Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Semi-homemade Nation - A Minor Rant

My last post featured the recipe for a dessert taken to a 4th of July gathering. Needing some flour, I was struck by how much the aisle space devoted to basic baking ingredients has shrunk. Cake mixes and ready frosting are well represented, but at least one brand of soft wheat, southern biscuit flour is no longer stocked.

The same phenomenon can be observed in the meat case. Basic raw ingredients lose space to heat and serve, prepared main dish items. My belief is that America is becoming increasingly kitchen and food illiterate. This no doubt contributes to our ever expanding waist-lines.

Personally, I consider Sandra Lee, with her pretty blue eyes and pearly white smile, the poster child for this phenomenon. Having dismissed her program after watching only part of one episode on the food channel, I had to do a little internet research. Various reviewers had commentary at the New York Times, perhaps drawn in by her romantic involvement with the New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The folks over at the NYTimes were by and large unimpressed.

Sandra Lee has a Food Network show where she espouses buying commercially-made products, adding a few fresh or more often some different commercial ingredients, and passing off the finished dish as your own creation. As she says, this technique "allows anyone to take 100 percent of the credit for something that looks, feels or tastes homemade."

The folks over at the Times notice she says "or tastes" instead of "and tastes." These sleights-of-hand are supposed to be boons for the today's busy cooks. She also claims to help busy cooks to economize in these tough times. Unfortunately, Sandra appears large on claims and small on delivery of anything delicious.

A researcher at UCLA recently took a look at the impact of convenience foods on time spent in the kitchen. Granted the researcher studied middle class families, but that would seem to mesh fairly well with my family or those that would consider the purchase of one of Sandra Lee's 17 cookbooks.

Surprisingly, dinner didn't get on the table any faster in homes that favored convenience foods. Meals took an average of 52 minutes in total time to prepare. The difference in the total amount of time expended was not statistically significant between meals involving extensive use of convenience foods (with such foods making up 50 percent or more of a meal) and more limited use of such items (between 20 and 50 percent).

In fact, families saved only when it came to the amount of hands-on time spent preparing dishes — and the savings were relatively modest. Families with an extensive reliance on convenience foods saved an average of 10 to 12 minutes over families with more limited reliance on such products. Home-cooked meals required an average of 34 minutes of hands-on time.

Okay, Sandra's recipes may not actually save much time. So how do they taste? You can cook one up, I will not be sampling her concoctions after reading an actual recipe for lasagna that uses 2 cans of Campbell's condensed tomato soup and cottage cheese instead of ricotta! Really!

In a complementary, promotional interview with Sandra, she is quoted as saying "Instead of reaching for expensive jars of spices, look for inexpensive packets of spice mixes, particularly when they go on sale." Anyone having read the ingredient list on these inexpensive packets knows they are a false economy. Filled with MSG, processed and cheap ingredients like calcium disodium and xanthum gum as well as ordinary salt, manufacturers still make a nice profit when the packets are "on sale." Real spices deliver real flavor.

Does this rant mean I never use convenience foods? To the contrary, they are part of my repertoire, but used judiciously. However, I would never lay out cash money for a cookbook that shows me how to incorporate more Velveeta into my life.

Keeping it real....


P.S.One of the folks reviewing Sandra Lee's cookbooks and show had the following comment that I just had to share because it resonates with me.....

I'm Italian- American and I'll never forget the day I went to a friend's house in grade school and her mom served us spaghetti - Chef Boyardee from a can. I started crying! It was unrecognizable.


  1. Chinese to English translation is Xu Jiting says ~ ~ Stroll up, step on footprints to you ~ ~ ~

  2. Well, great, I'll step on those footprints, too, because I SO agree with you! I'm married to a chef, and we never eat processed foods. We just don't. And I'll bet we don't spend more time in the kitchen than anyone who uses "food in a box." Hamburger Helper? We call it "leftovers."
    Incidentally, I feel the same thing is happening to art with all those scrapbooking kits. Just sayin'