Wandering In The Processed Food Wasteland
If you are a regular reader of my scribblings – and I hope you are – you'll know that I frequently pontificate on the evils of processed food. In a simpler day and time, you could go to the food market and come home with.....food. Nowadays you come home with chemical-laden food-like substances that your forebears would not have even recognized as edible. In order to really understand what passes as “food” today, you need a degree in chemical engineering. Or do you actually know what azodicarbonamide, butylated hydroxyanisole, and butylated hydroxytoluene are and what they do? My oft-expressed opinion is that I'd prefer to be embalmed after I'm dead rather than before. I love farmers markets, butcher shops, and produce stands and I am constantly on the stump for cooking with fresh, natural ingredients. And yet, for all my holier-than-thou elitist food snobbery, I must confess to being a recovered processed food eater.
Oh yes, there was a time when I was a Wonder Bread warrior. Little Debbie was my bestie. After I swore off Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs, Hostess promptly went bankrupt. I talk a lot about learning to cook at a very young age, but in truth much of that “cooking” involved Kraft, Campbell's, and Ore-Ida. Mario Batali is my favorite Italian chef today, but back then I was all about Chef Boyardee. And it was all my mother's fault.
It wasn't that my mother couldn't cook; she was amazingly accomplished in the kitchen. Ask her any question about almost anything cooking-related and she could answer. She could do everything imaginable with chicken, beef, pork, or turkey. We had a garden out back and she could cook any vegetable you pulled from the soil. She made delicious sauces from scratch. She baked heavenly breads and rolls and her homemade cookies, brownies, cakes, and pies were legendary. No, it wasn't that my mother didn't know her way around a kitchen. Rather it was that she was part of a generation of women browbeaten by Madison Avenue marketing into believing that “old fashioned” cooking was antiquated drudgery and that “modern” methods were the wave of the future. Women were encouraged to “escape” from the kitchen as if it were emblematic of a master and slave relationship. “Convenience” was the new culinary religion and the twin gods “Quick” and “Easy” were worshiped through holy scripture printed on the backs of boxes and cans. And Mom gradually became an ardent acolyte.
Mom could make macaroni and cheese from scratch, but why bother when Kraft put everything she needed in a bright blue box? Sure she could boil potatoes and mash them up with milk and butter, but Hungry Jack made it so much faster. Why waste fifteen minutes on “long-cooking” rice when Minute Rice made it happen in five? Two minutes and a can of Campbell's tomato soup was sure easier than fooling with all those tomatoes and onions and butter and herbs and spices for an hour or more. And why go through the hassle of stocks and broths when Campbell's put chicken soup in a can?
Dishes like tuna noodle casserole were the haute cuisine of the day. Combine packaged egg noodles, canned tuna, canned soup, mayonnaise from a jar, maybe a bag of frozen peas and a topping out of a box of crackers or cornflakes and you were practically a master chef.
If all the boxes and cans inhabiting the pantry were the seraphim and cherubim of the new culinary creed, surely the freezer was the realm of the archangels: beings named Swanson and Birdseye. Adherents to this frozen form of the faith didn't even have to mix and measure. All they had to do was open a box and peel back the foil. And, alas, although my mother could cook and did cook once upon a time, by the time I made my first forays into the kitchen, she was singing in the “convenience” choir.
In later years, I could ask her for help – “Mom, what's the flour-to-fat ratio for a bechamel?” – and she'd have the answer. She never forgot how to cook; she, like millions of other American women, just chose to spend the '60s and '70s wandering in the processed food wasteland.
I frequently cook when visiting friends and relatives and I often find myself puzzled by a general lack of “stuff” in most of their kitchens. I have a ridiculously well-equipped kitchen, replete with racks of gleaming stainless steel pots and pans hanging along with a variety of non-stick aluminum and cast iron cookware. Stock pots and Dutch ovens live in a lower cabinet. Knives glisten on magnetic strips mounted on the wall above an assortment of cutting boards. I have a microwave, of course, but I also have an induction burner at the ready and a countertop oven with a rotisserie feature. Besides my heavy duty KitchenAid mixer and it's attachments, there's a food processor, a blender, and an immersion blender near at hand. A ricer? Yep. Second drawer. A slow cooker? Two of them over on the open wire shelving. Glass and metal mixing bowls of all sizes line upper cabinet shelves. You want a whisk? There are six of them in a canister on the counter. How about a microplane grater? It's hanging above the drawer where I keep my mandolin slicer. The sea salt is next to the Kosher salt which is near the Maldon flake salt, the Himalayan pink salt, and the French grey salt, all of which are on a Lazy Susan with the grinders containing the black peppercorns and the white peppercorns. And don't get me started on the bakeware. So I am completely nonplussed when I visit a kitchen and can't find a rolling pin. (I have three.) What do you mean you don't have a measuring cup? Or a wooden spoon? How do you cook? Oh. You don't. The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that it's a symptom of the same condition: one doesn't need kitchen equipment to open a box or a can or to pop something in the microwave. “Quick” and “Easy” still have a lot of disciples.
An examination of my pantry and fridge demonstrates my evolution. Where once there were cans of Franco-American spaghetti there are now packages of dried pasta and cans of San Marzano tomatoes with which to make sauce. I used to love Rice a Roni and always had a few boxes of the chicken variety on hand. Years ago, I replicated the recipe in my kitchen and while I still enjoy the dish, I now make it from scratch. You know those handy little packets of sauce mixes you find in the grocery store? You won't find them in my pantry. What you will find are the real, honest-to-goodness, preservative-free ingredients to make them from scratch. And to make them better than the packaged stuff. I used to use the execrable cheese-flavored crap in a green cardboard or plastic can to flavor my Italian dishes until I discovered real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. There's no comparison. And there's no wood fiber filler in the real thing. My larder is not completely barren of cans and boxes: besides the aforementioned tomatoes, I have cans and boxes of broth that I use for soups and sauces when I don't have homemade broth or stock on hand.
Frozen pizza? Once upon a time, but not in a very long time. Not when I can turn out fresh pizza dough and homemade sauce better than DiGiorno and faster than Dominos.
I haven't bought “sandwich” bread in years. No store-bought, gummy, nutrition-less bread-like substances live in my breadbox. And you won't find rolls of “dinner rolls” in my fridge, either. Not when real bread and rolls are so delicious and so easy to make. And you won't find rolls of pre-made cookie dough in my refrigerator. Unless you count the dough my wife made using real ingredients that she then rolled and wrapped and stuck in the freezer so we can enjoy real, fresh cookies whenever we want them. In fact, there are no boxes of cake mix, brownie mix, or frosting mix anywhere in our kitchen. That's why we have flour and eggs and cocoa and sugar and milk and butter. You know, real ingredients for real food.
My idea of cooking breakfast involves cracking eggs, frying bacon, and dicing up potatoes, not pulling a waffle-like disc or a “breakfast sandwich” out of the freezer.
I'm not gonna lie: there are a few cans of ready-to-eat soup in the pantry. I've got a couple of little tubs of microwavable macaroni and cheese, too. And there are usually two or three frozen entrees around for quick lunches when need be. Some canned veg to throw in homemade soups and sauces. But that's really about it. I don't live on the preservative-laden products that will ultimately kill me. I did for many years, but now I just don't. And it's liberating as hell to be able to walk past all that garbage in the grocery store knowing I can do better, tastier, and healthier myself. And so can you.
I know I'm like a former smoker or a reformed alcoholic. I realize I can be incredibly annoying up there on my soapbox. I was getting some butter at the grocery store the other day. My wife was over by the milk and a lady said to her, “They've moved everything around. Do you know where the butter is?” My wife pointed toward where I was standing. The lady thanked her, came over my way.......and grabbed a package of Blue Bonnet! It was all I could do not to scream, “That's not butter!! Why are you trying to kill yourself?!” I know. I'm horrible.
But, dammit, there's a reason ex-smokers and ex-drinkers and ex-fake food eaters all crusade the way we do: we know better. We've all been through the valley and now we dwell on the mountaintop. And we just want everybody to join us up here to experience the freedom we enjoy. Freedom from harmful, life-threatening substances.
Okay, I'm gonna shut up now before I go all Sylvester Graham on you. (If you don't know, look it up.) Just do this for me: make the route from your mouth to your stomach pass through your brain. Read labels, do research, figure out what all that stuff is and what it does. Think about what you're putting into your body before you put it in there. Even if you can't make all the right decisions all the time, how about at least making fewer of the wrong ones? Big Food is not your friend, my friends. ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft, et al don't have an altruistic bone in their entire greedy corporate bodies. They are not out to make you happy and healthy; they are out to make a buck at any cost and the cost is usually your health and happiness.
Think, question, and think some more. I'll save you a soapbox on my mountaintop.