If there's one thing Americans are good at it, it's finding new and interesting ways to embarrass ourselves, and one category in which we completely excel is the spoiling of our pets. Enter the gourmet pet food retailers, who so expertly play on canine and feline devotion and our snobbish tendencies that it would be frightening if it weren't so hilarious.
Our entrée into the world of fancy pet foods comes courtesy of the New York Times' William Grimes, who reveals that gone are the days of stinky Meow Mix and dry, tasteless Dog Chow. Now we must cater to our pets refined sensibilities. Goodbye generic Alpo meat, hello French Country Café, "a beguiling mixture of duck, brown rice, carrots, Golden Delicious apples and peas offered." Though I'm sure your dog would care equally for either of those things, since most pooches will eat literally anything you put in front of them, from a dirty old shoe to a chicken bone off the sidewalk.
So then why do we feel the need to spoil them with gourmet feasts? Because we love them, obviously. David Lummis, who is a pet industry analyst at a market research company says,
It is now considered socially acceptable to treat pets as members of the family and to express that by spending lavishly on them, especially when it comes to food.
We obsess about our own food being locally-sourced, and we shop at expensive places like Whole Foods for ourselves, so I suppose it only makes sense that we'd search out the best for our dog and cat family too. And because we are so willing to pay through the nose, pet food companies have been fast to give us what we think we need.
Following this growing trend, pet food behemoth Nestlé Purina Pet Care has added a luxury line of both cat and dog food, but they also bought—get this—a line of "cat appetizers in flavors like steamed tilapia and tongol tuna in broth." CAT APPETIZERS? Are you fucking kidding me? Who can look at their cat with a straight face and say, "Would you care for an hors d'oeuvre?" Apparently some people do because for $1.35 you can buy a two-ounce serving of mashed appetizer meat.
But really this gourmet food explosion has happened because of small super-premium brands that tend to be mom-and-pop companies. A lot of the desire for more wholesome and upscale pet food was, understandably, brought on by the terrible pet food recall in 2007. After poisonous gluten and rice protein from China caused thousands of dogs and cats to suffer from fatal kidney failure, people woke up and realized they actually did care about what goes into their pet's mouth. In all seriousness, we do love our pets, and we want to take good care of them and keep them healthy. We shouldn't be feeding them the dog food equivalent of Doritos and the cat food version of McDonald's if we want them to thrive. Quality pet food is important, but does it have to involve being a total foodie douchebag? Umm, here's a description of how Tom Nieman, the owner of Fromm Family Foods, came up with his high-end pet menu:
[Nieman] drew on his devoted viewing of Food Network shows in formulating his "four-star" line of dry food for cats and dogs. The grain-free Surf and Turf for dogs, a culinary voyage in a bag, includes ingredients like wild salmon, duck, chicken and "hand-picked" vegetables and fruit. Wisconsin cheese adds a subtle locavore touch.
Oh, boy. I am a native Wisconsinite and a cheese lover of the first order, but I also know that my dog, whom I love dearly, has been known to eat her own shit and certainly does not possess the kind of discerning palate that's necessary to appreciate a fine hunk of cheddar.
Furthermore, my dog has never expressed an interest in traveling to distant foreign lands, which makes the mini-trend toward exotic pet foods like Tiki brand dog and cat foods all the more curious. According to the Times,
Tiki Cat and Tiki Dog represent a fanciful, foodie niche that has, in the last five years, established a separate identity from the dozens of health-food and nutritional brands that crowd the pet-store shelves.
So what, exactly, have they done to set themselves apart? Christine Hackett, who owns the company, explains that her own interest in Polynesian culture and tiki art informed the menu: "We wanted the art, the cooking, the feel of vacation. The recipes were inspired by our own dining out." Put that in a cat food can and what you get is Lanai Luau ("tuna in crab surimi consommé"). Dogs can enjoy Maui Luau ("chicken with brown rice, sweet potato, egg, garlic and kale in chicken consommé"). Wow, aspirational pet food. That is a new one. What's next? Sending our pets on vacations by themselves to actual Polynesia?
If all of this sounds too snobby for you, don't despair. For pets more on the Paula Deen/Guy Fieri end of the spectrum, there's a different trend: pet food based on nostalgia. A company called Merrick offers dog food based on all-American classics, like "Burger Pies and Sweetie Fries, Campfire Trout Feast and Gameday Tailgate." For cats, there are some regional treats, "New England Boil (whitefish, lobster, crab, shrimp and sardines) and Southern Delight, a down-home blend of chicken, catfish and crayfish." That's perfect because whenever Fluffy is not busy licking her own asshole, she's yearning to reconnect with her Georgia roots. And when Milo tires of the flavor of dead mouse, he really craves the salty taste of the Maine coast. In the immortal words of Rachel Ray, "Yum-O!"
Well, now you know your options. You'll have to decide what's best for you and your pet, but I sincerely hope that people run with this trend and take it to it's logical endpoint so that someday we can live in a magical world where we can take our pets out to dinner at upscale Asian fusion restaurants and Mario Batali-brand Italian joints, and we can all order off of the same menu. But, in the future, we must remember, when we're out for a nice dinner and the Golden Retriever at the table next to ours starts barking about the fruity notes in the Merlot, or the Siamese behind us won't stop whining about how this Sushi isn't as good as the stuff she had on her trip to Japan, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Boeuf Bourguignon Again? [New York Times]
Image via Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova/Shutterstock.