Back in 2009 I did a comparative review of frozen lasagna, tasting and ranking eleven different products. Marie Callender's Meat lasagna was one of those products. I ranked it in the middle of the pack in the "Good" category - not outstanding, but not bad. It was a little wet, a little salty, and much sparser with the cheese than the package art would suggest, but the sauce was fairly authentic-tasting, and I said I would buy it again if it were on sale.
Yesterday morning I stopped in ShopRite on my way to work, looking for a frozen meal I could take for lunch. I noticed that the Marie Callender's Lasagna label had changed - ConAgra was touting a new recipe and claiming that this new "three meat and four cheese" lasagna was "preferred over the leading meat lasagna." I decided to give it a try. Little did I know while I was eating lunch and taking notes that this very product (or at least ConAgra's marketing of it) was starting to go viral. More on that later - first, the review.
On the surface, very little has changed with Marie Callender's lasagna. It is still very wet and overly salty and the package art still hugely overrepresents the amount of cheese found in the pan. There are still the same number of noodle layers, and they are still thick and a little tough. There is no question that the recipe has changed, though. The sauce is spicier, with a subtle but noticeable hot pepper kick. And there is a heavy sprinkle of very green, very grassy-tasting parsley on top (so grassy-tasting, in fact, that it's almost distracting. Quite strange.) The ingredients claim there to be three meats - pork, beef, and sausage - but I couldn't really tell which granules were which because all I could taste was the sausage. I can't possibly understand how it can be "preferred over the leading meat lasagna," unless the leader is something really awful like Chef Boy-R-Dee Lasagna in a can. If this Marie Callender's recipe had been on the market in 2009 when I wrote the original rankings, it would fall solidly in the "Unremarkable" category, below Boston Market's Lasagna With Beef Sauce.
So, given this totally "meh" product, what could ConAgra do with it that would cause them to take so much heat from bloggers?
As reported in the New York Times today, ConAgra tried to pull a fast one on a group of bloggers in New York City. The bloggers were invited to try out an "intimate Italian restaurant" puportedly run by the host of TLC's Ultimate Cake Off, celebrity chef George Duran. What the bloggers didn't know was that they were actually served Marie Callender's new frozen lasagna while being taped by hidden cameras. The idea was to use what they hoped would be the diners' "OMG THIS IS FROZEN CRAP??? IT'S SO GOOD I THOUGHT I WAS EATING INTIMATE ITALIAN FOOD!!" reactions in an ad campaign.
The plan backfired, as explained here on the Brandnoise blog. Most of the bloggers involved are upset that they were tricked into eating mediocre frozen lasagna by the promise of a specially-prepared meal by a celebrity chef. But some of them, I think, are most upset by not being able to tell the difference. (In all fairness, however, the photos on Chubby's New York Food Diary [link no longer working] seem to indicate that there was more than a little food styling going on before the lasagna was plated and served.)
The end result? Most of the bloggers wouldn't sign the releases ConAgra needed to use their hidden camera footage and the NYC food blogosphere is abuzz with harsh feelings for the company and their PR firm. ConAgra, ya dun goof'd.