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Trader Woes

Last month, on Valentine's Day, Trader Joe's held the grand opening for its first store in Boulder, Colorado, where I live. In fact, there were previously no stores anywhere in Colorado, and residents had long been begging the grocer to locate here via online petitions and Facebook fan pages. In early 2012, inklings emerged that TJ's was eyeing potential Colorado sites, including my town. The rumors headlined Boulder's Daily Camera, which would report on the $11-billion chain in some 70-plus articles over the next two years.

When opening day arrived, hundreds turned out. A jam band hammered on steel drums, while fist-pumping employees clad in Aloha shirts handed out plastic leis to swooning customers. To marshal traffic, police were on hand. So were Jim and Lisa Lucas, who ducked work to publicly profess their love to Trader Joe's in its parking lot. Elated, too, were Joe and Jennifer Boyte. The couple had been making pilgrimages to the nearest Trader Joe's, in Santa Fe, New Mexico—an 840-mile round-trip drive for items like Two Buck Chuck and dark-chocolate-and-sea-salt-covered butterscotch caramels.

Once our store opened, a trek to TJ's quickly became a right-of-passage in Boulder. "Have you been yet?" demanded my foodie friends, incessantly. Suddenly, Trader Joe's was bigger than legal weed. Resistance was futile. But I was wary. Our cookie-cutter supermarket, King Soopers, owned by the Kroger conglomerate, already carried enough organic food to feed a battalion. Our 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods is mobbed daily, like Mecca during the hajj. From what I had researched online about its offerings, I wondered how Trader Joe's expected to survive selling mostly over-processed garbage to throngs of kale-huggers.

Trader Joe's isn't hawking health food exclusively. Even so, its marketing certainly exudes an aura of clean livin' goodness. Plus, its website claims that its privately branded products—those with the TJ's label—contain "no artificial flavors or preservatives," and no "synthetic colors, MSG, trans fats, or genetically modified ingredients." They also tout vegan, kosher, gluten-free, low-sodium, and fat-free alternatives. Tantalizing! Upon arriving at the Boulder store, I grabbed a shopping cart, thinking I could fill it with actual food.

"You don't want to buy that," warned Melanie Warner, who I had asked to tag along. "But it's just dried peaches?" I pleaded before glancing at the second ingredient: sulfur dioxide. Warner wrote Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, which The Huffington Post named one of the best food books of 2013. I trust Warner because not only can she pronounce "tert-butylhydroquinone," she also knows that it's a suspected carcinogen added to many fast foods, Cheez-Its, and Pop-Tarts.

According to the FDA, sulfur dioxide is not natural (though it is a common preservative, and also used by vintners in wine). We made a beeline to the customer service counter, where a "crew member" named Kerrie was happy to assist. How does sulfur dioxide reconcile with your "no artificial preservatives" policy, I asked? This kind of inquiry is hardly uncommon around our health-obsessed town. She was stumped and telephoned corporate. The answer: "It's 100-percent natural," insisted Kerrie. "Like the sulfur dioxide you get from volcanoes." So, like the crude oil you find underground? Warner said later, "Poor Kerrie. She's got her job cut out for her in Boulder."

Indeed, Kerrie tells me she's been with Trader Joe's for eight years at locations in Vancouver in Washington State, Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, Minnesota. "We're getting more questions from customers in Boulder than at any other store I've worked at. People are more conscious, and they're also skeptical because we're the new kids on the block. But we knew this was going to happen here."

I give Kerrie huge props for engaging us with patience and a smile. She wasn't defensive but appeared genuinely concerned that her company wasn't living up to its pledge. Scripted? Perhaps. Nonetheless, when I gave her a long list of Trader Joe's private label products that contained questionable preservatives—sodium phosphate (Pulled Beef Brisket), trisodium citrate (Bacon Cheddar Cheese), sodium lauryl sulfate (Bibimbap Bowl), sodium phosphate (Pork Roast Florentine)—Kerrie promised to investigate.

Three hours later, she called me at home. "I looked into sodium lauryl sulfate," she said. "It's used to control acidity. We've received a lot of concerns about it, so we're in the process of reevaluating it. And I'm still researching the rest of your list."

Kerrie rocked. But neither she nor Warner could help me fill my cart. "They're creating whole new categories of crap," declared Warner, palming a jar of Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter, made with "crushed biscuits," something called "raising agent," four different types of sugar, and margarine (people still use that?).

I spent nearly 90 minutes scouring the aisles with Warner, using our iPhones to Google the ingredients of dozens of products. Natural or artificial, the place is a preservative shit-show. The entire freezer section might as well be the poster-child for What's Wrong With the American Diet because boxed meals with 20-plus ingredients and scads of sodium aren't healthy—with or without the bonus mystery additives.

And if you're worried about GMOs, you're going to have to take TJ's word that they're absent because company executives won't reveal their outside vendors or allow for third-party verification. As for meat, a handful of shrink-wrapped steaks touted "all natural," while a "Go Texan" logo emblazoned packages of turkey cold cuts. My inquiry to an employee restocking the deli aisle got a polite and honest reply: "If it doesn't say organic, you can pretty much assume it's raised conventionally with antibiotics and hormones." Yikes.

We ventured to Trader Joe's at 11 a.m. on a blustery and frigid Tuesday morning in early March when we figured the place would be deserted. But the Cult of Trader Joe's is strong in these parts. It was packed with salivating Boulderites, who, like me, probably assumed there was something healthy to be found inside. At checkout, the clerk gave my forlorn cart the once-over. "Did you find everything you need?" Need? Well, no. But it wasn't a total loss: I scored some organic chicken breasts, a few cans of low-sodium organic black beans, and four tins of wild-caught sardines.

Now before you get all huffy and post vitriolic missives in the comments thread of this piece, know that I'm writing this in the context of Boulder, where even 7-Eleven stocks organic milk. This is not about Trader Joe's operating in urban food deserts, places like Atlanta or Memphis. And it doesn't concern Trader Joe's in Northern California, where a friend who lives in Marin County informed me his only alternative, Safeway, is a Soviet throwback. In these cities—assuming the abundance of cheap, prepackaged fare doesn't sucker you in—Trader Joe's is a godsend.

Trader Joe's old-schoolers whose dietary choices I respect advised this: Don't go for grocery shopping. Treat it like a flea market—a place to hunt for the few prized gems hidden amid mostly worthless junk. With any nascent retail endeavor in finicky Boulder, there is a learning curve. Though Trader Joe's appears to be a willing student, I won't be making another trip anytime soon. And yet with employees like Kerrie compiling customer wish lists and addressing complaints from sticklers like me, I'll never say never.

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Foobler Dog Feeder

You’re at work and your dog is bored, hungry, and probably chewing on the couch in revenge.   

To avoid this scenario, a development team created the Foobler—a puzzle-feeder hybrid that releases kibble according to a schedule you set with a phone app. The designers and engineers—who previously developed pet toys for Sharper Image—decided it was time to come up with a toy that could both feed and entertain your pet.

The Foobler has six internal feeding pods that will dispense food every 15 to 90 minutes. So rather than one big meal, your dog eats in small increments for up to nine hours. It’s a nifty solution to both overfeeding and boredom.  

You can program the Foobler so it rings when it’s about to release kibble—your pup will probably start drooling all over the carpet. The device runs on two AA batteries and will go on sale this April. You can pre-order the Foobler now.   


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Watch: Cocoa-Brown Sugar Lamb Ribs

There’s a reason we associate delicious ribs with warm afternoons and sunny skies: The blanket of snow covering your grill can kill any hankering you had for barbecued bones in the winter.

Leave it to a master griller to find a way to shake up the summer specialty. In his new cookbook Man Made Meals, due for release in May, Steve Raichlen gives us a recipe for not just an oven-roasted rack, but also one that trades the traditional pork ribs for a rack of lamb.

Lamb ribs are more tender than beef, and more flavorful than pork, so with the right seasoning this meat offers a mean alternative to your conventional rack. And even if you’re not a fan of lamb, you’ll like these ribs because it’s not the choice of meat that matters—Raichlen’s cocoa-brown sugar rub is so delicious, you’ll never want to eat any kind of meat without it again.

The cocoa and brown sugar surprisingly don’t overpower the ribs with sweetness, but instead give the rack a deep, rich flavor that melts in your mouth. With a touch of piment d’Espelette—a Basque chile powder—the rub has just the right amount of spice, and the salt brings out the flavors of the lamb. And while you could certainly cook them on the grill, the oven allows the rub to sizzle and seep into the meat over two hours without requiring any extra work from you.

The recipe actually comes from Raichlen’s stepson, Jake Klein, chef-owner of Der Kommisar in Brooklyn. Some of the ingredients may be a little hard to find—you’ll probably have to preorder lamb ribs from your grocery store, or find a rack at Greek, Middle Eastern, or halal meat market—and Raichlen gives instructions on how to skin the ribs yourself. But if you stick with it, your hard work will be generously rewarded on the first bite.


  • 4 racks of “Denver cut” lamb ribs, each about 1 pound
  • 2/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 1 tbsp piment d’Espelette  or hot paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce


  1. Preheat oven to 275°F
  2. Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read meat thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones.
  3. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane.
  4. Turn the ribs over and, using a knife, score a crosshatch pattern on the meat side, making cuts about ½ inch apart and ¼ inch deep.  Scoring helps render the fat and crisp the meat.
  5. Repeat with second rack of ribs.
  6. Place the brown sugar, salt, cocoa powder, piment d’Espelette, and black pepper in a small bowl. Stir to mix, breaking up any lumps in the sugar with your fingers.
  7. Sprinke the rub on the ribs on both sides, rubbing it onto the meat.
  8. Line a baking sheet with alumimum foil to facilitate cleanup. Place a wire rack on top of the foil and arrange the ribs, meat side up,  on top.
  9. Bake the ribs until sizzling, browned, and very tender (about 1.5-2 hours).
  10. Transfer the rack of ribs to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes.
  11. Cut into individual ribs and serve with favorite barbecue sauce.

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Chef Biju's Tandoori-Spiced Super Bowl Chicken

Super Bowl Sunday. You invite friends over to watch the game. You offer pizza, chips, cheese-flavored somethings, coleslaw slathered in BBQ sauce, etc. They point out your culinary immaturity, swat the basket of chicken sticks out of your hands, leave, never return.

In reality, Super Bowl Sunday does not demand sophistication. According to the National Chicken Council's 2014 Wing Report, Americans are set to consume 1.25 billion chicken wings this February second, regardless of who wins. And Domino's Pizza has tallied their output for this special occasion at 11 million slices of pizza, 80 percent more than on the average Sunday.

But let's throw out that saturated, Saturnalian stereotype. Why not prepare something yourself, you self-sufficient badass? You can still have chicken, but try a yogurt-and-beet marinade (so healthful!) in place of mystery sauces, and try grilling instead of frying. Exotic enough for your hipster-convert college buddy, but not so exotic you embarrass your Wisconsonite cousin.

OK...What Did You Have in Mind?

Enter: Tandoori-spiced chicken. This recipe makes a good substitute for takeout wings, but you can use any part of the chicken you want (and it doesn't have to come from your personal free-range organic farm). Bake, marinade, drain away the excess fat, sprinkle salt, spritz some lemon. Chef Biju Thomas recommends using two pounds of drumsticks or wings, with bones. Not terribly difficult—but terribly, terribly classy.

First, you'll want to prepare the marinade, since you'll have to let the chicken soak in that at least four hours before baking.

1 cup low-fat plain yogurt            

1 small red beet peeled and cut into large cubes

2-4 garlic cloves minced

Fresh ginger about the size of 1/2 your thumb, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon of Garam Masala, or your favorite curry powder, to your taste

1 tsp coarse salt

Make it as spicy as you like by adding cayenne or chili paste.

In a blender, pulse the above ingredients into a thick, red paste. Then, thoroughly coat the chicken pieces in the marinade.

Game Day:
1) Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

2) Place the chicken and marinade in a deep pan and bake for one hour. Then, carefully drain out all the excess liquid.

3) Finish cooking chicken on a hot grill, turning once. Or: place chicken back in oven, set to broil. (The chicken will cook quickly, requiring just a few minutes of direct heart, until you can see a few charred marks.)

4) Squeeze a fresh lemon and sprinkle coarse salt over the top of the chicken.

5) Serve with your favorite dressing or more yogurt.

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