cannot believe that a professional PR person would come to an independent blog, or even (and maybe especially) to a blog run by a real journalist, and assume that inviting the author to this event without disclosing that it was an ad for a product would lead to free glowing advertising for "soft spreads." What would a blogger's motivation be for doing that? At *least* take the time to figure out whether or not you are inviting someone who would be receptive to the idea of slathering an ultra-processed product made by a soap company on their morning toast. Am I projecting that message here? I don't think so, but I could be wrong.

Hey PR people: Fig and Plum is not a "soft spread" blog! (hope that proclamation doesn't lead to the wrong kind of googling, snicker snicker)

This is even more depressing because Cat Cora did seem like a friendly person, and is reportedly a great chef. (and she's super cute!) I guess she has to capitalize on her brand in any way she can, and I do not really blame *her* for the choice to keep the sponsorship of the event a secret.

cat cora prepping her area.

I flipped through her book (which they gave me), and there are plenty of recipes that use butter, even more that use olive oil, and many that use neither. I chatted with her for a few minutes and asked her whether the Asian wonton recipe she demo'd would ever have been made with butter in the first place. She said that some sesame oil would make sense but fairly pointed out that soybean oil would be used primarily, which is closer to "soft spread" than butter. When I asked if there was anything she still used butter for, she said she thinks "soft spreads" are "healthier for her family" but suggested that she would not use them in her restaurant. Surely the folks at Bon Appetit are not down with them, but I did not press her. And I did not ask her the real question, which is wouldn't we all be better off with a small amount of canola or olive oil than a huge dollop of Country Crock in our wontons, because I didn't want to be too obnoxious and wanted us to be friends.

i can't believe it's not PR,  oh wait, it is PR.

So how was the food? Eh. Fine but mostly not great. When I got home I was hungry, and forced Chris to take me out for a cornmeal empanada from Bogata.

And thus, Fig + Plum will never be invited to meet a famous person again.


* apologies for any sloppy writing - i'm trying to get out the door for work, and am still kind of miffed, which doesn't lead to tight posts. sorry!

** note: I don't mean to be too categorical; I do very occasionally use something called 'earth balance' which is similar to the kinds of things cat was using. It can be necessary if you're vegan, or if you're baking for vegans, or if you're cooking, say, pierogis for a crowd and are concerned about giving your guests heart attacks because they call for like a pound of butter. I am not wholly against substitutes - my main beef is the choice not to disclose what kind of event - and for what products - this really was. They are just not a good solution to a public health problem.

Posted by jess at February 5, 2009 8:50 AM | TrackBack

hrm, interesting...thanks for sharing, what craziness! i am all for butters and oil. in moderation, of course. even the shortening i use for pie crusts is coconut oil. tho i have earth balance too, for baking for the dairy-free. but yeah, i don't know about this soft-spread indusry. ewww.

Posted by: caol at February 5, 2009 11:24 AM

What a bizarre event! I find that there's something suspicious in fake butter, you know what I mean?

Posted by: Veronique at February 5, 2009 11:36 AM

How weird is that?!?! I'd be annoyed, too. Did the other people at the event seem surprised, too?

Posted by: Jodi at February 5, 2009 11:40 AM

I love Iron Chef and have enjoyed seeing Cat on there now and then, but I agree about the soft spreads. We use butter and the yogurt blended butter, because I like the taste of it better for certain things.

Posted by: Laura at February 5, 2009 11:49 AM

How very bizarre, and disappointing about Cat Cora. She's got a very interesting Mediterranean/Southern US background, and you'd think she'd be more interested in promoting fresh, natural ingredients than .... that stuff. Not cool on the PR folks' part, either, though the people I know who work in PR are surprisingly ignorant about how the blogosphere *actually* works.

Posted by: laurel at February 5, 2009 11:56 AM

How weird that they wouldn't disclose anything.. but heck, you got to meet a famous person!

Posted by: yaiAnn at February 5, 2009 12:21 PM

i'm quite anti fake butter. the only time i can tolerate the substitution of butter is for vegans but even then. . .eh. . .it's not the same.

i found everything about this real sneaky and went about this very stupidly. and i expected a little more from cat cora, personally. oh well. . .

Posted by: Sandra at February 5, 2009 12:41 PM

You hit the nail on the head when you said, "Americans just need to stop finding substitutes for real ingredients and instead change the way they cook and eat."

This is the second time I've read a blog posting in which someone relates a sneaky marketing scheme. A new trend?

Posted by: knithoundbrooklyn at February 5, 2009 1:11 PM

This reminds me of the marketing version of "sneak-attack dating" to which a h.s. accquaintance subjected several of my friends.

Posted by: Jolt at February 5, 2009 2:00 PM

i love how you are able to communicate your opinions on the topic without totally dissing the whole event, etc. it is weird, the way blog'world' and consumer'world' are intersecting and developing.

i think cat is an awesome chef, i watch her on the program iron chef every so often. she looks fab in your photos, usually she is sans make up and dressed in her whites on the show.

as for the soft spread, uck. i use butter or the earth's best on occasion, but good old olive oil works for me.

Posted by: mamie at February 5, 2009 3:30 PM

I'm always amazed by how many professionals don't do their homework...

Posted by: Cara at February 5, 2009 3:46 PM

Wow, proof that so many PR and marketing people rally do not understand blogs! Craziness. And I can't believe they didn't stop to think that maybe inviting people under false pretenses might result in bad publicity.

That being said, I am a huge fan of Earth Balance, because of a dairy allergy. I wish I could have real butter--and use goat butter if I want that taste, but it's too spendy for every day cooking--but it's still a different situation from "soft spreads." Sigh. On the upside, it kind of seems like the PR industry is grasping at straws in the face of the healthier, local foods movement so maybe that's actually a good sign?

Posted by: Steph at February 5, 2009 8:49 PM

Nicely said.

Posted by: magpie at February 5, 2009 9:10 PM

Here Here on the fake butter. I never use the stuff. It's annoying that they weren't super-obvious about the product they were peddling, but, eh, it was for a new type of "soft spread." Not terribly exciting or enticing, really. We marketers gotta make things sorta intriguing, right? But if you asked the up front question about the product being sold, then you should get an up front answer.

Posted by: Lisa at February 5, 2009 10:15 PM

Wow! As a PR/Marketing person, I hang my head in shame for the kind of PR person you encountered. Those are the ones that scare me and frankly they didn't do their research. A bit of reading over your wonderful blog should have brought to their attention what your blog is all about. I feel like wagging my finger at them. Bah!

And butter spread? Seriously I'm into food and it relates to my job and butter spread, only in emergencies, only then. I like the idea of the Earth Balance which I've not tried but will now.

Posted by: Rebecca at February 6, 2009 1:27 AM

I applaud the honesty of your post and completely agree - we would all be better off if we simply made healthier choices than if we all started eating foods manufactured to be low-fat, low-cal. It gives people a false sense of security and does not encourage healthy eating habits.

Posted by: Steph VW at February 6, 2009 7:49 AM

I always bought into the "soft spread" idea, and always used it in my cooking.

And I was a horrible cook and baker. My cookies were horrid, I could never get cakes right, etc.

Then I decided to try butter, and now I am categorized (in this house, at least) as "the most awesome baker ever."

I will never, ever use the fake stuff again, and this promotion is pretty damn appalling.

Posted by: Sarah at February 6, 2009 1:31 PM

Thank you for sharing your experience. I enjoy reading your blog and am impressed your intelligence and integrity.

Posted by: Knittripps at February 7, 2009 10:40 AM

Coming out of lurkdom to tell you that I applaud your honest response/reaction to the event. Silly PR person.

Posted by: Jennifer at February 7, 2009 1:40 PM

Great photos! I wish I had brought my Rebel too (isn't that what you were shooting with? I couldn't help but notice ...).

Love your honesty here. And I poked back through some of your knitting. WOW. I am in awe. I don't have a knitting bone in my body, try as I might. I bought a book but no matter what I do, all the stitches look the same.

Anyway, it was fantastic to meet you! Can't wait to see more of your projects.

Posted by: Sarah at February 7, 2009 5:47 PM

They probably didn't want to disclose because they thought no one would go to a promotion for "soft spreads." I agree with you. Better to use real oils in moderation.

Posted by: Cassy at February 10, 2009 1:27 PM

I could not agree with you more. Being a norwegian, (living in Denmark)- lived in NJ, Usa for two years I learned about substituting fat products and found it rather confusing. Do we want a healthier population and youths with a more healthier food choise? Yes we do! therefore we have to learn and teach ( young-) people to eat healthier and that surten food choises is not good for you to eat everyday.
We see the same problem among kids and youth in Scandinavia. They do get fatter.

Posted by: beate at February 13, 2009 9:04 AM

The "PR Attack" thing is kind of creepy. I have had a few overtures from them. I don't know how they arrived at the idea that a small personal blog with only about 100 hits per month would be a goldmine of advertising clout, but I don't find it flattering. That said, I would totally go to an event to meet Cat!

Posted by: ellen at February 14, 2009 12:41 PM

That is so weird. I am totally grossed out by spreadable butter substitutes -- or as they are sometimes called on brand-free labels: Edible Oil Product! Yum!
What poor PR - so strange.

Congratulations btw!

Posted by: Miss Scarlett at March 10, 2009 1:02 PM

Good for you for being honest. And I hope you do get invited to more events like this, if only to speak your mind.

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