Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Problem with Convenience

I haven't posted anything (non-bunny-related) in a while because there's not a heck of a lot going on in The Life of Emmo these days... During the week I wake up, give the rabbits their morning spinach and carrots, head to work, come home, play with the rabbits, eat (delicious) dinner, watch one of the TV shows that I am sadly addicted to right now even though I should really just read a good book instead, then head to bed. By the weekend I tend to be so tired these days (still recovering from moving, I think) that my idea of a perfect weekend is sitting around doing nothing worthy of reporting... So, yeah... I've decided that I will occasionally post my musings about random food-related things (which actually has much more to do with the supposed theme of this blog than, say, the Bucs and my rabbits...).

This is somewhat related to my post about frozen corn, I guess, but today I'm going to talk (rant?) about convenience foods. I am at the point in my culinary life where I am almost physically incapable of purchasing prepared foods. When I am forced to (such as when I wanted hummus but the movers hadn't delivered any of my kitchen appliances/utensils yet) it tends to make me extremely cranky. I feel ashamed even looking at the prepared foods in the freezer section... This, of course, is a bit extreme. I'm softening on this stance a little, like allowing myself to occasionally spend 99 cents on pitas rather than spending the time to make a batch of fresh pitas at home (which are one million times better, but do take a bit of time when you account for rising, oven-heating, etc...), but I still feel pretty strongly about it. A big part of this is that prepared foods so often taste SO much worse than fresh and home-made foods. I get to eat a little sooner, but I don't really enjoy the food so there's not much point. (A few years ago I thought there were more exceptions... I watched Martha Steward make jalapeño poppers from scratch and I thought she was a crazy-lady since the store-bought ones are just fine for what they are... then Dustin brought his famous bacon-wrapped smoked jalapeño poppers to my Rib Cook-Off and changed my mind completely. I'd so much rather serve people a smaller quantity of food that they'll still be talking about several months later instead of a pile of utterly forgettable store-bought drek.)
On the other end of the spectrum, I ate some pretty crappy meals when I was in college - things I can't imagine myself eating now. My meals were primarily inspired by poverty, convenience, and limited kitchen supplies, and it showed. A special treat that I remember as something that tasted pretty good (I haven't tried it in about 10 years, so don't hold me to any claims of deliciousness) was Tuna Helper. You see, Tuna Helper is totally awesome because you can buy it when it's on sale and keep in the cupboard along with the tuna that you got on a 12-cans-for $1 special, then you just need to add milk and you're all set. (Hamburger Helper, on the other hand, would require you to buy ground beef, which is way more expensive and less healthy than discount canned tuna and which you can't just keep in the cupboard.) I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables with rice and assorted prepared sauces and tried to get creative with various other canned and frozen foods. I was poor and had a schedule such that I often didn't get around to eating fresh produce before it went bad, so this is how I lived.
When I moved to Santa Barbara (and had a salary for the first time in my life such that I could even afford exciting ingredients like chicken!) I started going to farmers' markets and absolutely fell in love with the amazing fresh produce I found there. I had more time than I'd had at nerd school, too, and started to discover that you could actually make much higher-quality food at home than you could buy prepared, and for a lot less money. I set about figuring out how to make perfect hummus, and Steph and I amused ourselves by sitting on the floor in front of the oven watching our homemade pitas puff. We started experimenting with new food ideas (some healthy, some really really not) and by the time I moved to Melbourne we had a pretty solid repertoire of things we made the absolute best possible versions of. My days of Tuna Helper and Steph's days of Rice-A-Roni were a thing of the past.
I used to subscribe to a whole arsenal of cooking magazines, and Cooking Light was one of my favorites because you could go ahead and make any recipe you saw in there even if you weren't feeling dangerously under-weight (which is really not the case with some of the others...). What started to turn me off of Cooking Light was the amount of canned, jarred, and frozen foods in their recipes. Fresh garlic is cheap, takes no time to chop, and tastes infinitely better than the bottled minced stuff. Bottled roasted red peppers don't taste like roasted red peppers; they taste like nastiness. Frozen stir-fry-vegetable mix? Ew. I understand that I am not their demographic. I'm single, childless, and spend time in the kitchen for fun. I really enjoy prepping vegetables. (I only have to look as far as Stanley to remind myself that not everyone feels the way I do about spending a few hours in the kitchen.) I guess my issue is with the fact that sources like Cooking Light don't even bother suggesting fresh items (after which they could advise that you can substitute frozen/canned if necessary). The dumbing down of the food because you don't think soccer moms have time to mince garlic is exasperating. More and more prepared frozen dinners come out all the time full of unhealthy ingredients and with some gimmick so that you can feel like you cooked a proper meal. Maybe if we told people to use fresh ingredients they would try it some time and discover that it's actually cheaper (and often healthier) than using prepared foods and it's really not that much more difficult. They might also find that suddenly they're making food that's actually delicious, which is going to make it seem more worthwhile to spend the time preparing it in the future rather than reaching into the freezer for a bag of Lord-knows-what.
I think the biggest reasons many people avoid fresh foods is that they're not comfortable with them, they're not sure what to do with them, and they were never encouraged in any particular way to think they're a good thing. They grew up with parents who forced them to eat their (often cooked-to-death) vegetables, and they're surrounded now by a fast-food and convenience-food culture. We live in a freaking golden age for grocery-shopping, for Pete's sake. Farmers' markets are springing up all over the country and produce sections even in lower-end grocery stores have more variety of fresh produce than ever before. Jacques Pepin talks about when he first came to America from France and how the only way to get mushrooms in stores was in a can. You can buy 6 different kinds of mushrooms at my local grocery store, and 10 kinds if you go to my favorite produce store. Ten! It's insane how lucky we are, and yet we continue eat frozen and canned vegetables and prepared frozen dinners. We need to stop pretending that cooking with fresh food is just too complicated and time-consuming. It's just not.
In summary: Fresh and homemade foods are awesome. Totally and completely awesome.
Also: Yay, vegetables!


Anonymous said...

Yah! Vegetables! You are an inspiration. Mom

Unknown said...

to think i used to hate veggies, you would be so proud of the pizza we made last night (i even made the dough and the sauce) it had: pepperoni, spinach, fresh garlic, basil, broccoli,green peppers and mushrooms. yum! aren't you proud of me?

emmo said...

@Maggie: That sounds awesome! See, I think if everyone tried fresh vegetables they would realize that they're the most awesome thing on the planet (even if they didn't think so when they were kids)... Or maybe we're just weirdos. =)