Having had this baby, I’m now trying to make an effort to eat a little better. Early on in my pregnancy, I was so sick that the doctor told me that pretty much anything I could get in my stomach and keep there was fine. Then toward the end, I had a kind of a similar problem that turned out to be appendicitis (for which reason the baby was born a month early). Anyway, now that all those problems are behind me, I need to make a move in the right direction and try to start eating a little better.
Because of this (and because other people in our house need to eat), we were at the grocery store the other day. And as I wandered the aisles (as I am apt to do at the grocery store, going up and down and just browsing), I realized that there are lots of foods that I just adore, but that I wouldn’t admit to liking publicly on a bet. (Although isn’t that what I’m doing in this blog? Oh well, so much for winning that bet.)
I bought two boxes of chicken flavored rice-a-roni. I still remember the jingle they had when I was a kid and the stuff was pretty new—“Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat/Rice-a-roni: the flavor can’t be beat/One pan, no boiling, cooking ease/A flavor that is sure to please/Rice-a-roni: the San Francisco treat!” Of course you do bring the water in rice-a-roni to a boil, but really, who cares? I suppose in some way it violates the truth in advertising laws, but I’m not a lawyer. I remember making this stuff as a kid and thinking that it took the vermicelli hours to brown, so anxious was I to dig in to a plate of rice cooked in powdered chicken bouillon.
In fact, pretty much anything cooked with excessively fake chicken flavored anything is high on my list of favorites. Chicken flavored Stove Top stuffing comes to mind. Soggy bread with super salty chicken flavoring in it. Yum. Their big push when I was a kid was “Stove Top instead of potatoes.” Even when we started hearing that meat should be more of a flavoring or a condiment than the center of a meal, (and suggesting that meat be a condiment has to be about the most half-assed idea any nutritionist has ever come up with—stupider, even, than suggesting that we eat baby carrots instead of potato chips when we crave “something crunchy”) Stove Top was still plainly in favor of the meat/vegetable/starch meal configuration.
Sometimes the starchy thing is the whole meal. Kraft macaroni and cheese is a lunch. NOT that horrible thing with the packet of Velveeta. The even worse one with the packet of cheese powder that you mix with milk and margarine (don’t waste butter on it) and it makes a “cheese sauce.” I’ve come to realize that the world can be divided into two groups of people: Velveeta packet people, and powder people. Well, technically it can be divided into three groups, with the third group being headed by my aunt, who wouldn’t eat boxed macaroni and cheese if you offered her the contents of Fort Knox, a lifetime of perfect health, and eternal salvation too. But Kraft macaroni and cheese eaters can defend their packet vs. powder positions fairly vehemently, from what I’ve found.
Although I haven’t had it since I was about 12 years old, I’m pretty sure I’d still adore Oscar Mayer bologna on white bread with mayonnaise or mustard. It used to be a staple lunch of mine in elementary school. I think there’s a law that if you put lettuce on that sandwich, it must be iceberg, and you must serve the sandwich with Ruffles potato chips, and Oreos for dessert. Or possibly Chips Ahoy! which are the only chocolate chip cookie I think I’ve ever eaten where the bag tastes better than the contents. The thing about Oscar Mayer bologna is that you have to peel the plasticy ring off the outside before you make the sandwich. God knows what that plasticy ring is—plastic, most likely, since I highly doubt they go to the expense of making Oscar Mayer bologna in actual pork intestines and slicing it up.
Another great lunch is Chef-Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs. When I was a kid I’d also eat the ravioli, but now those don’t appeal, somehow. But the spaghetti and meatballs I can still eat. That supersweet tomato sauce. Those meatballs made of god knows what kind of meat. The noodles that have been in the can so long that they practically dissolve in your mouth. Clearly the people at Chef Boyardee are under the impression that "al dente" is the guy who runs the auto parts shop down the block. Bought two cans of that, too, I’m ashamed to admit.
As we moved around the grocery store, we stopped to get milk, and of course came up against the most tempting, yet embarrassing, display of all: Hostess cakes. It was all I could do to stop myself from grabbing a box of cupcakes AND a box of the new caramel HoHos. Plus now Hostess makes Zingers, which are pretty much just HoHos and cupcakes in a different shape, but which were made by Dolley Madison when I was a kid. They always sponsored the Charlie Brown specials on TV every fall and winter (unless Peter Paul beat them to it). And for years the packages of Zingers had Peanuts characters on them. They’re a little different now that Hostess makes them—something in the texture has changed, probably because what Hostess bought was the rights to the name, not the actual recipe for the cakes. Still, I’d eat a Zinger any day (chocolate or vanilla—I’ve never cared for the strawberry ones with flaked coconut on them).
There are other ghastly foods that come to mind, but many of them have vanished. I used to eat Pepperidge Farm frozen blueberry muffins, but they’ve disappeared. Microwaved for a few seconds, and spread with Fleischman’s margarine (again, no wasting butter on them), they were fantastic. Stouffer’s used to make both a frozen vegetarian lasagna (spinach and shredded carrots), and a broccoli with cheese sauce that came in a plastic bag that you thawed in boiling water. I think they still make the lasagna, but like everything these days, it’s had to be reformulated to go in the microwave, so it tastes different. The broccoli with cheese sauce just disappeared off the face of the earth. For awhile Green Giant made one (and may still, for all I know), but the broccoli was in little pieces—Stouffer’s were big spears—and the cheese sauce was American-y tasting, where Stouffer’s was more of a cheddar flavor.
Of course, all of these things are highly processed, loaded with sodium, fat, sugar and preservatives. And when you come down to it, they’re horrible in comparison to the “real” thing (a Hostess cupcake versus a homemade chocolate cake, or broccoli with homemade cheese sauce), but they’re what I grew up with, so they’re what I love. I like to think my kids won’t have an affinity for that kind of thing when they get older, but I’m sure they will. It’s the nature of American food society. Italians grow up longing for a nice plate of pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, and Americans grow up revering Chef Boyardee.
It’s a sad truth, but one we’re not going to escape any time soon. Until we as a society have a more refined palate, we’re going to have kids growing up thinking Hostess cakes are terrific. And that refined palate is only going to be developed if we have more time to cook and devote to food in general, which seems unlikely at this point. Part of our problem seems to be that as a society we want to appear to be familiar with good food, but we don’t want to take the time to make good food. We’ll spend $175 for two on a really good restaurant meal which we could have made at home for a quarter of the price, and served three more people into the bargain. And it’s not about buying organic this or free range that, it’s about just buying real food instead of cans and jars and things that are halfway made already. I’m as guilty as the next person of giving my kids frozen chicken nuggets, but I also feel guilty doing it.
It also doesn’t help that in this country, it is cheaper to buy a bag of frozen chicken nuggets at Costco than it is to buy frozen chicken tenders (or unfrozen chicken breasts), bread them and fry (or bake) them yourself. When you’re up against that kind of convenience plus the cost savings, it almost seems foolhardy to make chicken nuggets. And the ones from Costco are baked, not fried, and don’t have a whole lot of ingredients that look like nothing more than cancer-causing initials. This drives me crazy, but it’s difficult to justify making chicken nuggets when the alternative doesn’t seem too horrible, at least in the short term.
Clearly, I’m as much of a victim of agribusiness as the rest of the world, I just wish the rest of the world would realize their victimization. I think it’s OK to like the crap as long as you recognize it as crap, and try to reduce your crap intake, improve your palate, and step up to better things. I doubt there will ever be a day when I’ll truly turn up my nose at a Zinger, but I like to think there’ll be a day when I’ll eat the Zinger and know that it’ll be a long, long time before I ever eat another one, and that between Zingers I’ll be eating really good homemade chocolate cake.