HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
November 6, 2006, Herald Journal

Le cordon blah

By IVAN RACONTEUR

We may soon be in danger of losing the ability to feed ourselves.

For many years, we, as consumers, have drifted further and further away from the source of the food we eat.

It is true that there are still families, especially in rural areas, who prepare meals using wholesome, basic ingredients.

And it is true that others still frequent farmers’ markets, and make a conscious effort to buy real food.

There is a larger trend though, to purchase chemically-altered, highly processed convenience foods that bear little or no resemblance to the basic food items from whence they came.

Many of these items are made from a collection of artificial flavors, colors, and ingredients that are not found in nature.

We are busy people. We don’t have time to cook or prepare meals. I understand this. I spend a lot of time on the road, running between meetings and interviews. My stainless steel travel mug is my constant companion, and I take far more meals out of little plastic clamshells foraged from convenience stores than I do out of the oven at home.

Grabbing convenience foods on the run is bad, but more and more often, people are including these items when they shop for groceries. They plan not to prepare meals.

There are times when this is necessary, but one can’t help thinking that maybe things have gone too far.

For decades, a staple of lunch boxes across the country has been the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

These are not exactly difficult to make, and they are often one of the first meals that kids learn to make for themselves. But now, American industry has stepped in to see that they don’t have to do so.

To avoid the inconvenience of having to take a knife out of the drawer and spread peanut butter on a piece of bread, one can now purchase pre-manufactured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

These alimentary gems are manufactured by compressing sheets of peanut butter and jelly between giant strips of bread, and sending them through an automatic cutter that crimps the edges, and sends them to another machine that seals them in a convenient plastic wrapper.

The manufacturer points out that this process also eliminates the burden of the consumer having to gnaw through those troublesome crusts.

The same company has come up with yet another culinary triumph with the release of artificial grilled cheese sandwiches.

In less than a minute, one can enjoy the quasi-wholesome goodness of a processed cheese-type product between pre-toasted sheets of something that resembles bread, without having to wield a pan or touch a knife.

The food industry has come a long way since sliced bread was introduced in 1928.

Among the world’s first convenience foods were the K rations produced by the Wrigley Company for US troops during World War II. These were designed as complete meals, and included canned meat, four cigarettes, compressed graham biscuits, three tablets of sugar, and a stick of chewing gum.

Today’s consumers can find several variations of modern K rations that take meal planning to a new low.

One company, for example, offers “Lunch to Go” kits for those too busy to make lunch. These sumptuous feasts include three ounces of tuna, individual packets of reduced-calorie mayonnaise and relish, six crackers, a mint, a mixing spoon, and a napkin, all for $1.75.

What more could one ask for?

These are among the latest in a category of products introduced in 1988 as a gimmick for mothers to throw into the lunch boxes of their kids.

There are many varieties out there now, but the concept generally involves a repast that includes a few crackers, some cheese-substitute with the half-life of plutonium, perhaps some meat-like product, and some accessories to make them fun.

This sounds an awful lot like another example of kids telling parents what they are going to do, or, in this case, what they will eat, rather than the other way around.

Another mystifying product is “Easy Mac,” macaroni and cheese that comes in its own bowl, and only requires water and a microwave. This convenience costs 30 percent more than the company’s standard macaroni and cheese, and the result is likely even less appetizing.

Convenience is important to the modern consumer. If one is really desperate, one can acquire a slice of mystery meat produced by a Minnesota company, and labeled a “classic single.” Presumably, this is for those too lazy to hack a slice off of the usual tinned blob. The singles come in individual foil packets, complete with helpful serving instructions.

One can also purchase instant pancake mix that comes in its own shaker, a handy item for those who don’t own a bowl.

One can even buy “Microwave Express” oatmeal that comes packed in its own single-serving bowl. The cost of this convenience is about $0.71 per ounce, compared to less than $0.12 per ounce for the regular instant oatmeal, but consumers do get a handy disposable bowl for that price.

Some might argue that, with all of the extra packaging, some of these products are an incredible waste of resources, a source of pollution, and a burden on our landfills.

Proponents, on the other had, would likely say this is a small price to pay for convenience.

A tour of a local grocery store revealed many intriguing alternatives in the convenience food category.

Some of these seem designed to withstand a nuclear disaster, and require neither freezing nor refrigeration.

A closer look at the labels reveals part of the reason for this; they contain enough salt to preserve a moose.

One line of pre-packaged dinners produced by a certain Minnesota company includes several dinner options packed in individual serving bowls.

They all contain a lot of salt, but the big winner is the teriyaki chicken with rice, which contains 1,790 milligrams of salt. This amounts to 75 percent of the recommended daily allowance, an impressive feat for a single 10-ounce serving.

Many examples of these individual meals can be found throughout the store.

A rich bounty awaits the careful epicure in the freezer section.

The selection has been expanding ever since Clarence Birdseye mastered the art of quick-freezing vegetables in 1929.

The C.A. Swanson company carried frozen foods a step further in 1954 with the introduction of TV dinners.

Today, many varieties of frozen dinners are available, and one can’t help think that more is spent on packaging and marketing than on anything that resembles food.

The industry has not overlooked consumers with a sweet tooth. One company offers a range optimistically called “Warm Delights.” Consumers need only add water and pop them in the microwave, and after just 45 seconds, they are rewarded with a bowl of warm sludge that is supposed to resemble fresh-from-the-oven brownies.

We have already lost many of the social benefits of actually sitting down to meals with others on a regular basis.

Now, we are in danger of losing the ability to put together even the simplest meals on our own.

Old Julia Childs, who spent decades trying to convince us that anyone can cook, would spin in her grave if she knew how few of us are even making the effort these days.

Were she alive today, she would be shocked to learn that so many meals are being designed by chemists, rather than prepared by chefs (or even ordinary cooks).

Perhaps we should be concerned about this, too.