Side Dish: TV Dinners (January 4, 2010)

On a recent trip to our neighborhood grocery store Kevin sarcastically commented as we strolled through the frozen food aisle that perhaps I should consider adding a few frozen entrees to the menu at San Estephe.

“Who doesn’t love Salisbury Steak?” he joked, looking at a box featuring two glistening, almost-edible-looking Salisbury Steaks. “And it even comes with dessert, too!” Kevin said, pointing to the brownie on the package.

“Very funny” I muttered, as we proceeded to the deli counter. But it got me thinking — the TV dinner market must be a multi-million dollar industry and I’m sure those frozen little trays have come a long way since Americans first sat down with Swanson’s in front of their TV to watch John Glenn orbit the earth and Jack Paar in color.

Maybe they were worth a second look. In terms of convenience, a TV dinner you can cook in 5 minutes while doing nothing more strenuous than peeling back plastic and stirring once, seems like a no-brainer. We’re all short on time. All of our lives are hectic (especially mine over the last few weeks with Kitty’s illness!) And, if the pictures on the boxes were to be believed, these dinners might not be so bad after all. And if I can have dinner ready in 5 minutes (with almost nothing to clean up afterwards), I can spend more time with the people I love. I was sold.

So as Kevin considered the difference between Bratwurst and Bockwurst (he loves his sausage), I scooped up a few frozen dinners to taste and review. As I loaded my basket I also got to thinking, with restaurants adding gourmet versions of home-cooked classics to their menus all the time (Mac and Cheese, meatloaf, etc.) maybe I’d find inspiration for one or two new menu items in one of these frozen plastic trays. Maybe Kevin was right about everyone loving Salisbury Steak.

But maybe not.

Below are some of my findings:

Fettuccine Alfredo: Mushy noodles with a side of Nursing Home Vegetables just like Grandma use to make. After she got dementia.

Pumpkin Squash Ravioli: The aroma of autumn in northern Vermont, the taste of a wet sleeping bag. No thank you.

“Healthy” Ham and Cheese Panini: Gummy texture and hot hot hot. I can’t tell you what it tastes like for it burned my buds off!

Gold Rush Chicken Pot Pie: This was my top pick by far. The flakey upper crust is a miracle. “There is gold in these here mountains” It, however, had the longest cooking time of any of the meals. And finally we come to it…

Salisbury Steak: This meal featured very eccentric multi-phased cooking instructions: “Cut and remove the plastic around the brownie. Cook. Remove the brownie. Cook some more.” I think this kind of contradicts the image of a starving guy looking for food: “Fee Fi Fo Fum, hold on a second until this crappy brownie is done” The main protein of this meal were two truly terrifying Salisbury steak-like meats. Stay away. No one should eat this. It will never be near the menu at San Estephe. In fact, I will cook a meal for any of you who have eaten one of these as my way of exorcising those demons from your system.

So there you have it. We may be able to put a man the moon but the frozen dinner is still mostly gravity-locked. And the idea that these meals are “convenient time savers” really doesn’t hold up to me. In fact, watching the Salisbury Steak slowly turn as it cooked, I was reminded of a basic tenet of cooking: Slow food is good food. I believe that cooking a meal is a way of preparing for a moment when time stops.

A fine and balanced forkful should freeze us in time until we finish chewing. So what’s the rush? If you take the time to cook, your “food” becomes a “meal” and you get all that time back.