Kitchen Guy: The Umlaut Effect

By Beacon Staff

I’m not sure exactly what motivated me to choose taking German over Spanish in high school. It’s a complex language with extremely complex grammar (although nowhere near as burdensome as French).

And I didn’t know it then, but at the same time a few high school kids who would become very brilliant marketers in the future must have been taking German in high school, too.

This got me to wondering what drives people to buy food and beverage products that have funny-sounding names or funny-looking alphabetics on the labels? Does anyone honestly believe that Häagen Dazs ice cream comes from a European country whose language uses umlauts? Lest you be misled, it was created and manufactured in the Bronx and is now owned by Pillsbury.

I’ve seen it with bottled water (the claims about the source of these various brands of water is fodder for another column) and yogurt, among other things. And don’t you just love the brand that spells it yøgürt? (That o with a diagonal line through it is the Danish equivalent of the umlaut. And if you pronounced it they way you’re supposed to, then it would sound like you were saying yeh-geert. Eew.)

Snob appeal is a time-honored marketing technique. How about all of these hair care products commercials on television voiced by people with the most elitist British accents? It took me the full 30 seconds to realize that when the woman said hay-uh she meant hair.

So is this stuff any better than brands without accent marks and other diacritical anomalies?

Well, it depends. In the world of ice cream, the higher the butterfat content, the richer the ice cream tastes. It’s the reason you’ll see lines down the block and then doubled back at frozen custard stands. The aforementioned Häagen Dazs began a trend that its competitors had no choice but to follow. Increase the butterfat and find exotic flavors and flavor combinations. Bless you anyway, Ben and Jerry.

There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m a died-in-the-wool capitalist. But when it comes to food, I’m also a deconstructionist. That’s the way I made my reputation in the television food business – showing folks that restaurant food can be made in almost any home kitchen, with not that many exceptions.

So let’s call an umlaut an umlaut and read the ingredients on the packaging. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that brands without the funny looking letters match the fancy brands calorie for calorie, fat gram for fat gram.

Taste, of course, is subjective, which I suppose makes it somewhat akin to golf – it’s all in your head.

(So maybe if my golf balls had brand names with umlauts I could keep them in the fairway.)

Nevertheless, go ahead and buy what you want. But if you’ve got one of those home ice cream-making contraptions and you can whip up Crème Anglaise, then you’ve got the makings of French Vanilla Ice Cream that I’d put up against any umlaut brand any day of the week.


Crème Anglaise
(Vanilla Custard Sauce)

6 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
2 cups half and half
1 vanilla bean, split*

Whisk egg yolks and 2/3 cup of sugar in medium bowl to blend. Place 2 cups of half and half in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Bring mixture to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk hot half and half mixture into egg yolk mixture. Return mixture to saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until custard thickens slightly and leaves path on back of spoon when finger is drawn across, about 12 minutes (do not boil). Discard vanilla bean. Cover and refrigerate until cold. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead; keep refrigerated.)

* You may substitute 2 tsp. vanilla extract, but add it just before whisking in the egg yolk mixture.