Change Comes to Dinner: Convenience Food Childhood

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“Change Comes to Dinner” is a smart and engaging look into America’s food revolution that takes readers into the farms, markets, organizations, businesses and institutions across America that are pushing for a more sustainable food system.
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"'The Can-Opener Cookbook' became a bestseller upon publication in 1952, and the first electric can-opener burst onto the U.S. market in 1956. My mother’s youth coincided with the heyday of tuna casserole, canned soup, and TV dinners. Hers was a world of Chef Boyardee, Rice-a-Roni, Cheese Whiz, and Chex Mix."

In Change Comes to Dinner (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), Katherine Gustafson introduces food visionaries like Mark Lilly, who turned a school bus into a locally sourced grocery store in Richmond, Va.; Gayla Brockman, who organized a program to double the value of food stamps used at Kansas City, Mo., farmers’ markets; and Tony Geraci, who claimed unused land to create the Great Kids Farm, where Baltimore City public school students learn how to grow food and help Geraci decide what to order from local farmers for breakfast and lunch at the city schools. In this excerpt, taken from the book’s introduction, “Our Country Deserves Better Than Cheetos,” Gustafson tells the story of her convenience-food childhood.

It all started with beans.

That may seem like an unsexy way to begin (why not, you might ask, start with a pork tenderloin or a piece of chocolate cake?), but the beans I’m talking about are no ordinary beans.

Soaked overnight and simmered for four hours with star anise, a bay leaf, and a cinnamon stick, then flavored with a shake of salt and a dash of pepper, they are like nothing you’ve ever tasted. These beans are to the standard canned burrito-filler what steak is to Spam. Not since Jack and his stalk has a lowly legume made someone so quickly sit up and take notice.

While in my case there were no golden eggs involved, there nonetheless seemed to be something magical going on. How else could a food that I had always thought of as a necessary but uninspiring foundation for five-layer dip suddenly transform itself into something so utterly delicious you could eat them on their own for dinner? Not only that, but these beans had a name straight out of a fairy tale: Good Mother Stallard. Wasn’t that the name of the woman who lived in the shoe?

The Good Mother Stallard beans–their taste and their name and their amazing ability to completely satisfy my appetite–came to me like a revelation. That is, after they came to me dried from Napa, California, a one-pound bag of purple-and-white pebbles shipped in a cardboard box from a company called Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food.

I had ordered them after reading about the company in the Washington Post, where food columnist Kim O’Donnel had written, “I urge bean lovers across America to explore the world of heirloom beans–older, wiser, and brimming with personality.” While I was no bean lover–or so I thought–I was curious. How could a bean be construed to have the characteristics of my grandmother? And speaking of grandmothers, what in the world was an heirloom bean?

I pictured a bean-shaped locket hanging around my neck on a chain. Or a tarnished, old ring topped by a bean instead of a precious stone. The idea struck me as a doorway into a foreign world.

I grew up in a household where, as the saying goes, we ate to live, not lived to eat. We did not regard food as something that deserved over-much attention or effort. We ate home-cooked meals that always included vegetables of some kind, so we were a far cry from the modern fast-food-munching families bemoaned so extensively in today’s media. But just the same, it never occurred to us to object to the tastelessness of the canned beans and out-of-season hothouse tomatoes we ate or to wonder how and at what cost they had been created. My main food-related concern as a child, as I remember, was how many helpings of ice cream I could finagle out of the babysitter.

It was the ’80s and the ’90s. My mother, charged with food preparation for the household, was an on-the-fly chef whose meals tended toward the simple meat-potatoes-veg trios of American tradition. She had little patience for elaborate recipes and unusual methods. While she did occasionally use a pressure cooker–the steaming climax of which would send me skittering away from the stove in thrilled terror as a child–and, impressively, made her own tortillas with a proper tortilla press when it was taco night, she did not embrace the finicky routines of our electric bread maker, which sat unused in the closet under the stairs for years, or our shelf full of cookbooks, which went by and large overlooked in favor of more . . . shall we say . . . impressionistic methods. 

Cooking was not, she believed, something that should take up any more time than it absolutely had to. She had grown up in an era in which food had come to be ruled by convenience. Post-war homemakers like her mother saw high-priced modern developments–store-bought canned vegetables, frozen dinners, packaged snack foods–as not only labor-saving conveniences in the era after victory gardens had demanded much time and effort, but also the height of modernity and cosmopolitanism. The Can-Opener Cookbook became a bestseller upon publication in 1952, and the first electric can-opener burst onto the U.S. market in 1956. My mother’s youth coincided with the heyday of tuna casserole, canned soup, and TV dinners. Hers was a world of Chef Boyardee, Rice-a-Roni, Cheese Whiz, and Chex Mix.

It is no wonder, then, that at the dinner table of my childhood our salads were composed of crisp white wings of iceberg lettuce, our bread was Wonder Bread with the texture of a napkin, and our mashed potatoes were sometimes made from powdered mixes. To a child of mid-twentieth-century America, this was simply standard fare.

My mother, I should note, who now in retirement regularly cooks Afghani palau and whips up lentil soups from scratch, strenuously denies being so convenience-oriented as to stoop to powdered potatoes. However, I believe she doth protest too much. A conversation with her on this topic went like this:

Me: Is it true that you used to make our mashed potatoes from a powdered mix?

Her: Absolutely not! I hated that stuff! I always made them from scratch! It was my mother who loved that stuff.

Me: Really? Because I totally remember that. Are you sure? 

Her (sheepishly, laughing): Well, no.

I don’t mean to imply that my mother was not working hard or that she did not produce tasty and nutritious meals for her family. We had meats and fishes, we had vegetables and fruits, we even had real mashed potatoes on many occasions. She was a dogged producer in the kitchen, turning out meal after meal, night after night, and we always sat down to family dinner, sometimes even with candles burning.

But the point is that I grew up with the foodways that had been passed down to my parents, which were the ways of the industrialized world. People of their generation likely had family members–grandparents perhaps–who were involved in agriculture, so that farming was not a forbiddingly foreign concept, yet they grew up by and large as the guinea pigs of new, corporate food production methods. Their children–me, my siblings, and our peers–one more generation removed from farms and fields, were solidly ensnared in the corporate net. I was, I would venture to say, part of the first American generation whose entire experience of food was mediated by the industrially supplied grocery store.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Change Comes to Dinner,© 2012 by Katherine Gustafson. St. Martin’s Griffin.

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