December 28, 2021

When toys were their own world, not mass-media merch tie-ins

Looking back on the kinds of presents we Gen X-ers used to get for Christmas, birthdays, or just as a special treat for no greater reason, I'm struck by how uncoupled they were from the mass media / entertainment ecosystem.

To reiterate, there was a massive change with the Millennial generation, or rather with their helicopter parents, who locked them inside all day long during their developmental years, rationalizing it as keeping them safe from bad influences (AKA their neighbors and their neighborhood). Since kids need some kind of external stimulation and interaction, the helicopter parents decided to saturate their kids with mass media and entertainment products, which replaced connections to the outside physical and social world.

As a result, all Millennial experiences have been mediated through these devices and informational products, right up through the present and their online-connected devices that deliver (para)social media and streaming entertainment content. They only remember physical items from their childhood if they were closely connected in their memory to a mass-media product -- a TV show, movie, video game, omnipresent ad campaign, etc. See this recent post.

That includes physical items like toys -- Millennials only connected with toy lines that were heavily co-branded with a big-hit TV show, movie, video game, etc. For example, the X-Men figures that tied in with the popular X-Men cartoon of the early '90s, Power Rangers, Tickle-Me Elmo, Sonic the Hedgehog merch in various forms, and so on and so forth. There was only one notable exception -- Furby (unless Millennial kids played with Beanie Babies, which I think were mostly for Boomer collectors). I consider the Tamagotchi as a stand-alone video game, rather than a physical toy.

Certainly the '80s had no shortage of toy lines that were tie-ins to popular cartoons and movies -- Star Wars, He-Man, Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, (the Real) Ghostbusters, and various others. Our memories of those toys are closely connected to our memories of the cartoons and movies.

However, those barely scratch the surface of toy-world and kid-life in the '80s, which was awash in all sorts of toy lines -- many of which were not derived from an existing, popular entertainment franchise.

In the appendix to this post, I've shown examples of quite a few that I remember off the top of my head, and stopped after awhile because there are simply too many to show pictures of: Starriors, Bone Age, Sectaurs, Supernaturals, Rock Lords, Crystar, Inhumanoids, Boglins, M.U.S.C.L.E., Madballs, and Computer Warriors. To list a few others that are not in the image appendix: Power Lords, Food Fighters, Barnyard Commandos, Mad Scientist (including "dissect an alien"), My Pet Monster... I really could go all day long!

Oh sure, the creators of the toys may have produced a limited-run cartoon that aired for two weeks, never went into re-runs or syndication, and was not seen or remembered by the kids because the cartoon was poorly made or boring or whatever. They may have even put a handful of commercials into rotation on TV. Maybe they made a 4-issue comic book series that no kid actually read (not the least because the comic book format was rapidly fading from importance for small kids during the '80s). And in several cases, there was no pre-existing or concurrent mass media tie-in at all -- just the toy line unto itself.

By and large, though, these toy lines were only known from actual visits by the kids to actual toy-stores and looking over the actual physical items for sale. All of the advertising and branding went into the package design. If the toy "did something," this was visually demonstrated in pictures on the packaging, perhaps with a caption to explain it. Since you hadn't seen such things on cartoons, movies, video games, or even commercials, you had to figure out from the packaging and the toy itself inside, whether it was worth buying or not.

That was the heyday for buying toys IRL, from the huge toy-store chains like Toys R Us and Children's Palace, to the smaller-scale chains like K-B Toys, to mid-market department stores like K-Mart and Woolworth's, all the way down to general closeout stores like Odd Lots (since rebranded as Big Lots).

If you wanted to know what was new in the toy market, you didn't bother watching hours of TV just to see a handful of toy commercials, nor did you watch hours of cartoons to see if their toys might be worth playing with. You simply had your parents drive you to Toys R Us, browse the selection, and compare the many many many wares on display. In other words, the purpose of a toy-store visit was not only to pick up an item that you already knew you wanted, but to learn about what all was available by browsing IRL (rather than learning this info through the mass media).

What difference did it make if you didn't recognize the toys on display from a cartoon, movie, commercial, etc.? Either it looked cool and fun, or it didn't. We judged them on their own toy-like merits, not their brand synergy with existing intellectual property franchises. Even without a hyped-up cartoon to relate it to, the toy had some special appeal that was apparent right there in the toy-store -- the translucent and geometric forms of the Crystar figures, Bone Age's dinosaur skeletons that could be reassembled into vehicles or buildings (borrowing from Lego blocks and Transformers), the horror hologram stickers on the Supernaturals, the gross-out feel of their skin and the try-it-in-the-package puppeteering of the Boglins, and so on and so forth.

No cartoons or commercials required! -- they could not hope to convey, palpably and immediately, what the items for sale in the store could so easily.

It wasn't even as though we balked at the toy lines that we didn't associate with a media property, but were more willing than Millennials to give such things a chance, to take a risk. We simply did not treat toys as derivative products from a primary media property like a cartoon. The toys themselves were primary and fundamental -- some of them happened to have counterparts in cartoon-world, and some of them happened not to, and we didn't think a second thought about those differences. Were they fun to play with, or not?

For the heavily mediatized experiences of Millennials, though, such toy lines were not really real. They were not the physical incarnation of characters from a favorite cartoon / movie / video game. So in a way, those toy-makers were just making shit up, lying and deceiving the kids. "That's not a real hero, he's not on TV or in a Nintendo game at all!" They would've felt like such toys were counterfeits, knockoffs, dimestore versions of the real deal (mass media merch).

This is not the difference between old-timey toys that were artisanally made and unbranded. The Gen-X toys were mass-produced by industrial factories, and were very heavily branded -- it's just that this branding often had nothing to do with mass media franchises, and the advertising was only the physical packaging, not a mass-mediated ad campaign. This is the only crucial difference -- do physical things belong to their own world, or do they only exist if they're extensions of a mass-media franchise?

And given how socially outgoing the '80s were, compared to the cocooning era of the '90s and after, kids didn't only have toy stores to find toys at. We checked out garage sales, second-hand stores, and the toy-boxes of our friends and same-age relatives. At that point, not even the packaging was there -- it was just you and the toy, and it resonated with you or it did not. I got quite a few of my favorite toys that way, and I never knew the name of the line they came from (let alone the specific individuals in my possession) until I investigated out of curiosity in adulthood. That could never appeal to the average Millennial, for whom these strange toys could not plug into an existing mediatized experience.

This also underscores the far more active imaginations that Gen X had (and still has), compared to Millennials. We didn't have to know the figure's name, what line they were from, what the intended narrative was around them, their character traits, relations to others, etc., as told in a cartoon, movie, or whatever. We would just make up the story-lines ourselves! It's not that hard.

Good guy and other good guy are friends, bad guy hurts one of the good guys, and the other good guy avenges him against the bad guy. Or one good guy betrays the other good guy, joins the bad guy, and now the remaining good guy has to take on two bad guys instead of one -- but he's so angry over the betrayal, it gives him a new motivation and determination to see it through.

Who could possibly care what their "real" names are, what their "real" roles are, and what the "real" plot-lines are? Who died and made some cartoon writer king? They're our toys, we'll make them do whatever we feel like. Lighten up, it's just action figures -- it's not committing sacrilege, as though we were making a Jesus toy betray the other disciple toys, instead of the Judas toy playing that role.

* * *

This example shows how different these toys as fundamental things-in-their-own-world are from "merch" of a mass media franchise. For merch, the form and function is basically the same as the version that is not branded with the relevant franchise -- either branded with some other franchise, or not at all. A t-shirt with a Sonic the Hedgehog picture on it is the same as a t-shirt with a Pokemon picture on it, or no picture at all. It's a t-shirt, and the branding is applied at the most superficial level, not changing the form or function of the item.

This was parodied in Spaceballs during the "moichendizing, moichendizing..." scene. It's not like "Spaceballs: the flamethrower" is different from the same flamethrower without the Spaceballs branding on it. But if you're a diehard member of the Spaceballs fandom, maybe you'll buy any old thing, as long as it has the Spaceballs branding on it.

The trend toward toys as an existing pop culture tie-in, and simply re-skinning the same underlying form, while also not changing its function, has reached its peak in the Funko pop phenomenon. The vinyl figures all look highly similar in their proportions (notably the big head), their material, and their function (to sit on a shelf as display items). Only the most superficial re-skinning work distinguishes the Harry Potter figure from the Shakira figure.

Not only are the figures highly interchangeable within the line, by this point the Funko pops are *the* sole popular toy line. "Should we make a toy for some media property?" has instead become "When do we make the Funko pop for that property?"

Back in the '80s, each toy line was different from the other -- He-Man figures were not built like Star Wars figures, whether in size, color, articulation, material, etc. "Toy" did not merely reduce to "He-Man or He-Man clone," one toy-form to rule them all, as today's toy-world reduces to Funko pops or clones.

But more than that, the various figures within a single toy line were all distinctive. Sure, they shared enough in common to be recognizable as belonging to the same line. But they had to be different enough to warrant buying all the figures -- if they were too similar, and only re-skinned, well, what does one add that the others do not? So just within the He-Man line, one was covered in a moss-like material, another had a stinky odor within the plastic it was made from, one had a heavy rubbery tail, while another had large translucent bee wings, one could spin his torso around indefinitely in a cyclone, while another was a reptile that could spit water from his mouth, and so on and so forth. No two were alike.

If the toy is a physical thing first and foremost, and interacts with other toys, in its own toy-world, then its particular physical form, material, actions, etc., all matter very much. It's why you buy that toy over another toy.

But if the toy is merely the physical incarnation of a character from a mass-media franchise, which has no physicality itself, then who cares what form it takes when incarnated? As long as it's a physical presence, whether to hold in your hand or display on your shelf, that's enough. It's just a space-taker-upper that reminds you of that character you saw in a cartoon, movie, video game, or whatever. It doesn't need to be made from a certain material, to have certain kinds of articulation, to perform certain special motions or actions, to come with its own accessories / weapons / etc., or to be paired with certain vehicles or playsets that recreate the specific environment of that cartoon, movie, or whatever.

In fact, it's not something you actually play with, by itself or interacting with other toys. It really is the purest form of the devolution of toys into merch, where the underlying forms are interchangeable and fungible and homogeneous, with only superficial branding applied to distinguish the different entries in the list. At Hot Topic, the wall o' Funko pops is no different from the wall o' band t-shirts -- all the same fundamental physical thing, just with different branding on the surface.

RIP toys, and physical stuff in general, victims of helicopter parenting and the exclusively mass-mediated experiences of the Millennial and Zoomer generations. I have a 13 year-old Gen Alpha nephew, and I don't see the tide turning with his generation either -- or rather, the generation that is parenting them (very late X-ers and early Millennials).

But like I always say, things move in cycles, however long the period may be. This isn't the first time that helicopter parenting has been the norm, cocooning the norm, and toys only as extensions of mass-media franchises.

Remember in A Christmas Story (set in the cocooning period of circa 1940, when helicopter parenting was also in vogue), the main toy in his life is a decoder ring? It's branded with, and relies on consuming, a popular mass-media franchise -- the radio program Little Orphan Annie. And what secret message does it send to its owners? Another form of mass-media content -- a commercial! "Remember to drink your Ovaltine". The other toy he's pining for -- a Red Ryder BB gun -- is also branded after a cowboy character from a popular Western-themed comic strip. That's a heavily mass-mediated experience of toys.

As Midcentury cocooning began going away during the '60s, and vanishing by the '80s, we didn't need to brand our most in-demand toy guns after popular media franchises. It spoke for itself, in pure toy-world terms -- "Lazer Tag".

* * *



  1. There are some re-skins in the Supernaturals line, but only the small hooded ghost figures. There's a separate group of human-sized figures, all of whom are from different molds, with different costumes, weapons, etc.

    Same for the two Halloween-themed Boglins, which are from the same mold -- the other ones in the line were from different molds.

    The closest thing to re-skins throughout the whole line are the Madballs. And yet even they had a separate line of action figures, whose heads popped off, none of which were from the same mold.

    The main point I'm making, though, is not how varied the forms were within a line -- which they were -- but the variety across lines. Because that's the level at which the branding and marketing occurs -- He-Man branding vs. Star Wars branding.

    If these toys were just merch, then the He-Man and Star Wars toys would be basically the same, just re-skinned for either branding purpose, like t-shirts, lunchboxes, and other actual merch from those franchises. And yet they couldn't be more different -- because they were meant to do different actions, feel different in the hand, and strike the eye differently. They were toys, not merch.

  2. These toys were from the major toy manufacturers, not indies or start-ups or obscure against-the-grain companies. Hasbro, Kenner, Mattel, Tonka, Tomy, Coleco, etc. It's not like only the poor companies, who couldn't afford to license the rights to some mass media franchise, resorted to these toy lines that were decoupled from mass entertainment.

    And on the other side of that, there were huge mass media franchises that lay mostly fallow during the '80s -- namely the comic book properties. Comics were just not a big deal in the '80s, and that went for any characters that came from them. Only the Christopher Reeves Superman movies, and much later, the new Batman movies.

    There was basically nothing from Marvel in the '80s, toy-wise. Secret Wars was it -- great, fun toys, but not as ubiquitous as the He-Mans and Thundercats and Transformers and Ninja Turtles. Not until the Marvel Superheroes line in 1990 did they begin trying to saturate the toy market. And even then, it was through their own manufacturer (Toy Biz) rather than dealing with the big boys.

    DC also had minimal presence during the '80s, other than the Super Powers line from the mid-'80s (competing with Secret Wars). Pretty forgettable, though. They did launch a saturation-level line with the Batman: The Animated Series toys in the mid-'90s, but that was only about Batman, not DC characters broadly, and it was heavily derived from that one specific cartoon's depiction of the Batman cast of characters. Made by a major company, though (Kenner).

    No video game character had a major toy line in the '80s, unlike Sonic et al. from the '90s and after.

    Then there were big hit cartoons that had no toys -- I don't remember Inspector Gadget, Heathcliff, Ducktales, Gummi Bears, or all sorts of other after-school cartoon staples. But most of those characters wouldn't have made fun toys to play with, so they didn't bother. Toys were not merch!

  3. Those Sectaur flying bugs found such an inventive way around the problem of articulation for their limbs, and the problem of how to hold the toy in the hand. They combined both functions by attaching a glove under their body, the upper part of which was covered in faux fur.

    So you could articulate their legs as finely as you could your own fingers and hand. And it made it more immersive when playing with it because you weren't gripping the toy in your hand and carrying it around through the air. It was resting on top of your wrist, moving along with your entire arm and hand motions. Less obvious that you're manipulating it's movement.

    The wings were made out of some kind of thick waxy cellophane material, translucent, with an iridescent color pattern, just like real insect wings. And motorized by a battery and switch. So damn cool. I had the one in the upper-right of the picture, and always wanted the one in the lower-right.

    And on closer inspection, the two Halloween Boglins have subtle differences, not from the same mold, but still very similar, almost like a re-skin.

  4. The "transformer" concept got several elaborations, since it was a toy whose mechanics could be altered to make it fun and new. You didn't need a new cartoon to tie it to, b/c it wasn't merch.

    The Computer Warriors gave it a James Bond gadget twist. For the Transformers proper, the various forms they changed into were all very conspicuously robotic and battle-built. What if that side of the battle wanted to camouflage, disguise, etc.? Actually, "robots in disguise" is part of the Transformers theme song, but they're really not well disguised, are they?

    But if a battle station could collapse into a Pepsi can, or a soccer ball, or a computer monitor, then voila. Dangerous potential hiding in apparently everyday innocuous objects. Unlike the Bond gadgets, these did change form elaborately, in keeping with the transformer theme.

    Bone Age was the coolest, though -- hit the dinosaur theme, barbarian theme, archaeology theme, Lego / building blocks theme, transformer theme, and even the biomorphic environment theme of the Alien movie franchise.

    Unlike Transformers, which stayed in one whole while the pieces were rotated around, the skeleton was decomposed into many bones, which fit into each other like Legos. They could even be mixed and matched across skeletons. Unlike the H.R. Geiger environments, these were only skeletal, without the soft tissue to make them more corporeal and moist / sexual. It wasn't blatantly ripping off any one thing, but mixing all of them into a very unique whole.

    Moist gross-out stuff was all over the '80s kid-world, though, of course. Dissecting an alien from the Mad Scientist line, anything involving goop, the Creepy Crawlers line of make-your-own jelly-like insects. None of it derived from a mass media franchise -- too edgy and gory to show in cartoons!

  5. Aimee, lemme mansplain some arithmetic and logic. :) Claims about a surplus population -- entire population for Malthus, elite sub-population for the demographic-structural theory -- simply say that there is too much stuff trying to fit into too small of a space. And so, some of it, somehow, has to go by the wayside in order for the remainder to fit in the space.

    That's it. It says nothing about which stuff is the excess, and therefore must be removed. It only describes the total amount -- namely, that this total amount is above the ability of the space to receive it.

    To put it in woman terms -- imagine you're traveling (women love to imagine themselves traveling), and you're packing your suitcase. Let's say the volume inside (the amount of space) is 1 cubic foot, and the stuff you're trying to pack adds up to 2 cubic foot. Oh no, overproduced luggage! It's in excess, there's a surplus, etc.

    Somehow you have to shrink the amount of space that your things take up, by 50%. Then you'll have 1 cubic foot of stuff, and that will fit within the 1 cubic foot of space inside the suitcase.

    Does your suitcase care which specific items you leave home, in order for the remaining stuff to take up 1 cubic foot? Nope. Leave behind a bunch of shoes, or a bunch of shirts, or a huge beach towel, or the 10-item skincare routine you wanted to take, or whatever else -- as long as this results in the remainder fitting inside the suitcase, the suitcase will accept your decision.

    It's not going to talk back, like "Sorry, you have to remove only these items in order to shrink down the amount of space your stuff takes up". Natural constraints -- material, social, or otherwise -- are cold, impersonal filters. They don't care how you get through them, as long as you do.

    Constraints on population size evaluate the total population, as a whole, they do not evaluate individuals. As long as the whole population is below a certain size, fine. If there are too many people, the constraint is not happy, and somehow, some people are not gonna make it. The filter does not identify who these are, nor how they will fail to pass through the filter. It's just letting the entire population know, not all of you are gonna make it.

  6. So when you ask, "Are you a member of the surplus population, or not?" it makes no sense. There is no identifiable surplus population -- because shrinking the whole by the needed amount, *however that gets done*, will bring the population below the threshold. Just like removing items from your overstuffed suitcase, there are any number of ways to get the total below the maximum allowable size. There is no a priori group that makes up "the surplus".

    Thus, there is no way to determine if anyone belongs to "the surplus" or not. There is only "a population in surplus," i.e. too many people to be supported by the environment.

    You can ask whether someone belongs to "a population in surplus of its environmental support". But if someone claims that a society has too many people, then every member of it belongs to such a "population in surplus". Or if they're below the carrying capacity, then none of its members belongs to a "population in surplus". These are claims about the entire population, not individuals.

  7. Now, some of the parapolitical retards who infest the social media platform where you dwell, may decide to imbue these objective and descriptive claims, about a population too big to be supported by its environment, with a subjective and normative quality. Namely, "Who's gotta go? Not me -- them!"

    Naturally these will all be self-serving arguments, as everyone tries to avoid being one of those who ends up falling by the wayside. Few people will outright sacrifice themselves in the interest of the group (especially in the context where these overproduced populations find themselves -- namely, a context of status-striving, overweening ambition, etc.).

    However, just because someone makes a self-serving argument as to why they ought to be let through the filter, while certain others ought to fall by the wayside, does *not* mean that the objective / descriptive claim about the population being too big is wrong.

    That descriptive claim is either right or wrong, based on the empirical facts -- can its environment support that many people long-term? Or not? We'll have to see, or maybe we'll study history, or whatever. The descriptive claim is not right or wrong, based on someone using it to morally justify a self-serving public policy.

    "Is" and "ought" are orthogonal. They're independent of each other. Separate. No bearing on each other.

  8. Let's say someone says there are too many elites and elite aspirants, and let's say they use "having a college degree" as the proxy for membership in the elite aspirant group.

    If you deny their claim, then you think it's sustainable long-term for whatever-percent of the population to have degrees -- 40%, let's say.

    Your opponent says 40% is too high, society can only support 15% having degrees.

    If you ask him whether he belongs to the 25% of society who currently has a degree, but who would be stripped of it (and its status) in the future society when it reaches a stable equilibrium, it makes no sense.

    What you're trying to do is conflate the descriptive and normative claims. Probably he does believe himself to be in the 15% who would make it, and that other people should be stripped of their degrees and status in order to reach equilibrium.

    But that has nothing to do with the descriptive matter of whether his society can support 40% of the population having degrees and competing for the status that degree-holders expect to get.

  9. To conclude, let's bring it back to your overproduced amount of luggage. Naturally the interests of Big Shoe would lobby you to keep the shoes in the suitcase, and ditch something else. And the interests of Big Moisturizer would lobby you to keep the skincare stuff, and ditch something else. How conveniently self-serving!

    And yet, do their self-serving "ought" arguments bear on the descriptive claim that you have tried to pack too much stuff, given the amount of space available in your suitcase? Nope. All those horribly corrupt interest groups are still correct descriptively, that you've packed too much stuff and some of it has to go, in order for the remainder to fit.

    Of course, their descriptive claim could be wrong -- maybe you've only tried to pack 1/2 cubic foot, or maybe your suitcase actually holds 2 cubic feet of stuff. Maybe they were simply trying to scare you into ditching their competitors' items, and keep their own, in your luggage. Maybe you don't have overproduced luggage after all!

    But the matter of how much stuff you have, and how much can fit in the container, is *orthogonal* to the matter of various self-serving normative arguments. You either do or do not have too much stuff trying to go into too small of a space, regardless of what others are urging you to include or exclude from the suitcase.

  10. So, if you're going to argue against the claim of there being a population in surplus, stay on that descriptive / factual matter. You think the environment can support the current population, and maybe a lot more, for such-and-such reasons. There's nothing unsustainable long-term about 40% of the population being elite aspirants, for this or that reason.

    Then your opponent will come back with examples of societies that stretched their elite (aspirant) share higher than 20%, or whatever they think the breaking point is, to argue that 40% is not sustainable long-term.

    This is all factual, descriptive, etc. -- not going into whether people are self-serving (of course everyone is), what their ulterior motives are, etc.

    Naturally, because you all are conducting a debate on a social media platform, I expect ZERO progress of any kind, on any side, to be made. Those platforms prevent the growth of reasoned debate back-and-forth, like there was in the blogosphere / forum days. It's all there to inflame emotions, cast aspersions on your opponents, and the rest of the familiar garbage from Twitter, Reddit, etc.

    That's why I will never wade into the sewage of those sites, and why I leave these comments here on a blog, notwithstanding how much I may love you interpersonally (or is it, "inter-persona-ly"?). And with that, good night, sleep tight, and don't let the retards bite. Big hug, special fren!

    Sheesh, I feel so tired now, I'm just bound to... collapse. :)

  11. Luv your turn of phrase "free-fall free-for-all," special fren. Improv, jazzy, freestyle, while following classical rhetorical devices, and captures the chaotic zeitgeist in two distinct ways -- the anarchy, but also the plummeting without end.

    We expect nothing less of the deranged and inspired prophetess possessed by the spirit of truth-telling.

    I think in that moment of divine inspiration, something deep within the recesses of your mind sprang to the top -- a belief in some form of collapse. "Free-fall to the bottom of a very slippery slope" -- sounds like a system collapsing to me.

    But your mind had to find a euphemism to avoid the naughty c-word, and it came up with "free-fall" because it would also pair well with "free-for-all". Sometimes what seems like (self-)censorship may actually produce an aesthetically superior result.

    One of those happy little accidents, as the painter Bob Ross used to say. :)

  12. Masking WAY down among young babes over the past couple weeks. Maybe the so-over-it reaction to the omicron news. And it's down in all demos -- gym girls, alt-girls, customers, workers, everyone.

    I went to pick up my meal order the other night, and the girl working there was unmasked indoors, and I told her how great it was to see workers not having to mask indoors, especially when customers are not doing it.

    She wasn't an ideologue or anything, just matter-of-factly writing off the hysteria, saying, "Yeah, my thing is, I'm back here mostly by myself. And if you're sick, you're probably stuck at home anyway." Did not give the reason of "well, I'm quadruple-jabbed, so it's OK if I don't wear it." So could be a pureblood as well.

    Based Midwestern blonde, a pretty rare breed (usually the stereotypical Karen / Liz Warren type).

  13. Today's big stew report: accidental Latino-Polish fusion edition. Got a gift card to a grocery store for Christmas, and decided to splurge (a little) on beef, instead of the usual pork now that meat prices are so insanely inflated. "Beef for carne picada," meaning minced. About 1 1/2 lbs, together with 1 lb of polska kielbasa.

    Stew-y part of the stew was a can of Italian-spiced tomatoes, 1 lb red potatoes, 1 sweet onion, and 1 parsnip (about 1/3 lb) because the usual carrots were out (supply chain crash -- in other stores, the entire frozen potato section is wiped out). Flavored with garlic, Italian seasoning, rosemary, rubbed (not pulverized) sage, cumin, salt & pepper.

    Cooked some cilantro & lime rice the night before, so added the rest of that in at the end.

    8 hours on low in the crock-pot (the proper name, not the yuppie term "slow-cooker" meant to re-brand it away from the pre-neoliberal Seventies, and yes it's a vintage model that still works perfectly).

    Easily one of the tastiest meals I've ever made, and so simple. I don't think it's just because I was hungry, but I had two big helpings instead of the usual one. Each one enough to fill a 6 1/2-inch Corningware skillet, in the spice o' life pattern, natch -- ditto for the big casserole dish I stored the leftovers in (gonna be enjoying this one for dayzzz).

    Something about the balance or contrast between the two styles -- not thoroughly hot & spicy like Mexican / Latin food, and not too severe in the Northern Euro direction. It's that parsnip, I'm sure -- usually only include those in a completely Northern stew, with turnips, rutabagas, leeks, lamb, etc. But they didn't have carrots, so I had to improvise.

    That biting, bracing, icy note from the parsnip really cuts through the hot & spicy Latin / Med flavoring. If you like culinary chiaroscuro -- bitter & sweet, pungent & fruity, etc. -- then you've got to try this combo out.

    It's not like putting mint in there, like the eastern Meds do, to tame the hot / spicy level. Mint's sweetness is bright and airy (sinus-clearing). The parsnip is a blast from ice-world, sweet in a way, but also earthy and hearty, not suitable for candy or desserts like mint.

    And oh how not-so-sweet, but how very bracing, that truly is, my friends. All for now.

  14. Forgot to add: if the parsnip gets too bitter or pungent for your tastes, you can moderate it somewhat by melting a few pats of butter into the serving. I mean, why wouldn't you want to, in any case?

    It preserves the earthiness, has a mildly sweet taste from the trace amount of lactose, and helps prevent a puckering mouthfeel if the parsnip is too bitter or bracing.

    Everything's better with butter (and no, that's not just Northern Euro chauvinism -- it's Indo-European chauvinism, even if our eastern cousins clarify their butter).

    Sorry, adding a few tablespoons of olive oil isn't going to have the same effect -- not enough saturated fat to make it rich & creamy, and no hint of sweetness. Plus most olive oil is fake / adulterated these days anyway. Not the butter from your regional dairy farms, though!

  15. See also: Legos. They started as collections of bricks. Then they started having themes. City, Castle, Space. Then, timed with the release of A Phantom Menace, they licensed Star Wars. And they just kept licensing from there.


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