Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Taking the Fun Out of It

I just read an article about those places where you go and spend an hour or two each week assembling the ingredients for meals for a week or two (or a month) and take them home. Apparently this trend started in Seattle (not far from where I am) and has caught on in a big way across the country. The thing is, I can’t really see why.

Perhaps I’m just one of the uninitiated here, but my understanding is that the process goes something like this:
- Go to food prep center and choose a dinner recipe for each night for the next two weeks (or duration of choice).
- I assume with staff’s help (else why would there be staff?), select the correct ingredients for the recipes chosen, making substitutions as necessary (accommodating allergies, food prejudices, etc).
- Perform prep work—slicing onions, chopping garlic, dicing peppers (OK, I’ll admit that this may be the part where I’m uninformed—it’s possible that what they’re having customers do is just dish out the correct amount of chopped onion from a bowl of pre-chopped onion that’s been set out by the aforementioned staff).
- Package everything up in takeout-type containers.
- Pay.
- Drive everything home and put it in the correct storage area in the kitchen.

For me, the whole meal preparation scenario goes something like this:
- Go to bookshelf and choose cookbooks/magazines from which to select meals.
- Make menu selections and grocery list at the same time.
- Go to grocery store and select ingredients (no staff to help me with selection/substitutions—hm, I think I can handle it on my own).
- Pay.
- Take everything home and put it away in the correct storage area in the kitchen.
- On the appropriate night, remove necessary ingredients for recipe, prep, and cook.

Savings? I see pretty much none.

However, to address the one area I might be fuzzy on—that there are Kitchen Fairies slicing and chopping in some hollow oak of a prep kitchen somewhere (doubtless ones who couldn’t get work on Food Network shows doing the same thing for the Rachel Rays and Paula Deens of the world). I submit that it’s a whole lot easier to scoop out a cup of chopped onion from a bowl of pre-chopped onions than it is to stand over a cutting board with an unlit match between my teeth chopping my own (that match thing really does work to keep your eyes from tearing, by the way—if you don’t breathe the fumes in through your nose, they’re far, far less likely to make you cry; you may shed a tear or two, but no need for waterproof mascara if you have the match in your teeth).

But I would say two things—one, do you really want to scoop your onions from a bowl that 20 other people (some with questionable hygienic habits) have scooped from before you? I know, I know, they make them wear plastic gloves, but non-food service professionals will still do things like rub their gloved hand across their brow (or worse, their nose) to scratch without realizing that they’ve just completely negated the purpose of the plastic gloves. For me, the answer is a resounding “No.” If I’m going to have icky bacteria and germs in my food, I at least want them to be ones from my own house and not from some random stranger who left them in the pepper strips ten minutes before I got there.

Then two, does everyone realize that if you’re really averse to chopping your own onions and peppers, slicing your own mushrooms, or chopping your own garlic, you can buy all of those things at the grocery store? And I don’t mean that tired old “tip” about getting things off the salad bar. You can buy chopped onion, and chopped or sliced peppers in the frozen food section, and the produce department carries pre-packaged pre-sliced mushrooms, and jarred chopped garlic. The quality is not really any less than stuff that was chopped ahead and put in a take-out container. Chopped onion starts to lose its finesse as soon as you chop it, so it’s really a moot point if you then freeze it, or stick it in a Styrofoam box for four or five days to sit in your fridge.

It also occurs to me that people who use these places still have to go to the grocery store for some things. I’m sure they don’t sell milk by the gallon, paper towel by the roll, or mustard by the bottle. Sure, you’d cut way back on your grocery shopping trips, but you’d still have to go once a month or so for some basics. It might mean you spend only forty-five minutes instead of two hours, but you’re still going to two “stores” to get what you need.

So I still don’t see the attraction.

Plus I would point out something that these places take out of the experience. You don’t get to browse in the grocery store. Yes, many shrug, but this is for me one of the highlights of the grocery shopping experience. My husband and I have had fights—fights!--over who gets to go to the grocery store. I have begged to be allowed to go after spending two or three days watching the kids—it’s a form of relaxation to me. I love to look around, see what’s new, get new ideas. I know so many people who hate going to the grocery store, but I love it. Grocery store stock represents society in a way that all of the museums, artistic performances, national landmarks, and historic buildings can never communicate. All humans require food, and what they eat on a daily basis gives far more insight into who they are than all of their other cultural icons combined, in my opinion.

When we travel, I always want to check out the grocery stores. I spent a week in Dublin on business a few years ago, and took a half a day to sightsee and shop. In driving from my company’s office back to my hotel, I got lost (the coworker I was traveling with had been doing all the driving up to that point), and wound up in some random southern suburb of the city in the parking lot of what was clearly an Irish Piggly-Wiggly. To this day I kick myself for not having thrown the car in park and gone inside to look around, instead of spending another half an hour finding my way back into the city and going to see Trinity College. In the first place, I’d been to Trinity College before, and in the second place, I’m sure the grocery store would have been infinitely more interesting than the courtyard of Trinity (not that it’s not beautiful and impressive, but it’s just grass and gravel, after all).

I’m not necessarily all that interested in going to the kind of places you see in photographs of France all the time—small local producers selling what they’ve grown on their own farms, etc. In France, I realize that’s the way people shop for food—supermarches, while gaining popularity, are still scorned by many. But in places where everyone goes to a regular ol’ grocery store to buy their food, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see what the average person is buying, what they’re paying for things, what they’re being encouraged to consume by advertising.

Maybe if you aren’t the food-obsessed freak that I am, these prep kitchens are a godsend. If you hate going to the grocery store, I can see where they’d take the agony out of the experience. But for someone like me, who browses in the grocery store as a form of relaxation therapy and for clues to sorting out the puzzles of modern society, it would take all the joy out of the process.

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