The Specter of "Semi-homemade" meals
A convenience food craze serves up hot air at high prices
OK, so you pop open a tube of Pillsbury dough, spoon on some Pace Picante salsa, unzip a packet of pre-shredded pizza cheese mix, throw the thing in the oven and congratulations, Dr. Frankenstein! You've created a Mexican pizza monster. Quick quasi-meals such as this are making a rapid exodus from their usual hideouts on canned soup labels and the backs of Triscuit boxes to nationally syndicated magazines, television shows and cookbooks. They're now called "semi-homemade" or "doctored" foods. The concept is simple—mix a bunch of prepackaged products together, add a fresh ingredient or two (maybe) and pass it off as a home-cooked meal.
The momentum behind this movement involves a massive marketing effort primed by sales of prepared and ready-to-eat foods at grocery stores and fueled by efforts on the part of publishers and food manufacturers to promote their products. Over the past few years we've seen more and more books like The Cake Mix Doctor, The Dinner Doctor, Semi-Homemade Desserts and about a million other name-brand-specific recipe collections. The Food Network's Sandra Lee bills herself as the originator of the "70 percent pre-made plus 30 percent fresh equals Semi-Homemade" equation. This fast-talking, feminized version of Martha Stewart got her start hawking stuff off of QVC, and it shows. With her TV show, magazines, cookbooks and web site she's working a cross-promoting super blitz. The Food Network, as much as I adore it, is bad enough with its usual line up of irritating celebrity chefs and spokespeople. And now this? With all the band-names she throws around, "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee" is more like an infomercial than a legitimate cooking show. How can you take seriously someone who endorses Velveeta "cheese" more than once every 30 minutes?
Marion Nestle, chair of NYU's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, told Gourmet magazine in September of 2003 that this new movement is aimed at "people who want the illusion of cooking when they don't have the time or are too intimidated." And that's exactly what the semi-home-made phenomenon is all about: illusions. You get to recreate the kinds of sit-down family meals you had as a kid through a method that promises flavor, speed and cost efficiency but seldom actually delivers.
And it sort of does make sense. Home-Ec classes are a distant memory in American classrooms and women have been trading in their KitchenAids for cubicles for some time now. Whole generations have forgotten how to cook, don't have the time or never learned in the first place. Semi-homemade food, peppered with recognizable brand names, is an attractive option for many cook-o-phobics. If you know how to boil water for Pasta Roni and have mastered heating up a can of mushroom soup then you can certainly make a casserole out of the two! The fact that you can go shopping once a month and have all the ingredients you need on hand is an equally big draw.
Of course you'll be paying a lot more for these products, and when you factor in the fact they're largely devoid of sound nutritional content or real flavor—besides sweet, salty and MSG—you've got to wonder how beneficial this stuff really is. Stitching together semi-homemade dinner monsters means that you're combining several different forms of preservative-riddled, fatty, vitamin-leached items, which can quickly add up to a nutritional nightmare. That spells big trouble for an already-obese country that tends to associate "homemade" with "healthier."
"But cooking from scratch takes so long!" you say. Personally, I'm not convinced that the semi-homemade method actually saves time. Last week I tried a little experiment. I did the unthinkable and baked a cake the old fashioned way, using a cookbook as my only guidance. It took 12 minutes from start to oven and I had fun doing it. A boxed cake might have taken half the time, but is six minutes really a significant time saver? According to basic principles of wage-labor, when you compare the increased cost of the mix to the extra time you'd have to put in at work to buy it, it's not.
That's provided, of course, that your homemade version isn't a total failure, like mine was. My devil's food was flat as a pancake and had a dense, flesh-like consistency (which my friends delighted in, even if only for the amusing similarity to the cake's name.) My downfall was forgetting that Albuquerque's higher-than-average elevation means that some adjustments in the recipe are necessary to produce the right texture. This brings us to one of the best arguments for semi-homemade recipes: they almost always work. Whereas cookbooks might not readily list adjustments for altitude and other special considerations like differences in pan material or size, the box usually does. Millions of dollars in research and development has a way of paying off. But if you never fail you never learn anything. So your cake is a little flat. Your friends will still love you and you might actually figure out how to make a better cake in the process. If you're super freaked out about the possibility of failure, go ahead and cling to your cake mix... just until you're courageous enough to try something new.
Fool-proof recipes aside, I'm still not buying the doctored food thing. These are serving suggestions posing as recipes, and many are about as trashy as an episode of Jerry Springer. Take the Curried Chicken and Artichoke Casserole from Anne Byrn's The Dinner Doctor cookbook. She calls for shredded rotisserie chicken, one can each of artichoke hearts, water chestnuts, mushroom pieces and cream of chicken soup, sour cream, mayonnaise, a teaspoon of curry powder and some pre-chopped pecans. That's not dinner, that's downright disgusting! You'd consumer fewer fat grams eating fast food.
The development of individually plastic-wrapped peanut butter slices brings up another issue. Just how much suspect processing are we willing to accept in exchange for convenience? We're talking about peanut butter here—certainly not a historically confusing or labor-intensive condiment. What, then, are the advantages of reinventing something that's always functioned so simply and marvelously? Has anybody been raving about the taste of these peanut butter slices? I don't think so.
Just what is going on here? If all this sounds eerily familiar, you might think back to the culinary wasteland of the post W.W.II era's "modern food." It was a time when American homemakers were persuaded to cast off the barbarism of farm-fresh ingredients for the sophistication and ease of canned and convenience foods, the ultimate result of which was ambrosia salad. Ick! Is it our undeniable urge to go with the “progress flow” or our fascination with product design that again demands we should heat foods rather than cook, assemble rather than create? Can we really be so busy we're willing to sacrifice everything for the luxury of not having to think at all?
What happens when we disengage completely with our food? There's a fine line between eating and merely feeding. This is the distinction that the International Slow Food movement tries to make in advocating a return to locally produced ingredients and taking time to prepare and eat homemade meals. So should we all trade in our microwaves for a couple of roosting hens and an horno? It's a wonderful idea, but unfortunately it just isn't feasible for most people most of the time. On the other hand, why should we sacrifice the goodness of homemade for something that isn't really time saving, tastes cheap and costs about the same as eating out? The solution may be simpler than we think. For starters, toss a bag of salad mix with some bottled Greek dressing and a hunk of feta. Then grab some wine, a friend or two and marinate as you thumb through your mom's old copy of The Joy of Cooking. I guarantee you'll end up with a delicious experience in no time flat.