In 1989 Steve Martin starred in a movie called “Parenthood” that featured, among others, a pair of characters who were supposed to represent the modern “new parent.” They’re teaching their little daughter Japanese and martial arts, having her read Kafka, do flashcards, and all this before she’s four. It is also very visibly noted that they “power eat” and take their own food everywhere, an adoption of another then-new trend. Although what exactly they’re eating isn’t specified, it’s implied that it’s organic, all natural, and eschews certain stereotypically “bad” foods like red meat, sugar, salt, etc. In several statements, the wife (played by Harley Kozak) lets the audience know that it’s her husband who’s the driving force behind such behavior. She’s enthusiastic about the idea, but he “turned [her] on to it.”
However, in a later scene, where her husband has upset her by being insensitive (as husbands sometimes are), she digs into her closet, comes up with a shoebox full of candy and cakes, and chows down on a Hostess chocolate cupcake. The message (for those of you who don’t feel like pondering deeply), is that, in spite of her outward devotion to her husband’s theories, she harbors a certain resentfulness (if not outright hostility) towards him because of them. I would also add that it’s a reinforcement of the statement that old habits die hard. Her family is depicted throughout the movie as having been brought up pretty typically for an American household of the 1950s/1960s/1970s, and most likely she ate all that stuff as a kid. Clearly one of her defense mechanisms is “comfort eating,” and in doing so she returns to the foods of her childhood.
What, you may ask, does a 10+ year old movie have to do with anything? My point (reached rather circuitously) is that I feel a very strong kinship with this character for her love/hate relationship with what we now call junk food. Although I haven’t entirely embraced organic everything, I’m certainly at a point where I’m scornful of packaged, processed foods. I think they’re oversalted, oversugared, and generally terrible for you. I’ve been known to get up on my soap box about excess packaging in such products, how utterly flavorless they are, and how much better the “homemade” version is. Why, I ask, would I buy cookies when what I can make at home is so vastly superior to the ones from the store, which taste the way aisle 7 smells?
But secretly, I love it. I love Stouffer’s frozen macaroni and cheese. Worse, I love Kraft macaroni and cheese (NOT the kind with a foil packet of Velveeta—the one with the powder that you mix with milk and margarine). I love frozen pizza. I love—this is truly shameful—Slim Jims. I adore cheap chocolate, and I could eat my own weight in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (no small feat, I assure you).
My mother used to make me turkey pot pies back in the days when turkey pot pies came in little foil pans instead of little microwave-friendly paper ones. She never cooked them enough—the bottom crust was always underdone and soggy—but still I loved them. Today, on the rare occasion I’ll make one for myself (owing to their outrageous fat gram count they’re hard to justify), I cook it for upwards of an hour at 350 degrees in order to get that bottom crust cooked all the way through. A long, long time in a moderate oven will achieve the result without burning the top crust. I’ve also found that putting them on a baking sheet and cooking them for about 45 minutes in a 400 degree oven will result in a perfectly done bottom crust. And that’s turkey, by the way, not chicken. I tried a chicken pot pie once, and it’s just not the same for some reason. Swanson is the brand of choice, but I suspect that’s because it’s what I was served as a child.
And as shameful as the confession about loving Slim Jims is, it’s even more embarrassing to me to admit that I adore Pop Tarts. I don’t care about these new flavors they’re coming out with—s’mores, peanut butter and jelly, hot fudge sundae, French toast, lemon-lime fizz. I’m a traditionalist—plain old frosted strawberry is my favorite. I can handle some of the chocolate varietals, but any other fruit is just wrong (blueberry, apple, cherry, grape). And they simply must be frosted. After all, what’s the point otherwise? I don’t know how I got introduced to Pop Tarts. My mom, although she had no qualms about buying me pot pies, Slim Jims and potato chips, seemed to balk at junky breakfast food. I really don’t know why, because it’s not like she ever made me breakfast anyway. Probably just about the time they were doing the studies that found that kids didn’t perform as well in school if they skip breakfast, I was skipping breakfast. I don’t remember eating it at all, even in elementary school. (Note: I wasn’t a particularly bright star in the academic firmament—draw your own conclusion.)
But I think the worst, most appalling processed food I can admit liking is Cup-a-Soup. I don’t mean the Campbell’s Soup In Hand things that they came out with a few years ago. I mean powder in a packet to which you add boiling water. Mostly it’s just powdered chicken broth with a few dehydrated noodles. My flavor of choice is the cream of chicken, and I don’t even want to know what they do to come up with a dehydrated cream soup. I suspect it would reveal far too close an association with powdered milk for my taste. I also love ramen noodles, which are a first cousin to Cup-a-Soup, but every college student in America once lived on them, so I’m not sure I really count them in my list of Shameful Confessions about Packaged Foods.
Although I rail against processed foods, and yet secretly long for them, you won’t hear me speak out too violently about fast food and similar. My kid loves Chicken McNuggets. I love Chicken McNuggets. I love McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I love convenience store hot dogs. While I know that fast food is terrible for you, it can be part of a healthy diet, so long as it doesn’t comprise your whole diet. Movies like “Supersize Me” paint a grim picture of fast food in America, but the truth is, that guy made up his own rules, and I don’t know anyone who has rules like that. There’s no mandate that decrees that one must try everything on the McDonald’s menu (I don’t care for the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, and I’m not sure how much money would tempt me to eat a McRib sandwich…it would be a lot, though, know that). Nobody says you have to take them up on the offer to supersize the meal. It’s perfectly possible to eat a reasonably healthy meal (or an unhealthy meal within reasonable guidelines) at McDonald’s. A little research, a little common sense and anyone can eat fast food now and then without compromising their health.
I think the danger in packaged foods lies in their accessibility, combined with their portability. If I want Chicken McNuggets, I have to get in my car, drive to McDonald’s and buy them. And I have to be going at a time when McDonald’s is open (some now have 24 hour drive thru windows, making “open” a non-issue, but there’s still the transportation angle, and the McNugget craving would have to be pretty strong for me to get up at 3 a.m. and drive to McDonald’s—besides, mine is not a 24 hour drive thru, so it’s a moot point for me). If I want a Pop Tart, I have only to buy them at the store and put them in my cupboard. Then, when a frosted strawberry longing strikes, I’m off for the kitchen, and there they are, cooing at me lovingly from the shelf. Regardless of the time, my kitchen is always available to me. That’s what makes processed foods scarier than fast food. In this land of plenty, it’s too easy to get what we want. Individual serving bags of potato chips seemingly grow on trees, ripe for the picking. We’re taunted at every turn by ads for cookies, candy, sodas, Lipton Noodles & Sauce. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s tasty—have it now! No waiting! Only three minutes from box to table!
Yes, it takes longer to make cookies from scratch, but I would, in general, trade the flavor for the convenience. For many things I am willing to spend the extra ten, 15 or even 30 minutes to make something better from “real” ingredients, things I don’t need a chemistry degree to pronounce. Macaroni and cheese, however, is not one of them. For that, I confess, I’ll stick with Stouffer’s. I may be ashamed of it, but I can’t help but love it.