Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Hot Topic: The Death of Cooking

I was a smidge late in posting the last one, so this week's Hot Topic comes right on its heels.

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From the fevered minds of a loose grouping of self-appointed cultural commentators comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, providing a pithy and often heated debate on pop culture as they see it. Welcome, friends, to The Hot Topic...

This week's burning issue: Do You Buy Into The Demise Of Cooking?

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

In an age when it looks like microwavable foods are taking over the gastro tracts of the world, I wonder if I'm part of a vanishing breed that still cooks food the old fashioned way.

Not owning a microwave, it seems to me that these little radiation ovens have created their own captive market. A market based on reducing questionable concoctions into a sterile and banal fuel for the ever growing population of lazy lard-asses, and it makes me fear for the future of the classic, home cooked meal.

My local supermarket is devoting increasing shelf space to brightly colored packages of food designed to be cooked only in a microwave. The cooking instructions assume that you will use a microwave, and there are no directions for using a conventional heat source. In fact, many of them have the words "Oven or stove top - not recommended".

And I'm not talking about regular frozen vegetables here, 'cause I see nothing wrong with frozen corn or beans as a side dish if fresh veggies are out of season, and admit to being in love with Green Giant frozen Creamed Spinach. I can even go for the frozen oriental meals (just add meat) that come with an icy chunk of mystery sauce. The veggies end up soggy and bland, but sometimes the trade off (freshness for convenience) works out. I have to admit that the pictures on the boxes are first class, and make the food look so damn tasty! This is a marketing lie, as it never comes out looking like the picture.

But it's the new generation of microwavable main courses that gross me out, the precooked foods sitting on the shelves of the supermarket at room temperature. Some of these vacuum wrapped entrees have chunks of chicken or beef in 'em, am I the only one who finds this disturbing?

Meat - frozen or refrigerated, okay? Room temp for weeks or months in a plastic envelope? C'mon folks, this is a crime against nature! How is this different from a can of soup, you ask? From a purely sterile point of view, it's probably no different, but my mind rebels, knowing that a CAN is safer, more secure, physically impenetrable. How DO they sterilize those plastic bags 'o food?

Whenever I see a box with a plastic envelope containing "Chicken Goulash" or "Jasmine Rice With Raisins" sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf, it gives me the creeps. Check out the shelves, Rice-a-roni has a new line of precooked rice in little plastic envelopes, as if cooking up Rice-a-roni was a big chore in the first place!

The new development to all of this is that the CAN is on the way out too. Yesterday I saw little boxes of soup. The same package that they use for little kids "sippy juices" is now the package for tomato soup, beef soup, Hungarian goulash... In this room temp packaging revolution, what's next?

I was raised in a pretty healthy food environment. Microwaves hadn't been invented yet, and my mom was a health food nut when that sort of thing was just getting started. Raw milk, unstabilized peanut butter, real bread, and collard greens... Wonder Bread never graced the shelves in my childhood home. Instead, we had handfuls of vitamins to choke down, liver and onions, yogurt and granola. Ya know? It's a long road from that to "just microwave and enjoy!" This said, I have enjoyed my share of microwave burritos, to the ultimate distress of my lower GI tract.

If I owned a microwave, would I feel any different? Would I trust in "the rays" to make everything safe and harmless? Would I get used to bread that felt like shoe leather in my mouth? Sauces that separate and look wrong? Meats that show no evidence of being cooked?

My ultra-healthy brother claims that microwaves remove everything that is good, all sustenance, any shred of valuable nourishment contained in food. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but I am deeply suspicious of the changes that take place in food that gets "waved".

How about you? Do you cook from scratch? Do you use your oven to prepare food? Do you buy your meat, vegetables and sauces separately and put them together yourself? Do you cook for the creative satisfaction? Do you cook for the flavors?

Or do you swear by the Microwave? Your culinary requirements satisfied by plastifoil envelopes of pizza pockets, eggrolls, chicken nuggets, and popcorn? Should I think about the time you're saving, or the rising rates of colon cancer?


From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

You seem to be making two main points:

1. Microwaving food is potential unsafe

2. Convenience foods probably aren't terribly healthy.

As for the first, the anti-microwave stance seems, to my scientific eye, to be a load of superstitious radiation bunkum. Sure, the way microwave ovens work isn't perhaps conventionally 'natural' but, to my knowledge, exactly no studies comparing the effects of microwaved food against otherly-heated food in rats, humans whatever. Maybe there have been and I've missed them, but I'm sure that if they'd come out in the negative the popular press couldn't have waited to run another pseudo-scientific health scare-story.

Until someone proves that a problem exists, I'm cynical (although, admittedly, the testing should have been carried out before microwaves were introduced to our daily lives). As to whether they ruin most of the nutrients in food during the cooking process, my recollection is that it does and more so than other methods too. However, "is it safe?" and "is it healthy?" are two totally separate, though both important, issues.

Point two: are microwave meals, or any other types of convenience food, healthy? Hell, no! Even the so-called healthy options have been processed to within an inch of their lives and, I'd imagine, any nutritional content remaining is negligible. Obviously, what would be preferable is if everyone cooked low-fat, low-salt fresh food every day. But, in today's increasingly stressed, no-time lifestyle, that's unlikely.

Personally, I'd love to spend time making proper meals and, hell, I enjoy cooking. But, by the time I get home from the day job, cook a lovely meal from scratch and then do the washing up, exactly when do I get to have a life outside of work and eating?!

There's another advantage. of sorts, to ready meals, and one that might be of interest to the tubbier amongst us: portion sizing. Put simply, a ready meal is an easy way of taking in a known amount of calories, fat, salt, whatever, enabling the slower amongst us to make slightly more educated and sensible choices. That, to me, is no bad thing.


From: Mark Saleski
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

Hmmm, well...i'm not sure that the microwave is the culprit.

I say that only because it wasn't, food historically-speakin', the first step toward 'convenience'.


TV dinners were probably the first....followed by all sortsa stuff that you could boil in a plastic pouch.

That said, there are all sorts of modern factors that push hard (maybe 'relentlessly' is a better word) against real food. this one is the worst:

The Demise of the Family Dinner

Kids have amazing and maddeningly complex schedule these days. A soccer practice here, a drama club rehearsal there. Couple that with the fact that both parents often hold full time jobs outside of the home and whole reason for owning a dining room table goes away. It's kinda sad, really...though i don't have any answers there.

So if kids never get into the habit of sitting down to dinner with the family, they're not likely to value such activities later in life. Why go to the 'hassle' of buying flour tortillas, beef, cheese, lettuce and whatever when you can just pop a frozen burrito into the microwave?

Me, i sure as hell cook from scratch...with as much locally grown food as I can get my hands on. But of course I feel attached to the whole "slow food" movement in part because the family dinner was a big part of my little kid-dom and the social aspects of hanging around in the kitchen are very important to me.

Then there's the evil of 'corporate food' (Chili's, TGI Fridays, Applebees, McDonalds, KFC...blah blah blah)...lets not even go there today!


From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'll take my cue from Greg and divide this into two sections covering those points.

Personally, I love my microwave. The convenience far outweighs any negative aspects. Now, I'm not one of those eats every meal via the microwave guys. In fact, I don't really do much cooking with it at all. In a pinch, it heats the water for a cup of tea in the morning. It gives a little defrost to the meats coming out of the freezer. I prefer my soups to be cooked on the stove, but during a fast lunch break, the microwave does it just fine. And then theres leftovers. I've never met a leftover that didn't love a microwave.

I've heard the rumors that microwaves kill all the nutrients out of a meal, but I've never seen any real documentation on this. Not that I've really looked that hard for it. But given the choice between a micrwaved bowl of minestrone that's been zapped of all its healthiness and a Big Mac, I'll take the minestrone every time.

As far as cooking goes, I've got about four good meals. Some people say they really love to cook, I'm not one of those people. It's just too much work. Luckily I married a lovely lady who enjoys the art of cooking. She's got shelves full of cook books and enjoys spending an evening reading them and coming up with something new. I'm kind of a finicky eater, so I don't always love the zucchini sandwiches, but I'll suffer through a few not-so-tasty meals for the succulent surprises.

We're slowly trying to get more natural and organic. It helps that the in-laws have a nice sized garden and often visit with bountiful bundles of fresh vegetables. They also order in bulk from an organic co-op and fill our pantry with the overflow. The local farmer's market also provides some healthy, tasty treats. Man, we still eat our share of convenience foods, but it's nice to be able to eat something that isn't so full of preservatives it will outlast the cock roaches after a nuclear disaster.

All of this reminds me of something my Belgium friend Daniel used to say.

"In America they eat to live, in France they live to eat."

And though it is a broad generalization, it does sum up a large chunk of our cultural concept of eating. We're so busy with EVERYTHING these days. We work long hours, the kids have soccer, scouts, chess club, fencing, always demanding to be driven to practice, and cheered on, and on and on, and on. Many a day I get home and the last thing I want to do is spend an hour cooking a meal, only having to clean up afterwards. It is so much easier to zap a frozen pizza. It even comes in its own little throw away plate.

Even our restaurants are convenient and fast. And I'm not just talking about McDonalds here. Even your nicer, sit-down restaurants get you in and out quick. The food is pre-prepared, the cook ready to fix the plate in under 15 minutes, the waiters move quickly. On your lunch break? Try the Speedy Gonzoles. Catching a movie afterwards? You can eat and have the check in half an hour.

Everything is prepackaged, ready to serve. They've mixed the jelly with the peanut butter. Heck, they've even got premade PB & Js now. Soup in a bowl, frozen pizza, hamburgers, nachos ready to go. Hit the drive through, eat while you drive. I'm waiting for new meals in an IV. Inject straight into your stomach. Saves all that chewing and swallowing. I don't know, it all seems a little crazy. I mean I understand how it happens. We are busy, the food is convenient. I'm part of it. I'd like to say I cook all of my meals. I'd like to say my pantry is filled with fresh, organic foods straight from the local farmer. But that stuff aint the truth. I'm working towards that goal, but I'm a long ways away.

So, do I buy into the demise of cooking? No, there are some lovely, wonderful chefs out there. Good people, cooking marvelous foods for their people. It's more like a little secret society these days. But they are out there. Like everything else in this world, the meals can get better, but it's gonna take work.


From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'm part of the first generation that took for granted the convenience of the microwave. Whereas my parents grew up in the age of the icebox and stovetop, the "nuker" was an omnipresent fixture of my early years and remains a vital cog in my daily life.

And I fully admit that I'm addicted to the thing. From heating water in the morning for the first of two mugs of instant coffee to late night heating of whatever happens to be lying around the old refrigerator, it's hard for me to imagine life without easy access to heating stuff up.

My current addiction is Lean Pockets - as brilliantly over-processed and under-priced a food item as one is likely to find (someone should do a study, I say!) - particularly the Pepperoni Pizza variety. Here's how I break it down: three minutes for the two luscious pockets (inside their cozy "protective sleeves"), then the frozen mixed vegetables for 1:45 (if I had two microwaves I could double productivity at this stage). Combine the two items and add marinara sauce (note: the sauce comes straight from the fridge, which provides a reaction in which the sauce warms up and the aforementioned and partially completed entrée cools down.

Perfection - a Blue Plate Special of the Gods, served to man for a reasonable fee on the quick.

But seriously, the processed food thing is over-the-top and a serious problem in gluttonous, convenience-addicted America. As you can see, I'm a card carrying member of the club.

But to address your disgust of room temperature foods, Bennett: are you sure that these are items meant for the hallowed halls of microwavity? There are a bunch of products put out for campers and outdoorsy types nowadays that only require heated water. You boil water, throw it in the bag, mix up and seal, and a few minutes later you have yourself quite a tasty little dish. Seriously, I've had curry and stews whilst camping that are far better, dare I say, than my lovely Lean Pockets could ever aspire to.

The bloggers have had their say, now it's your chance to chip in!

Do you cook your own food, or do you 'wave' your tasty morsels? Is what you eat important to you, or would you prefer to take a pill and get on with the party? Do you care? Or perhaps more importantly, could you care less?

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