More on The Middle Ground

Sunday, March 25, 2012

[I wrote this shortly after writing my post on The Middle Ground in August, and it promptly got lost in half-written blog-post purgatory. But when I looked at it tonight, it seemed almost done, so I decided to finish and post.]

There was an op-ed reprinted in the N&O by Frank Bruni, food critic for the New York Times commenting on the culinary divide between the Elites and (to borrow a Pioneer Woman parody phrase) the Budget People. Multimillionaire food personality and cookbook author Paula Deen is defending her copious use of bacon and butter by talking about how she’s giving recipes for real people, not people who can spend “$58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine.” In her spat with her fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took her to task for promoting unhealthy foods, she said she cooks for “regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.”

I haven’t actually ever looked at a Paula Deen recipe, so I am unable to comment on whether or not they are budget-minded (I suspect not), and obviously, you can have too much home-cooked bacon and butter, but I think we’d be moving in the right direction if bacon and butter that people put in recipes they cook themselves were the biggest problems we were dealing with. Because that would mean that we had conquered the problems of sugared soft drinks with every meal, fast food meals three times a week, ginormous portion sizes, and continuous snacking. To name but a few.

I woke up this morning thinking about the process of learning to cook and decided that I should be more vocal in my support of the judicious use of convenience foods in putting meals on the table day in and day out. I actually think they can serve an important function.

If you want to learn to juggle, you don’t start out with a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a flaming torch. You don’t even start out with three balls. You start out with one ball. And as you get the hang of that, you add another, then another. Then after you’ve gotten really good at juggling three balls, you can add even more — or you add chainsaws and bowling balls and standing on your head in the dark. Or whatever you want to do to keep things interesting.

I feel like the Dollar a Day Project — starting with no food and being able to spend only one dollar at a time — was the chainsaw-and-bowling-ball version of home cooking. It took thought and preparation. It was challenging. And the only reason I was able to do it was because I’d been doing what I do for so long that I’m good at it, and most of it I don’t have to think about at all.

But most people aren’t looking for a challenge when they’re thinking about dinner, they want something quick and easy that will taste good. And that’s why they don’t cook from scratch and end up getting take-out instead — take-out feels easier than cooking.

I remember a few years ago talking to my mom on the phone. She said they were supposed to go out for dinner but then she remembered she had something to do that she had completely forgotten about. She said, “We didn’t have time to go out, I made chili instead.” And I just laughed, because I couldn’t imagine very many people — especially people from younger generations — saying they were too busy to go out so they made chili.

So how do you get to the point where you don’t have time to go out so you cook at home, instead of the other way around?

I think convenience foods can serve as an important bridge when people are either just learning how to cook or transitioning from lots of eating out to more eating at home. Like training wheels, they can help you keep moving forward while you learn out how to stay balanced. Things like Rice-a-Roni, commercial pasta sauces, canned soups, packaged Ramen noodles. All of these are generally cost-effective and can help you throw together a quick, reasonably healthy meal.

And for some people, that might be as far as they want to go. Open some packages, mix a few things up, dinner.


The only real objections I have to convenience foods are that they tend to have high levels of sodium (sometimes crazy high levels) and they’re more expensive than making things yourself. And things you make from scratch generally taste better. And don’t actually take that much more time, once you have everything set up.

But if you don’t have blood pressure concerns, if you’re comfortable with the amount of money you’re spending on food, and if you think what you’re eating tastes fine, then who am I to say you should be doing anything different.

I definitely used a lot more commercial products when I first started cooking. I would often use them as a base and then add my own vegetables. Like for instance I would buy a package of Lipton Noodles and Sauce, which you add milk and butter to — basically it’s like a slightly upscale version of packaged mac and cheese — and then I would sauté onion, mushrooms, and broccoli with garlic and olive oil and add that to the prepared noodles. I would do the same thing with pasta and tomato sauce, buy prepared tomato sauce and add green pepper and mushroom or zucchini or whatever. A lot of my meals were like that the first few years I was cooking for myself.

I’m sure there are people who would argue this isn’t a “home cooked meal” but I don’t really care about those people. And you shouldn’t either. You get to cook and eat what you want.

I started doing less of that when I started trying to get my monthly food bill down. It’s cheaper to buy noodles and make a basic white sauce, and you get to control the seasoning and add flavorings, and once you know what you’re doing it takes about the same amount of time. But I’m not a food snob. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using Bisquick to make pancakes or biscuits, or Jiffy mix to make cornbread.

So if you’re working on eating home more and spending less on food, don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Just do what you can and try to make a little progress every day, every week, every month. Eventually you’ll end up where you want to be.

2 Responses to “More on The Middle Ground”

  1. And maybe, in the end, you’ll have an inexpensive equivalent of chain saws and bowling balls! It’s true that once you have the set-up, some things just zip. JF found that making pasta from scratch– yes, PASTA– is just as fast as getting it out of the box. Homemade pasta cooks in two minutes, and box pasta takes 11. So he can get it from flour, egg and water to the boiling water in 9 minutes. But it took about a week to get the hang of it.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    And homemade pasta is DELICIOUS.

    Once not too long ago when I was visitig my parents I asked my mom if we could have spaghetti for dinner, she makes really good spaghetti sauce and it’s even better with homemade pasta, and garlic bread and salad which are the kinds of things I don’t usually bother with when I’m cooking for myself. But then on the day we were going to have it she wasn’t feeling so much like making it, she said she’d just do it with store-bought pasta, and at first I was like, “Oh, couldn’t you make it?” but then I realized that was overly demanding and I said, “Well that’s okay whatever you want to make is fine.” And my dad jumped in and said, “No, no! Make the homemade pasta!” I think he was looking forward to it as much as I was. So she made it for us and it was delicious.

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