Wednesday, April 4, 2007

the zen of not cooking

Anyone who has set foot into a supermarket in the past couple of years has to be aware of the tremendous demand for pre-cooked meals. Freezer cases bulge with boxes of frozen cooked ravioli, fried chicken and miserable looking diet food entrees. In the deli area -now more typically referred to as "The Market" or perhaps "Gourmet Bistro Cafe Blah Blah Blah" -whole glassy looking chickens in plastic boxes jockey for attention beside platters of of lasagna, goopy bowls of vegetable salads and morbid mounds of gray humus.

Having to look at this stuff alone should be punishment enough for someone like myself. But then when I consider how many people must be buying this stuff and the money that's flooding into the home-meal-replacement market overall -I get really depressed.

I see the world with the eyes of a cook and can think of nothing better, or finer, than cooking. Not cooking is not something I want to think about. Not cooking means being too old or sick to care enough to bother. It's a depressing thought for sure.

Recently I've noticed a new wrinkle in the fabric of the home-meal-replacement market. And I'm not sure how I feel about it. A bunch of businesses have sprung up that allow someone to come into a bricks and mortar space and put together a bunch of meals from prepped ingredients, package the result and stick them in the home freezer to be withdrawn and cooked at will. I've included a bunch "links to" at the bottom of the post. You don't need to look at them all because even though the menus and graphics might change, they are all pretty much the same.

I visited one of these places a while ago and found the marketing concept pretty interesting. The idea is to create a kind of party ambiance for the clients. Apparently a lot of the people who go to these types of places are presumed to be frustrated by the isolation they experience by cooking at home and yearn for social contact while they cook. Another presumption is that the clients are not entirely comfortable with their cooking skills and want some help, but not too much. So all the food is prepped and laid out a la salad bar, laminated recipe cards tell the client what to do while a staff member mentors them.

One of the weirder things I noticed was that there were no knives. It's obvious that the absence of knives from the prep area is a function of liability concerns. But to me, the idea of preparing food without a knife at hand is like swimming without water. I can imagine it, but why would I want to do it?

Home Cooked
Dinner Zen
Dinner My Way
Now We're Cooking


Gina said...

I've tried one of those places - and you've nailed the atmosphere. Moms who come in with the hopes and dreams of offering their families something to eat other than dreck from a box. The idea is compelling - and as one of those moms - I tried it. The following are my observations:

1) The items offered are mostly protein. While this is the cornerstone of a carnivore's meal there are inherent problems. The quality of the chicken, beef, pork, or fish isn't bad - but it isn't great either. It all arrives via that big Sysco truck. I personally always prefer to eat my fish as fresh as possible and not voluntarily freeze it - if it is frozen at sea that can be okay but if I'm the one doing the freezing...

2) The "spices" and sauces all tend to be play on the same thing. While I did 8 different meals - upon cooking them there was just this common denominator of taste - and not a good one. I have to assume it was the 1 tsp. of "spice" mixture (they were different colors at least) that went into my zip top bag for each protein.

3) The knives come into use back in the home kitchen to prep all the (fresh) sides. I know some of these places offer pre-made sides. I can freeze chicken but choosing to freeze rice - isn't that just joe-a frozen entree by that time?

I'm merely a home cook who reads the blogs but since I had dabbled in this particular exercise of pseudo prepared meals...

Sorcha said...

Gina, sounds like it wasn't that much better than Swanson or Banquet, just spendier.

I ate a lot of frozen dinners growing up - had a single working mom who didn't know how to cook and had neither the time nor the energy to learn. While my husband and I do buy frozen lasagna and some frozen veg, we do a lot more actual fresh cooking too. Hopefully, my son will grow up with a better appreciation of food than I did.

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard of this newest pre-prepared meal concept but I'm not surprised. Our schedules are so hectic these days that, when combined with a general perception that good cooking is time-consuming, a service like this was inevitable. I agree with you though, I'd never use it!

Ari (Baking and Books)

Maya said...

The human race is just getting too creative for it's own good! How odd. Something about it seems to remove the purity of putting together an elegant meal from (metaphorically) raw materials. Yet I completely understand the appeal of it, anyway.

I agree, cooking without knives is part of that "impurity" to me. Plus which, knives are cool.

(Swimming without water....that sounds like some strange dream...)

Southern said...

I don't buy that 'to hectic to cook' reasoning. There are lots of very nice food you can cook at home in 30 min or less. For instance you can make nice pasta sauces in that time with about 20 of those minutes just being wait while the food cooks on its own.
However, if its just a socializing event, then by all means go ahead. Although i suspect a cooking course would give a lot more if that was the case.