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Are Trader Joe's Frozen Gnocchi and Teriyaki Chicken Destroying Western Civilization?

Cooking competence no longer matters. That's a good and a bad thing.

TV dinners have evolved. These days, they're no longer embarrassing, just for kids, or synonymous with loneliness or junk food ... or TV.

Or with incompetence, sloth, or child abuse. When TV dinners first entered American supermarkets in the mid-1950s, serving or eating them implied that one didn't know how to cook -- which for married women in those days was kind of a crime -- or that one didn't want to cook, which was a sin. Why would a '50s housewife serve her brood formerly frozen chicken, peas and cobbler in sectioned metal trays? Was she really too unskilled, uncaring or lazy to make meals from scratch?

I got almost the same message from famed chef Alice Waters while interviewing her a few years ago about her "edible schoolyard" program which teaches middle-school kids to grow, harvest, prepare and eat their own produce. Waters blamed the collapse of American society at least partly on the fact that families no longer eat home-cooked meals together.

Meanwhile, some scientists and pundits blame readymade meals for the obesity epidemic.

Are Trader Joe's frozen gnocchi and Hibachi House frozen teriyaki chicken destroying Western civilization? Or are they the great liberators of our age?

We have evolved along with frozen meals. Some of us are too busy running nations (or at least corporations) or flying planes to prepare chicken pies from scratch. Some of us aren't, but luckily live in merciful times when cooking competence no longer matters. For me, the first step was admitting that although I can stir-fry onions, I cook worse than any random paid professional. The second and more crucial step was realizing that I don't care. Why should I love cooking or excel at it any more than I love or excel at leathercraft or throwing javelins? That others who love cooking mass-produce nutritious meals that I can buy frozen and eat without lamenting that I did not make them myself is part miracle, part Buddhist crash-course in acceptance.

For those of us who don't love cooking and don't want (or can't afford) to spend too much money or time in restaurants, few meals are more comforting than those that can be heated up in minutes, then eaten while wearing anything, while doing anything, with anyone.

Readymade meals now range from Banquet's retro classics (now brought to you by ConAgra) to Magic Kitchen's mail-order frozen filet mignon (with Feta-cheese beets and chocolate-dipped Madeleines). In between are thousands of options produced by dozens of brands filling dozens of niches, from kosher to Chinese to kosher Chinese. Organic, vegan, gluten-free and Salisbury steak: It's all frozen, it's everywhere, and it's so very easy to eat.


Safeway Stores produces frozen meals via two house brands: one regular, one organic.

"The competition is getting really stiff. Keep up with it, or you'll be left in the dust," says Dan Barash, executive chef for the Atlanta-based fast-casual chain Moe's Southwest Grill. Having just launched a line of readymade foods now being sold at BJ's Wholesale Club, Moe's prides itself on using only ingredients that are free of trans fats, lard, steroids, MSG, bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or added preservatives; its kitchens contain neither microwave ovens nor (ironically) freezers. Its pork and beef are grass-fed, its tofu organic, its tortillas whole-grain.

Moe's readymade line includes frozen chicken-tortilla soup, steak-and-cheese flautas, vegetable fajitas, beef and turkey chilis and other entrees along with dips, dressings, and salsas. A velvety, sea-salt-seasoned guacamole hummus is a true original.

"Hummus is very popular, so we wanted to Southwesternize it.

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