Lazy Food

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Time-saving has become the mantra of modern American society. We want things now, we want them to be easier, we want to be able to finish doing them quicker so we can move on to more things that can be quickly and easily done. There are countless products on the market which promise to chop, peel and grate vegetables with the touch of a button, but even that is apparently too much of a bother. These days you can buy your vegetables pre-sliced and pre-peeled. They’re the produce section’s answer to Betty Crocker cake mix, and their popularity is growing.

While my immediate reaction to this article decrying ‘lazy food’ was one of intense derision, upon further reflection that reaction has settled into minor scorn. I suppose that if it’s worth it to you to outsource the preparation of your vegetables and you are willing to part with your hard-earned cash for the privilege of never having to pick up a vegetable peeler, then good for you.

Still, although I’m sure everyone goes through busy periods when it is beyond them to devote ten minutes of an evening to slicing mushrooms, anyone who feels that they consistently don’t have the time to spare for minor food preparation might need to re-prioritize. After all, unless you’re cooking for an entire mess hall, peeling potatoes shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. And then you get to eat your hard-earned potatoes! Everybody wins, except the potatoes.

I guess part of my incredulity at purchasing pre-prepped vegetables is because I love to cook, and peeling, slicing, dicing and shredding is all a part of the food preparation process. There’s something extremely relaxing but also engaging about chopping vegetables and meat into uniform pieces. So missing out on that part of the process seems like a loss to me. There’s also a pride that comes with knowing that you took a box or a big full of produce and turned it into vegetable soup. If all you did was buy a few trays of pre-sliced veggies and dump them into a pot, where’s the fun and sense of accomplishment there? Why not just heat up a can of Campbells?

Ok, ok, I get it. By using pre-sliced veggies you’re at least still getting their fresh flavor and nutrients, even if you skipped a few steps in the process. And I must admit, there are some food short-cuts that I swear by, such as baby carrots (I do not spend time whittling down grown-up carrots), cubed summer squash (because the one time I hacked apart a whole summer squash, I nearly lost a hand), and frozen vegetables in general, because you can keep them around for a long time. Also, of course, meat of all kinds, because I have never slaughtered a chicken or a cow in order to prepare a meal. So I will acknowledge that there is a time and a place for lazy. But still, I think it couldn’t hurt for consumers to dig deep, suck it up, and spent an extra ten minutes in the kitchen slicing up a few green peppers for a stir-fry once in a while. The resulting meal will taste like sweat, tears and victory.

EMILY SAIDEL: Before I argue for or against lazy food, I would ask for a change of terminology as lazy already connotes a derisive attitude. Let me instead call these pre-sliced, pre-diced, pre-cubed fruits and vegetables convenience foods. Even more specifically, convenience produce, because the article Molly points to is not discussing frozen dinners or prepackaged mixes.

The decision to use convenience produce is a decision based on a balance of time, money, ability, and sense of authenticity. If all would be chefs had all the time in the world, then convenience produce would not serve a need. But the reality is, time is limited. An anecdote: I held a 10-6 job for a year that required a commute of a solid hour. Not bad for mornings, but this distance meant that I did not arrive home to begin dinner until at least 7:00pm. If I had not planned for dinner and had to purchase groceries along the way home, that schedule was pushed back another 30 to 45 minutes. A certain common wisdom of nutrition is to eat dinner before 7:00, or the 7 o’clock equivalent if actual sleeptime is pushed back. To not start preparing dinner until 7:45, not eating until 8:30 meant delaying sleep or sleeping on a somewhat full stomach, neither an optimal choice. Convenience produce assists those in a similar situation to get a home cooked meal prepared without delaying eating too far into the evening.

But convenience should also be measured in money. Convenience produce is often priced higher than the equivalent weight of unprepared produce, as one would expect due to the additional labor and packaging. Convenience produce may save time as discussed above, but it will generally not save money. However, this balance does not always hold true when weighed against the amount of food needed to be prepared. I am often cooking a dinner for one. If I want to cook summer squash, as Molly mentions, I have the choice to buy a smaller (but more expensive lb to lb) package of pre-cubed or to buy an entire squash. In this situation, the pound to pound comparison is less relevant. In my meal for one I only need the smaller amount and would prefer not to waste the extra summer squash poundage when I tire of the dish.

Knife skills also weigh into this balance. Molly describes the foods she is willing to compromise on–baby carrots, summer squash–because the labor is not worth the reward. For some people, though, willingness is not equal to labor. Convenience produce allows would-be chefs access to foods that they would not have due to injury, arthritis, or inexperience. They can continue to cook fresh, home meals even if they cannot continue to hold a knife or a masher. Although largely unnecessary in the age of google, convenience produce could also be used as a teaching aid. A pre-cut package of julienned carrots not only speeds up the preparation time for a particular meal, but also demonstrates “julienning” to an inexperienced cook.

Finally, authenticity creeps in as the objection to convenience produce. If all the vegetables were pre-diced, did you really cook that stir-fry? This question is deeply personal, and often deeply irrelevant to the recipient of the meal.  Shared meals are a time for conversation and enjoyment; they are not an arena for accusations as to the correct amount of labor contributed. If a cook enjoys the meditation time of peeling potatoes, then he is welcome to it. But if another cook needs another option, then she should make the decision that most fits the balance of time, money, skill, and enjoyment. The flexibility of cooking allows each person to shift between these modes as they fit into individual days and individual lifestyles. We choose what we’ll do by hand, and what we’ll accept help with. And isn’t it great to have the luxury of that choice?

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