.Back to the Microwave

How the sustainable-food movement drove one busy family to the frozen-food aisle.

It was the corn soup that did it.

We’d picked up a few perfect ears of white corn from the farmers’ market that morning. I’d been eyeing a recipe in the latest Bon Appétit magazine. My husband agreed to keep the kids out of the kitchen for a bit while I pieced together the dish. Soon, I imagined, we would sit down to an early dinner of fresh corn soup — really the essence of late summer — and the kids would smile at each other, my husband would remark on my superb culinary skills, and we would all appreciate the glory that is farm fresh food and a home-cooked meal.

I sliced the kernels off the first ear. Nearly half fell onto the floor. Then I ground the remaining ears through a cheese grater. Milky residue dripped into my shoes. Navigating around my cramped little kitchen began to get more dangerous as the corn detritus on the floor made a slippery mess. I added the corn to steamed milk and poured half the mixture into my food processor. As I pushed down on the lever, a hot stream of corn milk splurted out the container’s seam, drenching my shirt and nearly scalding my torso. My husband checked on me periodically, saying, “Why don’t we just have spaghetti?”

After several more steps to the perfect corn soup, I strained the now-blended milky mixture through a fine sieve, leaving about four cups of faintly yellow fluid in a pot. It was a meager return on my investment. Sweaty, wet, dirty, and smelling of an Iowa farm field, I called the family together and ladled out the warm liquid into beautiful blue china bowls.

“I don’t like soup!” was the first remark from my four-year-old daughter. The two-year-old took one look and shoved the bowl across the table, slopping some. He began to dance on his chair. My husband stayed quiet. He slurped a spoonful. Then he got up, went into the kitchen, and returned with three types of hot sauce, a bag of cilantro, some diced onions, and a stack of tortillas.

I sat glumly spooning lukewarm milkiness into my mouth. I tuned out the complaints whined by the kids and the eye-contact avoidance practiced by my husband and I entered a contemplative moment.

My problem is that I’ve been reading too many books. That’s what got me into this mess in the first place. First, it was Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. That put an end to Happy Meals on road trips to Grandma’s. Then it was The Omnivore’s Dilemma. No more chewy Oroweat bread with high-fructose corn syrup. And finally, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle banned the beloved banana, whose carbon footprint was just too large.

But while I was thinking about what kinds of foods are good for my kids’ bodies and our Earth, my family was seeing less and less of me. Why? Because I was flailing around in the kitchen guiltily trying to slow-food my way to dinner before the kids had low-blood-sugar meltdowns and started doing backflips off the couch. I was not having any fun in the kitchen. While cooking was once a joy, and eating still is, having kids afoot puts a particular pressure on a chef to outdo even Rachael Ray’s feats of speed-cooking. What I was learning was that Rachael Ray and Michael Pollan don’t mix.

That’s when it came to me: I’m not going to cook anymore. And like some rebellious housewife from the 1960s getting her first taste of feminism, I made an announcement.

“I’m on strike.”

My strike progressed for a week, then two, then four, and my husband, Tony, stepped up valiantly. Among my friends, Tony is famous for his sensitivity and his rejection of stereotypical male attributes. He does most of the housecleaning, was a stay-at-home dad, likes to bake, and has always put my career ahead of his own. He was raised by a single mom and his grandmother, and he doesn’t hesitate to call himself a feminist.

But he can’t cook.

So we struck a bargain: He didn’t complain about making dinner every night, and I didn’t complain about his repertoire of burritos, pizza, and nachos. The arrangement worked. I got to hang out with my kids in the evening, they got meals they loved to eat, and my husband was able to prove to both of us that he was as generous and understanding as we had always boasted.

And while on strike I started to think more about this slow-food, back-to-the-land ideal so righteously propagated on bookshelves and middle-class playgrounds from Rockridge to the Upper West Side. Was it really working for families like ours, where both parents are busy outside the home? Can we cook wholesome meals, grow some of our own food, make bread, and maybe raise a backyard chicken without sacrificing too much time that might be better spent doing something else — like playing with our kids or going to grad school?

Maybe, I thought, this elevation of food to a holy plain is a noble movement that is simply ignorant of the real lives of modern working families. And without realizing it, this movement, one that’s so appealing to young progressives, is actually pushing for a more traditional family structure, gently nudging women back to a place our forebears fought so hard to escape: the kitchen.

I soon grew tired of my husband’s nachos. (Really, how long can you pretend that tortilla chips are a suitable carbohydrate?) So I refocused my dinner frustrations. Since neither I nor my husband was satisfied with this one-sided approach to feeding our family, we had to find another way. Let’s push up against both extremes, we decided, one that values speed and one that values flavor, and see what we get.

I quit my strike, and we set off in hopes that an experiment would lead us to a solution. For one entire month, we would eat dinners that were easy and fast — and, to an extent, bad. If it came frozen, wrapped in cellophane, in a plastic tub, or with a pop-top — things Michael Pollan doesn’t even consider “food” — we would buy it and eat it. If it came in individual servings, all the better.

The following month, we would live out the locavore’s dream. We would soak beans; braise grass-fed meat; forage for herbs; plant a garden; and make our own bread, cheese, and pasta. Maybe we’d adopt a chicken. We would buy our food exclusively from farmers’ markets, local farms, and our neighborhood mom-and-pop market looking for local and organic brands. We would compost our trash, too.

This would be a battle between the frozen chicken piccata with 38 ingredients and the BLT made from Prather Ranch bacon, hand-kneaded bread, farm-fresh veggies, and home-blended mayonnaise. But more than that, it would be a test of what it means to be a mother — a mother who wants to feed her family and keep them healthy, but who also wants more from life than kneading dough and a sink full of dishes.

The Trader Joe’s supermarket by Lake Merritt is constantly busy. People flock to the store to buy food that is an ideal combination of cheap, convenient, and, at least ostensibly, healthy. The aisles are filled with bagged salad mix, individual containers of yogurt, and pocket-size packets of almonds: the perfect place to begin our month of convenience foods. With four-year-old Lola strapped in the shopping cart, the two of us headed to the frozen aisle. Lola wanted everything we saw — BBQ Blue Cheese Chicken Wings, Coconut Curry Chicken Stix, Marinated Fish Tacos, and Philly Cheesesteak Pizza.

The snazzy names and colorful boxes reminded me of a study I read last year that showed kids preferred carrots wrapped in McDonald’s packaging to the same carrots in generic packaging. And it wasn’t just that they liked the packaging; they said the carrots actually tasted better. In a different study by NBC, kids chose a rock covered with cartoon characters over a banana for breakfast. A rock.

With all these thoughts in mind — what the kids would actually eat once the wrapper is discarded, what my husband and I would enjoy, and what met a modicum of nutrition standards — we settled on rice biriyani, spanakopita, chicken enchiladas, green-chili tamales, Asian-style chicken stir-fry with sauce, and penne pepperonata.

I steered our cart toward the checkout with our frosty bounty in tow. Waiting in line I thought of the list of “quick meals” Trader Joe’s advertises on its web site with the promise: “You can do it all AND eat well too!” Well, that sure sounded good; I wondered if rice biriyani could really fulfill that pledge. But Trader Joe’s “do-it-all” message was eerily familiar. It reminded me of my mother in the 1980s, when magazines showed yuppie moms in crocodile pumps and shoulder-padded blazers on their march to investment banks, advertising agencies, and real estate offices. This was just after 1978, when the balance between American women staying home and working had just tipped to the latter’s side. My mom balanced a full-time nursing career, a house, a husband, a teenager, and my baby brother and sister.

I remembered a phone call I made to my mother right before I got pregnant. “I don’t understand how it works,” I said to her. Her response surprised me: “It doesn’t.” Now, standing there in Trader Joe’s, I thought that maybe a microwave would have helped.

On a Tuesday night, soon after the Trader Joe’s shopping experience, the four of us arrived home and the kids pinballed around our small two-bedroom house, knocking papers off my desk, rifling through piles of books, and playing tug-of-war with a baby doll. I rushed into the kitchen to prepare dinner, leaving my husband to referee, when I heard Lola’s voice calling me. “Mommy, can I help you make dinner?”

Where before this plea caused me to panic, staring at a butcher knife and pile of raw chicken while thinking of small fingers getting lopped off in a salmonella nightmare, today I felt much more relaxed. Lola’s “help” involved grabbing a bag of salad mix and dressing from the fridge and plopping a few pieces of pre-cooked “Just Chicken” on top while I pressed a few buttons on the microwave. While this probably wasn’t what Alice Waters imagined when she urged parents to involve kids in cooking to teach them patience and self-discipline, it was a lot easier than letting a four-year-old wield a Wüsthof chef’s knife.

As the month of quick cooking progressed, food faded into the background. I shopped once a week at Trader Joe’s, with one midweek stop at the corner store when we ran out of milk. Driving home, when I used to alternate talking to the kids, listening to the radio, and piecing together dinner in my mind, was much more peaceful. With dinner always tucked away in the freezer, I never worried about ingredients going bad or how to muster the perfect combination of protein, carbs, and vitamins.

With more weekend time, we started going out more. One Saturday we packed the kids in the minivan and took off for the San Francisco coast. When we arrived we found a bunch of people cleaning the beach, so we volunteered to help. Lola held the plastic bag while her younger brother donned oversize rubber gloves and scoured the sand for cigarette butts. I thought this would make up, at least karmically, for all the plastic packaging we were tossing out each night.

Besides the packaging, though, there were other things that didn’t feel quite right about the quick meals. First of all, they weren’t always quick. While dinner took less time to prepare than usual — on average 14.2 minutes — several meals took just as long to fix as a non-frozen counterpart. For instance, one night we ate rice (from frozen packets), beans (from a can), with a vegetable medley (also frozen) and a salad (bagged), and, because we microwaved each bowl individually, it took 31 minutes to get everything to the ideal temperature. Another night we ran into a similar problem with frozen meals from a delivery service. Because each entrée had to be defrosted and cooked in the microwave for 5 to 6 minutes, total prep time was 22 minutes. And in both cases, what we sat down to eat was disappointing.

For one thing, everything sort of tasted the same. Whether it was Indian or Thai, Italian or Mexican, each frozen dinner had a cloying sweetness. Perhaps that explains why the children were eating so enthusiastically. When I spoke to Michael Pollan about our experiment, he warned that my kids would probably love the processed food, thanks to its high sugar and salt content, and then rebel when we started serving what he calls, simply, “food” — items with fewer than five ingredients.

What we were eating definitely had more than five ingredients, although because we chose Trader Joe’s over a mainstream supermarket, the ingredients were not as frightening as they could have been. Yes, the chicken piccata had 38 ingredients, but the bulk of the list consisted of recognizable items like white wine, lemon juice, shallots, and butter. The strangest ingredients were “manufacturing cream,” “calcium chloride,” and “spice extractives.” But what Pollan and other locavores emphasize is not so much the harm of multiple ingredients, but the distance and process the ingredients have undergone before they are popped into the microwave. They believe it’s this distance — both literal and figurative — that leaches out all that’s good and wholesome about food.

Taste wasn’t the only casualty. The experience of cooking, which held such pleasure, at least before I had kids, was relegated to standing in front of the microwave and opening and closing its door. And it was standing there one night, watching a potpie rotate under its spotlight like a pageant winner wearing a crown, that I thought about what it means to be a mother feeding her children.

Before I was even pregnant, I knew I would forgo formula for breast milk. I was so proud when my daughter gained a pound at her one-week checkup instead of losing weight like most new babies. My role in keeping her healthy wasn’t academic, it was physical. It was about skin-to-skin contact and putting enough calories and fluids into my own body to be able to nourish hers. When she started eating solid foods, I steamed sweet potatoes and cranked them through a food mill, just as my mother had done for me. But now, instead of my body, I was passing food through God knows what countries, with God knows what food-safety standards. How far I’d come. From breast milk to potpie.

That night, staring at the spinning microwave, wishing it would go faster because I could hear Nico beating something against the computer while Lola urged him on, I felt pressed into an unworkable space. The space between a smashed keyboard and preservatives — between time and health.

When Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, he planted the book in fertile ground. While the populist energy of the organic food movement of the 1960s and 1970s had long since disappeared from all but the most dedicated communities, a growing fascination with food and cooking (spurred on by the Food Network and celebrity chefs) along with a resurgence of attention to food sources (thanks to food-borne-illness scares) had brought organic food into the mainstream. Whole Foods, which started in Texas in 1980, had bloomed to some 270 stores across the country, Canada, and the United Kingdom. World organic food sales had nearly doubled between 2002 and 2006, becoming a $40 billion business.

And so, when Omnivore hit the shelves, moms, grandpas, farmers, and urbanites bought it. They devoured it. And it changed their lives. Pollan made the connection between a ludicrous national farm policy and troubling consequences for the environment and health. And, like Al Gore’s recommendation to swap out lightbulbs, Pollan brought the solution to people’s doorstep: Change the way you eat. Grow a garden. Buy from farmers’ markets. Cook your own food. And people thought: This is something I can do. I can change what’s wrong with our world just by planting some tomatoes. “This is about how you live your lives and how you encourage your children to live their lives,” Pollan said.

On the first night of cooking month, we had tomatoes galore. I’d ordered a 20-pound box of Early Girls along with a weekly crate of farm-fresh produce from Riverdog Farm, a small, family-run operation from the Capay Valley, just west of Sacramento. The kids straggled behind as I clomped up the stairs with the heavy boxes; I kept straining my neck to look behind me to make sure Nico wasn’t running into the street. Once we were all safely inside, with hands washed and arguments settled, I put on a video for the kids so I could get to work in the kitchen — a vitamin-versus-pixel trade-off.

Because the ingredients in each week’s veggie box are a mystery until they arrive, planning ahead is difficult. So I channeled my inner Iron Chef and pulled together a stir-fry of Japanese eggplant, red bell peppers, and tomatoes. With some quick whole-wheat couscous on the side, and a squeeze of lemon from our neighbor’s tree, I was done in a respectable 28 minutes (and just within the time frame Pollan says he works with on most evenings).

At the table, Lola picked at her tomatoes while Nico chomped on the bread my husband had brought home from our neighborhood bakery. After five minutes both kids were climbing off their seats, begging for dessert. Nico grabbed a jug of milk off the kitchen counter and lodged the cap firmly in his mouth. I jumped off my chair and grabbed the jug out of his mouth, dislodging the cap and spilling milk down his face and shirt. “I wet!” he cried. That’s when I remembered that the pleasure of cooking is soon overwhelmed by the reality of eating with two small children. Dinner was over. We’d been at the table for less than fifteen minutes.

We were off to a rocky beginning. But I was feeling optimistic. After day care and preschool, the kids were snacking on cherry tomatoes and carrots from the farm box. Vitamins were flowing into their little bodies. We all had a project ahead of us.

With so much work to do, we had to delegate tasks. No longer could one person man the microwave. We had to plan. We had to prioritize. We had to work together. Given Tony’s limited dinner-making skills, he chose to be our family’s bread maker. Thanks to a borrowed bread machine, he would provide us with sandwich bread, hamburger buns, pizza dough, and sourdough from a starter. As usual, I would plan meals and shop, focusing on farmers’ markets. But I would also make cheese, crackers, fresh pasta, and a bunch of tomato sauce to freeze. And I’d figure out how to keep a chicken so we could have fresh eggs.

It was one night during the first week of our cooking month that reminded us what we had missed during our microwave month. We came home in a rush, as usual, but instead of putting the kids in front of a video while one of us made dinner, we all got to work. My husband brought out a round of pizza dough that he’d made the night before. He and Lola started rolling out dough in the kitchen. I gave Nico a big bowl, some dry pasta, and a spatula to play with at the dining room table while I minced lemon zest and garlic for a salad dressing. I took out a pan of cubed butternut squash I’d roasted the night before and a jar of slow-roasted tomatoes made on the weekend to add to the pizza. On the porch, Nico and I picked basil and sage leaves from our herb garden. While my husband arranged the pizza dough and toppings onto a cookie sheet, the kids put plain dough on their pan. I washed baby gem lettuces from our farm box and tossed them with my vinaigrette while the pizza cooked.

Forty-nine minutes after we walked in the door, we sat down at the table to a gorgeous pizza and salad. We followed our regular routine of thanking the cook — but this time I told the kids we could thank everyone, because we made the dinner as a family.

“Let’s do this another night,” Lola suggested.

“We will do it another night,” I answered.

“Yay!” she shouted, pumping her fist up and down like Tom Cruise on a couch. “I like that plan!”

The kids munched on their plain dough and my husband and I cut into the pizza — half golden with squash, sage, and melted parmesan cheese and the other half bright with red tomatoes, basil, and a sprinkling of mozzarella. As I took my first bite, something wonderful happened. My ears muted, my eyes glazed over, and all my senses seemed to focus onto my tongue. It was like I could hear and see and touch and smell and taste the tomato and the cheese and the dough in a tiny little symphony. The kids were off their seats and running around at this point, but it didn’t matter. I looked over at my husband, who slowly shook his head in disbelief, overcome by the same sensations. If the Trader Joe’s food was monotone, this was polyphonic, with the volume cranked up high. It didn’t even matter that the kids had consumed only flour, water, and yeast for dinner. Later, as we cleaned, my husband said, “That was one of the most amazing dinners — ever.”

While flavor had returned to our household, we soon found we had to adjust our experiment. The chicken idea wasn’t working. An evening visit to a friend’s backyard garden and chicken coop had proved so disastrous — Nico smashed a precious little brown egg and Lola two-stepped on heirloom tomatoes — that I abandoned the idea. We also decided to focus exclusively on dinner — primarily because we couldn’t manage the quantity of dishes from three scratch-cooked meals. And while throughout the month I held on to my dream of making cheese, it never happened.

Slow food takes time. Alice Waters says this time is a sacrifice. “Making these sacrifices nurtures both family and society,” she has said. During the previous month it had been easy to calculate how much time it took to make dinner — beginning with tearing off the packaging and ending when the microwave dinged. But that proved impossible during our “from-scratch” month. How to calculate the time spent soaking beans and slow-roasting grass-fed beef or tomatoes or butternut squash? What about the time my husband spent creating a sourdough starter from scratch, then kneading the dough and letting it rise? And how do you count the hours and hours spent scrubbing meat grease and doughy Cuisinart blades? On Saturdays we would take turns in the kitchen, occasionally both squeezing into the small space to check on bubbling beans or braising meat. And while we were both busy trying to navigate between the kitchen and the kids, we were having fun — at least sometimes. That doesn’t count the time my husband called off the experiment in a huff, saying he was tired of washing dishes and tired of making bread. He brought home a rotisserie chicken and a loaf of sourdough from the supermarket that night.

Although I was disappointed with my husband’s rebellion, I recognized that a little moderation was called for. Especially for him; he had taken up bread making with such a passion, it had veered into obsession. Following Pollan’s example, he’d created his own sourdough starter. In the first week of the starter’s life, Tony would wake in the middle of the night with a jolt, afraid that he had forgotten to add enough flour to the stinky burbling mixture. Once the starter took hold, he began to make bread with abandon. The baguettes were divine, the hamburger buns bouncy, and the pizza dough chewy. But his time in the kitchen was almost entirely bread-related. When I complained that I was the only one focused on creating complete meals, he agreed to cook the whole day’s meals. We had brioche for breakfast, focaccia for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Some carbohydrate respite was essential.

Right around this time I called Laura Shapiro, a historian and the author of books about women and cooking. She and I talked about groceries and guilt and how the food industry had long marketed time-saving kitchen products to women. She acknowledged what we’d found during our microwave month — that cooking from scratch didn’t necessarily take any longer than ordering a pizza. But Shapiro pointed out something else that I’d known intuitively but never quite acknowledged: that the problem wasn’t time, it was exhaustion. It wasn’t that you needed to eat right away, but that you were so darn tired from work that you didn’t want to stand at the stove, or clean up beyond stuffing a pizza box into the recycling bin.

While both men and women are tired at the end of the day, in most American households women still bear the brunt of the housework. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls this the “second shift” — where women leave work only to punch in on a different time clock. On an average day in 2007, according to the Department of Labor, men did just 37 percent of food preparation or cleanup. This statistic is something the slow-food movement doesn’t talk about much. In fact there’s an almost startling silence around gender, aside from some nostalgic yearning for the good old days when women cooked from scratch. Pollan told me his teenage son is growing up in a world in which cooking is not a gendered act — an experience certainly believable in his case, but clearly not shared by all.

Eventually, my husband experimented more with stir-fries and cut down on all the baking. Sharing the responsibility for meals made the process easier. I wasn’t carrying the whole load of feeding the family, as much as I might sometimes crave that responsibility (and scowl at my husband’s less-than-gourmet contributions). And this arrangement felt better and lighter — like letting go of some old family resentment. But we had only gotten to this place because we had to. There was no way to carry out the experiment with only one parent involved.

And that’s when the experiment ended. The results were clear: If the sustainable-food movement is to succeed — not just in drawing in the small segment of society that has the luxury of time, but in persuading modern working families to garden, buy local, and cook from scratch — then it needs to promote fully the idea of shared labor, and perhaps even a remodeling of the work world to allow men more time at home to garden, cook, and care for children. In his books and talks, Pollan weaves a romantic ideal of wholesomeness based on individual acts. He and his compatriots create a mythology around farming and cooking that seems achievable — as though you could reach it if you just stretched enough, tried hard enough, and sacrificed enough. But who exactly is sacrificing? The reality is as unworkable today as it was in the 1950s, when women’s lives were limited to the kitchen and kids. And it’s still as unworkable as it was in the 1980s, when my mom tried to manage the house, the family, and the job. It will remain unworkable now, unless all adults in a family participate, and participate fully.

For me, that means letting go of the notion that I can forever control everything that feeds my children’s precious little bodies. For my husband, that means acknowledging how tricky it is to plan meals and execute them with whiny children around. And for the slow-food movement, it means realizing that what they ask of communities and households — while worthy and noble — falls unequally at women’s feet.

With the cooking month over, I thought we would continue our slow-foodie ways. But without the confines of the experiment, we drifted back to familiar territory — some combination of frozen pizzas and tofu stir-fries. We have made some changes, though, besides taking turns cooking dinner and becoming oddly fond of microwaveable rice. We eat much less meat, and we buy most of it at the farmers’ market. We also invite the kids to help cook whenever we can, acknowledging that it’s not always practical. Lola has learned to use a butter knife to cut vegetables. Nico will soon follow. I still find it hard to align my belief in the environmental, political, and health aspects of the sustainable-food movement with my dependence on a more moderate cooking practice. I try to remind myself that we have not failed if we don’t go whole hog. We play our part, however small.

The other night Lola helped me chop zucchini for a stuffed-squash recipe. After I sautéed the vegetables and set them aside, Lola popped a slice of soft zucchini, glistening with olive oil, into her mouth. Then she ate another. Then another.

“Mmmmmmm,” she said, as she continued grabbing from the bowl. “This is woweeee.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“That means I want zucchini every night!” she said, and ate another slice.

Well, maybe not every night, I thought. But I’ll do my best.


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