People eat the most abominable food, and in my misbegotten youth (d. 2005), I ate a good deal of it myself. Fast food, frozen food, food served in chain restaurants where, three or four times an evening, the waitstaff emerge half-heartedly to sing a happy birthday song that is not actually "Happy Birthday." I've eaten white bread that claims to be wondrous but that has no taste at all; "Chinese take out" that no person from China would recognize as Chinese food; edible oil products that are dyed orange, sliced thin, wrapped in plastic, and called "cheese"; and even Minute Rice. The passage of time has taught me the virtues of brown bread and authentic ethnic cuisine; that cheese is not orange; that all rice can be made in minutes, and that moreover Minute Rice is not rice at all. As near as I can tell, it is some sort of Styrofoam that tastes vaguely like soap. "Minute Rice," says Mark Bittman, the brilliant New York Times food writer. is "the stupidest food ever invented."
People will, in the supposed name of convenience, eat an astonishing array of truly repugnant edible consumer goods that I won't dignify with the title "food." An alarming number of these products seem to be manufactured — that is the right word, by the way — by Kraft. Consider these gastronomical hand grenades, marketed as a quicker alternative to bagels, in order to spare frequent bagel eaters the anguish of toasting real bagels and then having to spread cream cheese for themselves. How did we ever survive before our bagels were produced in factories, crammed with chemical goop by machines, flash-frozen, wrapped in plastic, dropped into a cardboard box, and shipped thousand of kilometers to our breakfast counters? The wonders of modernity never cease. Why, next somebody will think of pouring tap water into plastic bottles, trucking it across continents, and selling it for four times the cost of gasoline!
If the development of an eating disorder is among your life goals, I highly recommend that you spend some time on Kraft's website, checking out their recipes. Consider this burnt frozen hamburger served on a bed of pasta (and tell me that it doesn't look exactly like the killer robots from The Matrix.) Yum. Yum. And for those parents who truly despise their own children, the good people at General Mills market Pizza Pockets, which are made with the same loving care for children's health that Big Macs are.
If I sound slightly evangelical about all this, it's because I turned 39 today, and birthdays are occasions for reflection. The 90th Psalm allows that the number of our years are "threescore and ten" or, "by reason of strength" fourscore - this upper extremis being a mere twenty-nine thousand days. Of those, there are about fourteen thousand behind me, and I'm resolved that I will not spend any of the remainder eating food that reduces the number of my days and that tastes bad, to boot.
So, listen up, you students! (I know you're reading this.) This is the most important lesson I'll ever teach you. Tonight, you'll pick up that phone and chalk up another $25 on your VISA for a soggy pizza from some crappy place that sells "2 for 1" to students who don't know any better. Don't. Stop at the supermarket on the way home. And when you get home, follow these directions:
Heat some olive oil in a big frying pan. Chop up some onions, celery, carrots, and a couple of gloves of garlic. Throw them in. Add some salt and pepper and, if you've got it, a bit of oregano or thyme (in the summer, use the fresh stuff.) Cut up some peppers or mushrooms, if you want. Again, in summer, get the locally grown kind. Add some diced tomatoes and their juice and let it simmer while you boil some water for pasta. By the time the water is boiled and the pasta is cooked, your tomato sauce will be done. Grate some real parmesan on it (not the kind that comes in a green cardboard shaker.) If you're either totally alone or trying to impress somebody, get a bottle of this on the way home, too.
There. The whole thing (minus the optional wine) will cost less than the pizza, will be ready in the same time as delivery, and you'll have plenty of ingredients left over for future meals. It will taste better, too, and in no small measure because you made it. Next time, experiment. Serve it with a little salad or some bread from the local bakery.
If you can read, you can cook. There's no reason to buy and eat tasteless, high fat, high sodium, nutritionally worthless "food" manufactured according to same principles that Henry Ford used to build cars. Because the fact is that it is not cheaper; it is not faster; it is not more convenient. What it is, is just another product marketed by people who, in another lifetime, with a different spin of the wheel, would probably be tobacco lobbyists.
I mentioned the brilliant but down-to-earth and highly pragmatic Mark Bittman before. Here's his column at the New York Times, and the next time you even think about eating a meal that involves a cardboard box and a microwave oven, dip into this article instead.
Oh, and do the dishes before you go to bed.