If the raisin growers had their way, you'd be getting more than two scoops of raisins in every box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran. You'd probably get five, or better yet, 10.
The California Raisin Advisory Board is trying to get people to eat raisins in "any way imaginable," according to manager Clyde Nef, as California growers are facing the largest crop surplus in history. At the beginning of 1985, the industry started out with 500,000 tons of raisins; that's about double the usual yearly market demand and 150,000 tons short of supplying the entire world.
Practically all raisins grown commercially in the United States come from California's San Joaquin Valley, within about a 50-mile radius of Fresno. Over 90 percent of raisins are dried from Thompson seedless grapes, the same green ones that are sold in the produce department. Those are also the same grapes that supply California vintners with fortifying material to sweeten their wines, and that fact is at the crux of the raisin situation.
Although within the past 15 years, California anticipated a growing domestic wine market, the influx of less expensive imported wines has dramatically overtaken domestic consumption figures. As a result, according to Nef, 70,000 acres of California grapes that were crushed into wine in 1980 were dried into raisins in 1983.
Another aggravation, says Nef, was when Greece joined the Economic Community (EC) in 1981, permitting it to sell raisins to the European market. This incursion drastically drove down the prices of raisins, with Greece taking the lowest price lead. California exports, at a higher price, naturally became less desirable. Couple that with the strength of the dollar, which makes American exports no price bargains for foreign consumers, and the raisin surplus takes shape.
But the raisin growers are giving the glut their all, with new packaging (poly-foil bags), market research (largest per capita consumption is senior citizens) and cooking tips ("my home economist eats them with popcorn," says Nef).
Sun-Maid is doing more advertising than ever in its history, says Frank Light, president of Sun-Diamond growers, and one raisin packer is even marketing "baking raisins," according to Nef, which are simply regular raisins lightly coated with oil that "don't stick together." In addition, the 35 percent reduction in the price of raisins has made the fruit attractive to companies that have been incorporating them into new products such as Kellogg's Raisin Squares, various hot and cold cereals and granola bars.
Perhaps the biggest raisin coup will come this summer when raisins will be featured in Steven Spielberg's July-release movie, "Back to the Future" (life after Reese's Pieces?). An additional raisin/movie tie-in, according to Nef, will be a national sweepstakes competition in which retailers with the best raisin display will vie for Toyota pickup trucks. The Toyota pickup truck is also featured in the Spielberg movie, according to Nef.
You can make your contribution to alleviating the raisin glut with the following Express Lane menu. You won't need anything on your shelf before you go to the supermarket, but you might want a pickup truck in your garage if you plan on making more than a dent in the surplus.
EXPRESS LANE LIST: rice, allspice, chicken breasts, raisins, almonds, oranges, yogurt, cumin. COLD RICE SALAD WITH RAISINS AND YOGURT-CUMIN SAUCE (4 to 6 servings)
1 cup uncooked rice
1/4 teaspoon allspice
4 boneless chicken breast halves
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Grated rind of 1 orange
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon cumin or more to taste
Cook rice according to package directions, adding allspice to boiling water before adding rice. When finished, fluff with a fork and place in a shallow pan, spreading the rice in a single layer to allow faster cooling. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour.
Poach chicken breasts by placing 1 cup water in the bottom of a skillet. Add chicken breasts and cook, just below a simmer, for about 15 minutes, or until meat is opaque. Cut chicken into strips and place in a shallow pan. Refrigerate.
Peel oranges and slice into thin rounds. Make a rim of the rounds in a large serving bowl by placing them upright around the edge of the bowl.
Combine rice with chicken. Add raisins and almonds. Place in serving bowl and sprinkle with grated orange rind. Combine yogurt and cumin and serve on the side.