Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ladies who eat Lunchables

In keeping with my recent revelation that going without food is dangerous for my mental status, I've been making a sincere effort to take a meal break when I am working. In so doing, I have turned more and more to that anathema of healthy and thrifty people: convenience foods. I know, I KNOW. As a former member of La Leche League, Tightwad Gazette devotee and participant in the Mothering magazine discussion boards, I am well aware that convenience foods are the grey, tasteless symbol of that great horror: Mainstream America. Consuming them implies being un-green and complicity with Monsanto's plan to destroy all botanical diversity and rule the world. Shame! Shame!

But what lunch is more pathetic than the homemade sandwich, slightly squashed in its baggie, the mayo beginning to congeal and lunchmeat like a limp latex glove? So I opened the freezer case door and entered the world of Lean Cuisine. Indeed, I spent at least fifteen minutes studying their assorted products and wondering why, within the Lean Cuisine brand, there are boxes with a blue strip at the top, or green or yellow, or brown. Now I know they've divided their meals into categories, each with a color coded strip at the top of the box so we consumers don't get confused. There's "Market Creations" (new!), Casual Cuisine, Spa Cuisine, Cafe Cuisine, Comfort Cuisine, etc.

I know I could spend my day off cooking a week's worth of meals and freeze individual portions for myself. I could cut up "veggies" (how I hate that coy substitute for the word "vegetables") and store them in the fridge to grab on my way out the door. I could stock up on healthy snacks and pack up my meals the night before I go to work. I could sow my own wheat and grind it by hand and bake delicious homemade breads and spread them with natural peanut butter that I made myself and mashed up organic bananas and honey from my own bees. Or I could reach into the freezer case and with one gorilla-arm swipe, fill my cart with "Shanghai style shrimp," "Hunan stir fry," and "Fiesta grilled chicken."

In keeping with my new devotion to convenience, I checked out of the library Back of the Box Cooking: 500 Quick and Easy Family Recipes from America's Favorite Brands. I imagined that cooking would become a thing of the past and that from now on I could dump the contents of assorted jars and cans together and call it "dinner." I was actually a bit disappointed that the cookbook turned out to be much less artificial than I was expecting and that most recipes call for a number of whole foods with a couple of brand name products for flair. They taste OK, but not spectacular, which is not unlike my assessment of the Lean Cuisine meals: acceptable as fuel but nothing to write home about. The quest for a cooking-free life continues. At least there is fried bologna sandwiches and fried chicken from Stoney's.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Only mad dogs and Cvillains

When I was in college, I had a boyfriend whose cousin owned a tent company. It was called Buffalo Awning & Tent and the boyfriend worked for them during the summer. As a result, the boyfriend was somewhat obsessive about tents and tent construction and also viewed as personally insulting tents erected by their rival company. Indeed, whenever we were out, if the boyfriend happened to see a tent--perhaps a setup for a used car sale tent event or an impending wedding, we would have to make a detour to check it out--very often trespassing in the process-- and the boyfriend would educate me in tent lore. He was particularly keen to show me tents in which he had been involved in the construction, and if the tent belonged to the rival company, he was sure to find some evidence of shoddy tentcraft. There were a lot of tents in Buffalo, NY during the summer of 1988 and I inspected most of them. The tents bored me, of course, but American girls are trained to defer to their boyfriends, so I feigned an interest, or at least made only imaginary eye rolls. What I didn't realize was that I was getting an early education about married life, since "till death do us part" means long intimacy with one's spouse's obsessions, hence spending summers touring Civil War Battlefields, praising quilts made of faux silk neckties or otherwise pretending an enthusiasm for something that does not interest you. (Jon's current thing is carving walking sticks. Mine is complaining endlessly about my job.)

The other thing I gained from my experience with the tent-infatuated boyfriend is a knowledge of tent construction that is somewhat more than that of the layperson. I realized this the other night, sitting under a tent at a party. It was a magnificent tent, with a complex structure that I could fully appreciate thanks to the boyfriend.

We packed Drama Queen off to the Governor's School for a month. It's being held this summer at Radford University. Since then we've heard from her a few times and it seems she is having a great time, although has very little privacy since all students must be with at least two "buddies" at all times. She spends her mornings in art class and afternoons in interdisciplinary classes. They spend the weekends taking field trips, although where, I am not sure. The town of Radford, VA has very little to recommend it, or at least not much that I could see on a Sunday afternoon. Drama Queen did not want to eat in the cafeteria with the other families, so after driving aimlessly and making at least six U-turns, we found a McDonald's and carried a picnic lunch of fast food to a park on the New River, where we sat in the shade and watched people float past on inner tubes. The weather seemed agreeably cool, compared to Charlottesville although the clerk in McDonald's asked me how "miserable" it was out. I was pleased to be among people who understand that hot weather is a bad thing. Many C'villians seem unaware of the fact that temperatures above 90 are anathema and they can often be seen doing foolish things like playing baseball or running on hot afternoons. My father-in-law used to sing a little ditty that went, "Only mad dogs and ENGlishmen go out in the noonday sun." Add Charlottesvillians to the list.

Books: I recently read The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. She died before it was finished and the story seems simpler than what I am used to from her, but overall a very satisfying book although I'm not sure about Marion Mainwaring's conclusion, tacked onto the final fifty pages. Whenever the unfinished work of a great author is completed after his or her death by another author, the result is disappointing. Why even bother? I think it's ultimately more satisfying to read the work unfinished and draw your own conclusions about how it might have ended. Now reading Cakes & Ale by W. Somerset Maugham, and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome which I find oddly depressing, probably because it brings back memories of being lulled to sleep by the sound of water slapping the shore, and uninhibited sailing, rowing and swimming with very little adult supervision, experiences my own children are deprived of.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Kitchen nightmares

We wanted grilled pizza. Jon was doubtful about his ability to make pizza without my supervision. I told him his doubts were nonsense. All he had to do was find a pizza crust recipe on line (my own recipe is in my head and uses no precise measurements) and I would take care of the rest when I got home from work.

I was greeted at home with the almost hysterical concerns of Mr. McP about the state of Jon's pizza dough. "It's weird! It's wrong! He ruined it!" I assessed the dough myself and Mr. McP's first two descriptions of the dough were correct. It was weird and wrong, but not quite ruined. I couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. Jon had selected a perfectly straightforward dough recipe. The ball of stuff in the bowl smelled like pizza dough and looked like pizza dough, but it was strangely heavy, with an odd crust on the outside. It reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what. Still, I felt we could make a respectable pizza out of it and the resulting pizza was, in fact, far better than I thought it would be.

But what was wrong with the dough? A clue asserted itself when I started the clean up. The bottom of the dough bowl was caked with odd, solid chunks of dough. Suddenly I realized what the dough had reminded me. It reminded me of bread, because it was already partially baked.

Me: Jon, this dough is baked to the bottom of the bowl. What did you do?

Jon: The recipe said to leave the dough in a warm place, so I turned the oven to 200 and left the dough in there for an hour.

Me: You left rising bread dough in a lit oven and it never occurred to you that it might BAKE the freaking dough.

Jon (Looking at me like I was daft): Yes, that's why I left the oven DOOR open the entire time.


Jon: Sheesh. What's your problem?

Oh my GOD, people. We have been having homemade pizza for dinner once a week for years--that's at least 200 pizzas, not to mention numerous loaves of bread that I have baked in our eighteen year marriage, during which I had a lengthy spell as domestic goddess and made literally all our food from scratch. Did he EVER see me treat bread dough in this manner. When I pointed out to him that I've made hundreds of pizzas, in his presence and have always left the dough to rise on the counter, he said he'd never noticed.