Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Truth About 15-Minute Meals: They Stink

I realize this may seem to be a bit of a departure from A&M’s usual fare, pardon the pun. We usually prefer to dabble in architecture (obviously), politics, religion and culture at large. Food, however, is something we all have in common, and the “Food Movement” in the culture, be it the “quick meal” phenom, or the rise in restaurants everywhere, that bears brief comment on. From the popularity of food television programming to the plethora of quick meal advice and recipes, there is no shortage of help for the good and bad in, or new to, the kitchen. But something has been lost in this movement to appeal to busy soccer moms and domestic dads: what makes good food good.

Cookbooks are, of course, nothing new. Even my grandparents, cookers of consistently excellent food for years, owned several and referenced them often. Any great cook steals from great cookbooks of years gone by. The trend now, however, is towards quick meals, be they 15- or 30-minute meals. (Someone recently gave me an old Julia Childs cookbook, and some of the recipes are 5 pages long. That book probably wouldn’t even get published today – too long, too complicated, and not user-friendly enough.) Besides the fact that these minute amounts are not entirely accurate when you consider everything that goes into cooking a meal besides cook time, can really good food be cooked in such a short amount of time by the lay chef? What most of the meals seem to do is take your basic meat, starch, vegetable combination, add a few spices, and call it a meal.

Certainly, most of the time, that’s a fine meal. But what makes good food good is time. Gone are the days where busy Americans have hours to watch a stew, or spend time with 10 or more ingredients. What used to be prized, slow-cooked food that allowed ingredients to marry, is gone in favor of what can be grilled, blanched or microwaved in 10-minutes or less and still be edible. And, there are is also the reality of duel-income families, so there is admittedly less household time to cook. When time in the house got short, an emphasis on good food was one of the first casualties. Hence, the rise in two industries: the restaurant business, and the “quick meal” section of the cookbook aisle.

Perhaps I’m nostalgic, but to me, we really lose something when we don’t bother spending time with meals. First, we lose the appreciation of different flavors converging, as they might in a stew, gumbo (I am from Louisiana, after all), or even comfort food like chili or enchiladas. Only when food is allowed to take time do the natural wonders seep out. Second, there is a lot of conversation lost. It seems that if meals have to be made quickly, then they have to be eaten quickly as well. Thus, the common family time, the meal, is limited. Food that takes time allows for conversation, most of it probably frivolous, but important nonetheless. Children hovering around a pot waiting for the soup to finish, or (heaven forbid) helping to wash fresh lettuce is a unique way families can relate to one another. And with food we are willing to take our time with, we get the benefit of using real ingredients. For example, if you look at the two main ingredients in a store-bought Italian salad dressing, you will see that they are not olive oil and vinegar, as you might have guessed. They are water and corn syrup. Is that what we really want to eat?

This is not, by the way, a critique of “fast food,” the McDonald’s of the world, or even quick meals. Because of the pace of life, we all need 15-minute meals from time to time. But I am an apologist for good food, no matter the cost or the time. We lose something when we refuse to spend time with food. Aesthetically, we lose a reminder of natural beauty when our senses aren’t involved with food. Culturally, we lose the communal aspect of both cooking and eating together. I guess you could say I’m not someone who eats to live. I live to eat. Yum.


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