Few Of Us Know What's Cooking

ALICE STEINBACH

February 09, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Food, I have often observed, is a subject that interests a great many people. We spend many hours of the day thinking about food, reading about food and planning to shop for food.

But the amount of time we actually spend on preparing and eating food, I have concluded, is shrinking rapidly.

Yes, there may be two or three people out there who still participate in what used to be called the "dinner hour." But if you're average, or close to average, you probably are not one of them.

And if you are someone I personally know, you definitely are not one of them.

Based on nutritional information supplied to me recently by a group of typical -- or close to typical -- friends, I have come to this conclusion: If it's true that you are what you eat, then a lot of us are in big trouble.

As proof, I offer the following pathetic -- but true -- examples of dinner menus gleaned from a wide-ranging sample of friends. See if you recognize among them the dinner you had last night:

A married man with two children arrives home at 10 p.m. for dinner, after putting in a full day at the office and a night at law school. Menu: Four bowls of Kix cereal with milk.

A single woman -- who also works full-time while attending law school -- rolls in for dinner at 10:30 p.m. Menu: One bowl of cereal -- but with a gourmet touch. Instead of milk, cold tea is poured over the cereal.

A working couple arrive home at 7 p.m. after picking up their children from day care. The children have already been fed "a real meal." The parents eat sandwiches.

A married man -- but one whose wife lives in a different city during the week -- routinely goes home and eats popcorn for dinner. With one exception: The owner of dogs, this man takes the time -- when he runs out of dog food -- to fix up a home-cooked meal for his canines. Last week, he made stir-fried chicken for them. I am told they liked it very much.

I could go on and on about combination dinners of sardines and boiled potatoes, baked beans and apple juice, but, hey, why bother? You get the picture.

In fact, you probably are part of the picture.

And we are talking here not of Norman Rockwell country, where families gathered at the dinner table, but of the lonely-guy territory staked out by Edward Hopper.

The question, of course, is how did we get from there to here?

I am told by some sources, although not necessarily reliable ones, that the beginning of the end for dinner as we once knew it might have started with the addition of the prefix "frozen" to the word "food."

From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to linking together the words "TV" and "dinner."

Once this happened, it opened the door to an era where it was possible to cook a separate and different meal for each family member. Mothers, for instance, gave up the concept of cooking, say, one 7-pound pot roast for the entire family. Instead, they became more like waiters, taking orders for dinner:

"Let's see if I've got this right. That's one veal Parmesan, one Salisbury steak with fries, one cheese pizza -- hold the mushrooms -- and two chicken divan."

This worked for about 20 years. In fact, it was so successful that it prompted the invention of little TV-dinner-tables-for-one -- thus assuring that people could enjoy their dinners in solitude.

But then people got tired of frozen food in aluminum trays. They wanted more sophisticated foodstuffs. And they wanted it home-cooked. In someone else's home, of course.

This led to another startling linguistic discovery: It was found that if you put the word "gourmet" in front of the words "to go," you could fetch rather a lot of money for such items as stuffed tomatoes Florentine and blackened catfish. And it was discovered that the very same well-dressed people who like to jostle one another and shout out orders at the stock market would frequent gourmet-to-go counters at the end of the workday.

Unfortunately, such modern conveniences have caused many people -- myself included -- to forget how to cook. Recently, for instance, while searching through my kitchen cabinet I ran across a strange-looking instrument that had some kind of clock attached to it.

Upon reflection, I decided it was a pressure cooker.

In fact, the sight of this old friend so moved me that I decided to have an old-fashioned meal of pot roast and dumplings. And it was wonderful. So tasty, so reminiscent of the old days.

Best of all, they had it on special that day at the local gourmet-to-go.

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