The Tropical Punch Paradox and Ethnic Food

Growing up, I can vividly recall the 46 oz cans(!) of juice which were allowed at our table. Amongst the tins of pineapple and tomatoes, one brand stood out – Hawaiian Punch.

What Hawaiian Punch brought to the our ever-so-young palates that, say, Kool-Aid did not (at least at that time) was this idea of drinking the “Tropical Experience” of Hawaii. In other words, a juice made from tropical fruits. Soon other beverage companies followed suit and decided to provide American consumers with various iterations of the Tropical Punch “flavor”.

Of course it was only after I grew up that I found out that Hawaiian Punch in of itself only contains 5% juice. It was that day that I realized that somewhere out there was a lab chemist who had a catalog of flavor components available to them in which they combined to make something that we in North America culturally defined as “Tropical”.

Additionally, more tropical produce began to find its way into the supermarkets I visited. Bananas became available yer round and pineapples ceased to be a rare treat. New fruits such as guava, papaya, and mango filtered their way into our kitchens. And they tasted nothing like what the Hawaiian Punches and the Kool-Aids of the world were selling as “Tropical”. They tasted…different.

Now this is not a post to denigrate these companies’ disingenuousness. In fact, one could make the argument that they weren’t working against our interests at all, but rather were looking to provide another flavor to our market selection, but one not so far outside our taste that we would dismiss it as being too different. Here’s a partial ingredient list from Hawaiian Punch from the 1970′s (found here…god I love the Internet).

Water, Sugar, and Corn Syrup, fruit juices and purees (concentrated pineapple, orange, and grapefruit juice, passion-fruit juice, apricot, papaya, and guava purees), citric acid (provides tartness), natural fruit flavors, Vitamin C,

As you can see, it does indeed have passion-fruit, papaya, and guava. But it also has orange juice, apricot puree and the already known pineapple juice. Setting aside the fact that the juice is mostly water and corn syrup (later on, it would be discovered and later required to put on the label that Hawaiian Punch was less than 10% fruit. That percentage has only gotten smaller over the years), the question becomes why add the juices that we’re with which we’re already familiar? If we’re buying the idea of the exotic, why add the common?

As anyone could tell you who has had 100% guava , papaya, or passion-fruit juices, it tastes like no beverage supplied to the mass market today. And those companies trying to sell these types of beverages are hardly setting the mass market world afire. Granted there are other variables affecting this outside of the issue of taste, but the point is still valid.

When it comes to “exotic” foods, we don’t like straying too far outside of our comfort zone. Some of us like to try new things, but some of us will only try new things up to a point. From a mass market perspective, how does one introduce a new product? It has to be different, but not too different.

Now let’s apply this point of view to the many iterations of ethnic foods that dot our landscapes. A few weeks ago, we talked of the in-authenticity of some restaurants when dealing with the average American restaurant goer. My point, at the time, was that “authentic” was an ever changing definition, so trying to hit it is (almost) a pointless waste of time.

I would like to add what I entitle the “tropical punch paradox” to the equation of authenticity. There are a subset of food consumers out there who would want everything to be just right. They would like their food to be prepared and served in a way that reminds them of home.

There is a larger group of folks out there, a group of people who want to try new things – but only to a point. To help them along, common and comfortable ingredients, preparation techniques, and serving styles are adopted in order to allow them to try new things.

The end result of hitting people in this latter group is that the food ends up being something else entirely. This is how we end up getting food dishes such as Spaghetti and Meatballs, California Rolls, and General Tso’s Chicken.

Granted, some of these dishes come from a lack of available food resources. On other occasions it is a bridge that allows a person to travel from one culture to another, all the while providing restaurateurs and industrial food companies that all important ability to make more money.