As we pass into adulthood we often feel the first stirrings of the trammels of nostalgia. We whitewash our memories of specific events and objects in our lives and strive to once again attain the (so-called) innocence of childhood. One of our most persistent lapses into romantic ideals is food. We remember how much we loved something as a kid, like our grandmother’s cooking or a favorite meal at a quaint restaurant. And this curious nostalgia often extends to edible products from the food industry. Be it in a box, a bag, a can or bottle, we all have our favorite food products. We often gloss over the fact that such products are typically spewed in quantities by the millions/billions from refineries, processing plants and factories.
One such factory was in the city of Tacoma. A city once notorious for the unpleasant stench which pervaded the surrounding region of South Puget Sound. The Tacoma Nalley plant used to produce lots of different canned goods and the Nalley brand was a lynchpin of the Pacific Northwest.
Now before you assume that I’m about to get all misty-eyed over this corporation, I was not a particular fan of Nalley, but I really liked their canned chili. Especially their Walla Walla Onion Chili. I’ve always adored onions, and to this day eat a significant quantity of them, chiefly in their raw state. In fact my grandfather used to eat them like apples, so I have allium in my blood. For those who might not yet know, Walla Walla is an area in Southeastern Washington famous for it's sweet onions, wineries and a whopping great penitentiary.
Since I’d relocated to Southern California in 2007 I didn’t have too much opportunity to consume Nalley’s chili, as it’s very rare to find them on the shelf down here in la-la land. But about a year ago I was curious to find out if I could acquire a few cans online. Alas the high prices (on the order of $6-10/can) quelled my nostalgic urges.
Soon after I read that Pinnacle Foods, which took over the Nalley brand in recent years was going to close Nalley’s factory down and manufacture their products in another part of the country. So during a recent trip the Pacific Northwest I secured a half-dozen cans of the Walla Walla Onion Chili knowing it would be extinct soon. It was quite comical having to explain why my suitcase was crammed full of cans of chili to the airport security officials, but I managed to bring them back with me.
Since Nalley’s chili is hardly a low-fat food, I consumed it infrequently. I was also wary of depleting my little private reserve. So I was down to my last three cans when I visited my local grocery store and was shocked to see Nalley chili on the shelves - and even a variety calling itself “Onion” looking just like the original.
The “Walla Walla” was gone, but it was identical in all other respects. So I was keen to find out if this imitation/substitute version was worth the can it was packed in.
So The Good Things Of The World Go Down The Drain
In 1974 author John D MacDonald made a quip in one of his Travis McGee novels that’s still just as relevant forty years later;
There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever a consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of thirty cents a unit, when you can increase the advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus the very good things of the world go down the drain.
John D MacDonald was talking about Plymouth Gin, but his aphorism could be attributed to a thousand products, even a silly can of manufactured chili from Tacoma. But I’ve managed to keep my tongue firmly in cheek about this, and with a lighthearted spirit decided to prepare a bowl of each version of Nalley’s Onion-esque chili and see how they compared.
Water, Beef, Beans & Dehydrated Onions
As I warmed up my servings I took a gander at the labels of each one, expecting to see the new version (on the right in the image above) to be more replete additional chemicals and other edible detritus than its predecessor. However, the labels are almost identical save that the new version has a few more ‘seasonings’ and a slight change in the order of some of the ingredients. The non-Walla Walla product has a twenty fewer calories per can, but aside form that they look very much the same.
It’s rather comical that one of the ingredients of both versions is citric acid - but the label attests that it has zero percent of the daily value of Vitamin C.
But basically this chili is 98% water, beans, ground beef and dried-onions. So I was curious to see if the 2% of chemicals, seasonings, salt and other additives would make for much difference between them.
A Brief Tale Of Two Cans
As I poured a half-can’s worth into two identical bowls I noticed that the new version was considerably more dense and seemed to have more beans as well. Personally I put this down to economics, beans are probably cheaper than ground beef, so they upped the bean count for that reason. There is a noticeable difference in color, the older version seems a bit redder, and looser in the can (due to fewer beans, no doubt).
OK, OK, how do they compare taste-wise? The truth is, there isn’t a great deal of difference, but the new Pinnacle-produced version commits the ultimate sin of blandness. As I sampled spoonful after spoonful I could taste a little more spiciness in the old Walla Walla version. Since it was not so thick with beans, the Walla Walla version was more enjoyable to eat - and I wound up not even finishing the Pinnacle portion. But overall, neither version has the significant onion flavor I liked so much. So I found myself wanting to chop up some fresh white onions to give them the necessary kick.
So it will be a sad day when I chomp my way through my final can of Walla Walla Onion Chili, but I’ll shed more tears dicing the raw onions I throw in, I’m sure. And along with some nice diced bell pepper. I probably won’t miss the original that much and so the nostalgia factor is pretty well minimized. The truth is with the right amount of fresh onions, any can of chili will do.