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The one commercial product that led to the demise of home cooking


rooftop1000
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I suspect that the death of cooking was, at least in part, a result of the difficulty in preparing food. My grandmother grew up in an era where making a cake required significant manual labor and ingredients that perished in hours, not days. I can now get sixteen different kind of imported cheese at the corner store bodega and until the age of seventeen had never seen anyone make a meringue without an electric mixer.

Cooking food today is spectacularly easy. A combination of cheap automation and incredible logistics have turned something that was once intensely tedious into a recreational activity. Take away my microwave and giant fridge and electric blender, and I'd be eating Campbells too.

Bill Bryson is a god in this house. I agree with anything he writes, even if I haven't read it :laugh:.

I feel this must be brought up.

http://www.boreme.com/posting.php?id=17002&page=1

Edited by jrshaul (log)
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I don't think the refrigerator killed cooking. It promoted it. It kept bacon, eggs, milk and beef and chicken fresher longer for city folk. Early refrigerator freezers were just about big enough to keep a couple of ice cube trays. Frozen food, meat lockers and super markets, and urbanization, plus bigger refrigerator freezers made it possible to manufacture and sell pre made meals, then came mixes. People no longer grew 'victory gardens' or put up their own food in jars nor had fruit cellars.

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they looked for ways to market processed foods to the home front and began relentless advertizing campaigns to convince housewives that real cooking was too difficult for them to manage on their own.

This and jrshaul's comment about making a cake reminded me of Something from the Oven. It's been a few years since I've read it, but I remember it emphasized the marketing, one example being the idea of the difficulty of consistently making a cake, and that being kind of a gateway product. And there was a study where women were presented with two grocery lists and they were to describe the shopper. The lists were the same as far as processed/pre-prepared items except for the instant coffee (I think it was coffee), and the woman went from being budget-conscious, concerned about family to lazy and wasteful. Women saw some process products as acceptable (I think canned pineapple?), but others not, and there was more resistance than our stories of embracing the processed products. One thing that stuck with me, too, was her comment that it was the start of the companies shaping our tastes more than our mothers.

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IMHO what killed home cooking was home cooking. Most mothers were simply not great cooks (not trying to be sexist - I believe that up until at least the last decade the majority of home cooks were the mothers of the family, if not still). Dry meatloaf, overcooked roast beef, peas boiled beyond recognition, glutinous mashed potatoes, lumpy gravy, unrecognizable seafood, mealy pasta. Not that my mom was the worst cook out there - she was par for the course. Being completely honest about it, as a kid growing up, I didn't have one memorable meal at home, or at my grandparents' or aunts' or friends' houses. They were wonderful because they were at home (or a home away from home), but they weren't extraordinary. Even at the houses of my friends who were Italian.

Swanson and Chef Boy-ar-dee provided almost the same flavors at a similar cost or less, but yet at a fraction of the time.

I have no doubt that there are many of you who regularly had amazing meals at home while growing up, but I would wager that you are in the minority.

Edited by KingLear (log)
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I don't think the refrigerator killed cooking. It promoted it. It kept bacon, eggs, milk and beef and chicken fresher longer for city folk. Early refrigerator freezers were just about big enough to keep a couple of ice cube trays. Frozen food, meat lockers and super markets, and urbanization, plus bigger refrigerator freezers made it possible to manufacture and sell pre made meals, then came mixes. People no longer grew 'victory gardens' or put up their own food in jars nor had fruit cellars.

And this is why I think refrigeration led to the downfall of cooking skills. The lack of a garden (victory or otherwise) distanced the US consumer from the food they ate. People no longer think about where their food comes from. It comes from a plastic-wrapped styrofoam package, of course!

And while lobster could now be sold in Kansas City, refrigeration also contributed greatly to the industrialization of agriculture.

Not that I'm saying refrigeration is a bad thing, mind you. I'm not about to give up my refrigerators and freezers. But if you want one invention that was the beginning of the end, I'd say that's the one. Everything else hinges on the ability to store food for long periods of time.

Edited by ScoopKW (log)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Bryson's from Iowa. I think it may be in the state constitution that we are not allowed to be brash or to brag at all. Honestly, if Bill heard that tape, he would be the one laughing loudest and longest. He is a genius in a teddy bear suit. :wink:

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I don't think the refrigerator killed cooking. It promoted it. It kept bacon, eggs, milk and beef and chicken fresher longer for city folk. Early refrigerator freezers were just about big enough to keep a couple of ice cube trays. Frozen food, meat lockers and super markets, and urbanization, plus bigger refrigerator freezers made it possible to manufacture and sell pre made meals, then came mixes. People no longer grew 'victory gardens' or put up their own food in jars nor had fruit cellars.

And this is why I think refrigeration led to the downfall of cooking skills. The lack of a garden (victory or otherwise) distanced the US consumer from the food they ate. People no longer think about where their food comes from. It comes from a plastic-wrapped styrofoam package, of course!

And while lobster could now be sold in Kansas City, refrigeration also contributed greatly to the industrialization of agriculture.

Not that I'm saying refrigeration is a bad thing, mind you. I'm not about to give up my refrigerators and freezers. But if you want one invention that was the beginning of the end, I'd say that's the one. Everything else hinges on the ability to store food for long periods of time.

IMHO Canned goods pre dated refrigeration. Refrigerators were around since the 1920/s Industrialization is what distanced people from farms and back yard gardens. Refrigeration brought farm foods albeit industrial farm foods to the cities. I still think large freezing capacity is more of the culprit. That was in the late 40's, early 50's. By the early 60's people like James Beard and Julia Child had started re awakening people to good and properly cooked home made food by passing up the frozen TV dinners and using fresh super market food because that was what most people had available by then.

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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I don't particularly care for canned soups, but I suspect they did more to bring new things into the home kitchen as ingredients in other recipes than replace something that people previously made on their own at home. My own grandmothers didn't particularly make stock unless it was chicken stock to be used in chicken soup for a special occasion or a holiday. They made homemade soups, but they usually left the marrow bones in the soup and served it with the bones to someone who wanted the marrow. They made pan gravy or more likely served the meat juices as a sauce (bearing in mind that they kept kosher, so no cream sauces for meat or roux with butter). They weren't making foundation sauces and subsidiary sauces from those or making glazes from stock.

But take a can of tomato soup and a can of beef stock, and you've practically got an espagnole, and if there was canned veal stock (which I doubt has ever been as common as beef or chicken stock or tomato soup or cream of mushroom soup), you would be halfway to demi glace. Ranhofer always mentions ingredients like "mushroom essence," which is an infusion made from mushroom stems, but you have to be using a lot of mushrooms to accumulate enough stems to make an appreciable quantity of mushroom essence. Stocks generally make more sense in restaurant kitchens, where there are meat scraps, bones, and vegetable trimmings to be used, and when there are pots of stock on the back burners, it's easy to be creative about sauces.

Lacking a suitable method of preserving stock, I doubt my grandmothers' mothers and grandmothers made much in the way of stocks and sauces at home either.

TV dinners and cake mix, though--that's another story.

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When people think about the past, they tend to idealize it. Everybody talks about Julia, Beard, Elizabeth David, Hazan reawakening us to good food. They didn't reawaken, they awakened. Because they had the luxury of time, ingredients, equipment, etc., they were able to codify and promote things like "Italian food" which was and still is an idea that was born of the moment in time (notice this is all post WWII) that enabled them to do this.

I think the fact is that food was not that great, for the most part, in many places of the world around say 1900 unless we're talking restaurants for the spectacularly rich. I would not want to go back there because as jrshaul says it's really easy to cook now. It wouldn't have been so easy then. As a cook you wouldn't only be constrained by your garden, you'd be constrained by everything including your knowledge of foodways outside of your experience. While places like Italy had and still do have amazing repertoire's of skills and knowledge, access to ingredients would have been limited and people would have been making do. I'm sure there were amazing cooks back then, especially in a place like Italy with such a strong and rich food culture, but back in the day as now many people (more people actually) would have been making do. The "peasant" food we love today would have actually been peasant food, and just as today not everybody would be enthusiastic about spending hours cooking. This is not to say there was no good cooking; obviously that's not true. But it wasn't a golden age either. The golden age is now, for those of us who cook avidly.

nunc est bibendum...

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And this is why I think refrigeration led to the downfall of cooking skills. The lack of a garden (victory or otherwise) distanced the US consumer from the food they ate. People no longer think about where their food comes from. It comes from a plastic-wrapped styrofoam package, of course!

I'm not so sure. The US has had a strong urban population for over a hundred years, and I've seen variants on "Milk comes from COWS?" jokes dating back to at least WW1. People have been separated from farms for a while now.

On the other hand, it's worth considering the implications of industrial transport and storage. The average Wal-Mart tomato is more durable and stays fresh longer than the tomatoes of yesteryear. On the other hand, the year-round tomato comes at a price - it tastes like soggy cardboard.

The significance of preserved food has also changed over time. Canned food today is generally considered a second-rate good inferior to fresh or frozen counterparts, but 70 years ago it was the only option for much of the year. There's an old tradition in upstate Wisconsin of drinking home-canned tomato juice during the winter - not because it's particularly tasty, but because it prevents scurvy.

If you'd been drinking straight tomato juice for five months of the year, you'd be pretty keen on canned fruit too.

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My vote is the Supermarket. This isn’t one product, but the gathering of all products under one roof. Unlike shopping at a butcher, baker and vegetable stand, the Supermarket is chock full of faceless/mass produced products. Quantity of choice trumped quality.

Toby

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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I like how this discussion has evolved from a question about a commercial food product to embrace a wider sociological perspective: refrigeration, TV (especially advertising), supermarkets, technology, post-WWII, etc. I suspect that all of those play a part. I also think that the rise of the supermarket, as Toby said above, correlates with the rise of the suburbs, especially post-WWII.

"There is no sincerer love than the love of food."  -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 1

 

Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

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Some people think of olden times and think of dull and dreary food, to the dust bowl, bread lines, depression, Van Gogh's Potato Eaters and the Irish famine but early Americans had more variety of food that some imagine. Sure it was regional and seasonal but even in pre Civil War times people knew how to preserve fruits, nuts and vegetables, to cure and dry meats. Books like American Cookery show that food and cooking was not as one dimensional as some might think. There were pigs, deer, rabbits, squirrels and numerous other varmints not to mention a lot of fresh water fish, turtles, frogs and crawdads and chicken, duck, geese, pheasant, dove and quail. I am sure there were women who wished they didn't have to work so hard and saw cooking as just another responsibility just as there were men who day dreamed that they didn't have to toil from morning to night to provide for the family and there were people who took pride in what they did and wanted to do it well.

Of course they were constrained by their "lack knowledge of foodways outside of their experience". What use would they have for knowledge of which they would never come in contact? The people who did the food preparation knew what they needed to know , just as others know in other cultures such as China, Japan, Greece, Italy, Russia.

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My original post blew up. but my synopsis is that kids' activities along with a food industry that wants everything to appear as hard, complicate, impossible are the most responsible. Who wants to get home after 19 practices, obligations and have to WORK at getting dinner? But there are few outlets that say: take the time of a sitcom to plan some meals; watch another sitcom and prep; when you get home from work/school/obligations do what you need to round out things. My wife and I both work and like to cook. We virtually every night have something prepare. Yes, sometimes we have a kids' choice meal and always an option. But we are trying to cook stuff we like while exposing our kids. Our oldest daughter, 11, loves to bake. Too many people view Mcdonald's as a viable option. I would be very encouraged by seeing more peers willing to do boneless breast of chicken with cream of whatever. I wouldn't want that for this house, but we do more. But I also think that someone who is willing to do that is willing to be taught to do more.

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"Who wants to get home after 19 practices, obligations and have to WORK at getting dinner?"

To right but, rather than supermarket ready meals make your own.

Today just made a mass of Ragu - ingredient cost £25 (Two bottles of wine in there did that so could be a lot less) for at least 18 portions that will be frozen.

Also made sous vide confit duck legs (8) I got in a 1/2 price sale and after them sous vide veg (sprouts & Bacon (2), potatoes butter and mint (2) and cabbage (2) but not sure) again now frozen. All this in one weekend with prob 2 hours cooking at most the rest stirring, checking while I did other stuff.

So for an outlay of say 35 pounds have at least 26 very high quality (and large portioned) meals that when I'm busy, a quick reheat (if not in a rush in the water bath) otherwise in pan or nuke in the microwave and perhaps boil some pasta - compare that with the price of a rubbish ready meal or fast food then cheaper, better, tastier just takes a decision to do it.

It's shocking where all the skills have gone, my mum who cooked the most amazing roast dinners as a child dinners, now has issues making gravy - why because she never does it as her BF only eats un-skinned chicken breast, not that she can't make it but the confidence is not there as it's rare for her to do and confidence plays a huge role in cooking.

Anyway with the age of austerity in the UK here's hoping people get back to home cooking (i.e gum stabilised salad dressings - yup make them at home)

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

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I don't know if home cooking has died. Not really. I know, I know, I know. Takeaway is big business. And TV diners, too. Frozen, near-instant meals. But a lot of the things being mentioned here--especially the fridge and the freezer--empowered people who cared about and enjoyed cooking at home. It became possible to improve the quality of your meals a whole lot by, say, making and storing large quantities of stock (or sauce or charcuterie or a lot of other things). It meant that a home cook willing to try new things could access meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables and groceries from all over the country, if not the entire planet, and have them arrive in good condition (and not, say, salted or dried into a totally different product). The rise of factory farming--and supermarket chains, too, with their massive buying power--for all the Bad Things that came with it, meant chicken and pork and beef became more accessible to the everycook. There are all kinds of instant foodstuffs 'enhanced' with all sorts of additives--textural enhancers, umami boosters and such--but these advances, too, have crept into home (and, obviously, restaurant) cooking.

The people who never wanted to cook now have a very easy time of not cooking, although partly the improved financial situation for most people in the world has helped this along a fair bit--if you never wanted to cook and were rich you pretty much always had the option of restaurants/takeaway/et al (maybe not as much of a selection, but still)--but made it possible to live a lifestyle that involves little if any homecooking relatively inexpensively. Being able to cook a very wide variety of foodstuffs in a variety of interesting ways--and the share those experiences with lots of other people from around the world--has become just as accessible as a diet of food that takes <5 minutes to prepare. The reality is that as much as life has become 'better' for people who have more important things to do than cook, such as watch television or get drunk or work really long hours, it's also become much better for people like us.

And, you know what? The freezer and the supermarket and everything else, they've made my culinary life so damn good I'm not really concerned about people who never wanted to cook in the first place. They can keep their canned soup sauce.

Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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My take is that home cooking is not dead - just not nearly as prevalent we would like to see. Both my wife and I cook real meals and both of our adult daughters cook real meals. Instead of looking for a culprit, let us celebrate what we do have here at eGullet. Just my 2 cents ...

Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

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I like how this discussion has evolved from a question about a commercial food product to embrace a wider sociological perspective: refrigeration, TV (especially advertising), supermarkets, technology, post-WWII, etc.

Well, that was the point I was trying to make, but (to use a food metaphor) the whole topic is a can of worms. Even if we agree that home cooking has suffered a demise (a debatable topic in itself) there will even be huge differences between countries. But I was trying to suggest that the manufacture of a single product did not play a role in the overall history of food and home cooking, although the attitudes towards a given product would be a product of the time.

While I may be ridiculed for such a crass reference to popular culture, even 'Downton Abby' illustrates that less than 100 years ago the aristocracy had loads of servants to cook everything for them, and that WW1 changed the idea of 'home cooking' more than a can of soup!

I think the thread has evolved to an overall discussion of food history, and one entertaining but also informative TV show that might have escaped notice in the USA is the English production 'supersizers go'. They made specific episodes on the 50's, 70's and 80's and it's interesting to see how food culture has changed in England in only half a century. It's a great, funny show - worth seeking out for anyone interested in food history but doesn't take it too seriously.

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Also, judging by our lunch and dinner threads alone, an eGulleteers' (double 'e' intended, think Dumas or, if you're of a certain generation, the lackeys of Captain Planet) idea of a great meal or even suitable weekday fare cobbled together when one is tired is maybe perhaps different to that of many normal people. And I'm not just talking about the photos uploaded by, say, ScottyBoy or the people who are working on recipes in the Eleven Madison Park book.

Let's put it this way. The other day I had my first real haircut. Don't misunderstand: I never had my hair down to my arse or anything, it's just that as a child and then a student and then as an adult I went to 'cheap and cheerful' local places that'd do the whole thing, mostly using clippers, in a few minutes. $15-20 and you're set. To someone who charges $60 for a basic male hair cut and almost doesn't touch the clippers at all, the $15-20 quick cut is unacceptable. It's the hair cut version of a can of soup tipped over some microwavable chicken pieces served atop two minute noodles (with the satchets of MSG). To a lot of normal people, the cheap cut does the job. You need to look presentable so you go to such a place and get taken care of. To people who are into that kind of thing, either professionally or out of some desire to look nice or whatever, it's utterly horrid. See also: spirit geeks and Johnny Walker Red. See also: Australian beer nerds and VB, Foster's, et al. There is a certain amount of snobbery involved--something directed at even the best efforts of people who, most of the time, probably regard a meal as no more than filling up the tank.

Edited by ChrisTaylor (log)

Chris Taylor

Host, eG Forums - ctaylor@egstaff.org

 

I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

Melbourne
Harare, Victoria Falls and some places in between

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To people who are into that kind of thing, either professionally or out of some desire to look nice or whatever, it's utterly horrid. See also: spirit geeks and Johnny Walker Red. See also: Australian beer nerds and VB, Foster's, et al. There is a certain amount of snobbery involved--something directed at even the best efforts of people who, most of the time, probably regard a meal as no more than filling up the tank.

The difference between haricuts and cars or food or beer is that haircuts are arbitrary, and the remainder are objectively different.

The preference between two haircuts and the amount of detail required has varied significantly by decade, as has the significance of a particular haircut. What was once an unkempt, wild hairdo is now considered dull and orderly. Beyond keeping hair out of your eyes and soup, there's no real functional difference between the two.

In contrast, an automobile is easily judged objectively. Fit and finish, while somewhat subjective, have definite metrics; safety, performance, and longevity can be determined with a ruler. In almost every way, a Honda Civic is better than the old Volkswagen Beetle.

There's definitely a large amount of personal preference in food, but there's also an equally large amount of objective quality. Fresh ingredients are easily distinguished from their preserved counterparts, and a $13 bowl of ravioli at Olive Garden is inferior in many ways to the $13 bowl of ravioli at a proper local restaurant. Even someone with no prior concept of tomatoes or cheese or Italy will go for the one without the food gum.

Am I a snob? Probably. Some people really can't be bothered about the difference between Olive Garden and the real deal, and that's a question of personal preference, much as wear ugly shoes because I can't be bothered to spend the time and money on non-ugly footwear. The overarching question, then, is why food is now less important than shoes.

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When my relatives from Switzerland visited us in the '70's they were shocked by the size of our refrigerator (very modest model) and the fact that we only went shopping for food once a week.

In Asia, the house hold fridges are pretty small too. My m.i.l. would prepare Chinese n.y. meals of up to 10 dishes for over 50 people, and her fridge was slightly smaller than a bar fridge.

And when I was "invited" to my parent's place, when they were still alive, my Mom who was totally N.Americanized (but still retained her accent) was astounded that I would buy a whole chicken and debone it just for the bones to make stock, neatly wrapping the leg and brst meat for her freezer. It never dawned on her that it was far cheaper to do so and that the bones could actually be utilized.

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I dislike these kinds of threads since my own mother, now 79 years old, has always hated to cook, but she did it anyway. We ate in nearly every night of the week and went out to a moderately priced restaurant once or twice a week. Still, we had hot breakfasts, packed lunches and a home-cooked dinner every night during the week even after my mother went to work full-time. We also so had a kitchen garden and fruit trees that my brothers and I were to tend to when we were old enough to do so.

The "good old days" never were for women like my mother and her sister who dislikes cooking as well, but still did it since she had six children and a husband with a crummy job.

I was talking to my Grandmother (83 yrs old yesterday) about this recently. She, my Mom and one of my aunts were discussing a traditional meat pie they all make. My Mom never uses bought pie crusts - pie crust and biscuits are two of those things she can make in her sleep and nothing else is good enough. And she did work full time for many years, but she also had a garden and canned her own vegetables, made jams, etc, because she enjoyed doing it. My grandmother and aunt always use store-bought crusts - pre-tinned for the bottom crusts and the kind you roll out for the top crust. I don't even think they own pie plates! My grandmother was saying that the modern women of today don't have time to fiddle around with making a pie crust - to which I pointed out that many modern women (and men) today are going back to making their own. But my grandmother raised 8 kids in 12 years as well as working full time so convenience foods were a God-send and there is no convincing her that it is worth the trouble for home made. Holiday meals feature canned corn and peas, cakes are box mixes (and she makes all the family wedding cakes) and sauces are from a jar. But ultimately, her cooking is plenty tasty and we love her and it. But really - I prefer my Mom's pie crust...

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I think Chris tags it well. I have friends who consciously attempt to eat healthily, abhor fast food, don't use cream-of soups, patronize the farmers' markets -- and then construct some of the most boring meals on the planet. Veggies overcooked, meat overcooked, both underseasoned, very unimaginative. And they don't like to eat at my house because, well, things are at least adventurous (may be excellent, may be a bust, but they dislike departing from the familiar in either direction). Tastes differ, just like tastes in haircuts differ.

I'm also in ermintrude's camp as far as cooking on the weekend for the week ahead. This past weekend, I did tamarind braised beef over rice, with leftovers that got paired with vegetarian okonomiyaki another night, and I have enough left to put over rice noodles yet another. The pot roast with potatos, carrots and onions has already made one appearance as a roast beef sandiwich, and will turn up in vegetable beef soup tomorrow night. Plus I made a quart of marinara sauce, with no particular plans for it but with tomatos that needed to be used, and a quart of white bean and tuna salad off which I've been lunching all week. Plus I baked a loaf of gluten-free bread that's been serving as breakfast toast all week. And I can come home and have a GOOD dinner ready in 20 minutes.

When I move and get a bigger freezer, I also plan to get a sous vide machine and I expect I'll be cooking more in serving-sized pouches and freezing them, rather than using something during the time period it can be stored in the fridge.

Edited by kayb (log)

Don't ask. Eat it.

www.kayatthekeyboard.wordpress.com

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