Monday, September 10, 2007

TV Dinners

A few months ago I made a kind of TV dinner for my kids. It was just before we moved, and really all of our plates, pots and pans were pretty much packed, so I didn’t have much to cook with, or serve food on. I’d seen Kid Cuisine TV dinners in the grocery stores for years, but had never tried them. Now I understand why. They’re a huge pain in the butt to make.

They feature basic kid food—spaghetti, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese—but they tried to go a little fancy with the desserts and have things like iced cake and stuff that gets sprinkles on it. The problem with things like that is that frosting and sprinkles don’t heat up well in an oven or in a microwave, so they have to package them separately and you have to remove them from the package prior to cooking.

Even without the removing of the dessert topping step, they’re extremely complicated. I’ve made whole meals from scratch that required less futzing around than these things. First I had to remove the sprinkles or whatever, then I had to peel back plastic from this area, loosen plastic on that area, cook it for awhile, then remove it from the oven and remove the plastic from this other compartment, and re-cover that other thing. They only cook for about twenty minutes, but it seemed that I was yanking it out of the oven every five minutes to reposition plastic film over the various components.

I was remembering my own experiences with TV dinners back in the 70s. This would have been when they actually came in a little foil tray, instead of in some kind of rigid paper thing that could go in a microwave oven. I think you peeled the foil back from one section—the potatoes, if memory serves—and then stabbed holes over the meat part to vent the steam and then just chucked the whole thing in the oven for a half hour or so. Thirty minutes later you had perfectly baked horrible food.

Actually, I loved TV dinners. I wasn’t much for Salisbury steak, but I loved fried chicken. I honestly only remember three types of TV dinners—the Salisbury steak, the fried chicken, and the turkey with dressing. I guess there were probably others, but those were the three my parents bought for me. Or perhaps those were the three I was willing to eat.

The things I remember most about TV dinners are that the fried chicken was always soggy, the mashed potatoes seemed to be one solid mass of…whatever, and somehow there was always a piece of corn in my dessert. I hate when my food touches, so the piece of corn in my dessert was an abomination in my book. In fact, TV dinners were perfect for me because I didn’t like any of my food to touch, and the little sectioned tray made sure that pretty much nothing would (except for that pesky kernel of corn).

A few years later we started buying Mexican food TV dinners. These my father nicknamed “puddle food” because everything did seem to come in a sort of a puddle. A puddle of refried beans here, a puddle of enchiladas there, even the rice seemed to be a somewhat liquid plop on the tray. Mexican food isn’t really TV dinner food to me. TV dinner food really should be generic “American” food, with no loyalty to any nationality (or any nation that would be willing to claim it, for that matter).

At some point we stopped buying TV dinners and I stepped up to Stouffer’s entrees. These I do buy for my kids, and they’re not bad to make. Mostly you just peel the plastic to vent them, then cook them for awhile. They don’t require the same level of attention as a puppy that hasn’t been housebroken, the way the Kid Cuisine ones did.

In even later life, I moved on to Lean Cuisines and Smart Ones and other low fat/low calorie offerings. These aren’t really TV dinners, per se, because they come in a single tray, like Stouffer’s entrees (which also don’t count as a real TV dinner in my book). Real TV dinners come in a sectioned tray and aren’t low anything. Lean Cuisines aren’t bad in a pinch, but I’ve stopped eating them on any regular basis. I don’t like them enough to eat them more than about twice a year.

I wouldn’t bother to buy a “real” TV dinner today. Even if I cooked it in the oven instead of in the microwave, it still wouldn’t be the same. Now that they’re formulated to cook semi-acceptably in microwaves, they’re different, just like the pot pies I loved as a child. I wish TV dinners were the way they used to be, even though I probably wouldn’t eat them, but I guess everything has to change, even mediocre frozen meals.

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