Wednesday, August 05, 2009

As opposition research, I may have to try an Uncrustable

That is a baby pumpkin gutted by our chickens, who are now relegated to the lower yard. I've decided to do some fall/winter planting in the patches where summer planting was trampled, eaten, inadequately staked, or died. Unlike Charentais melons, fava beans have never failed me.

We had banh mi again the other night, and husband and I agreed that twice was enough. It's like making corn dogs at home -- you can do it, but the magic is in the associations. Corn dogs: county fair. Banh mi: urban hole-in-the-wall.
For dessert, we enjoyed some Hershey's bars while polishing off the last three episodes of season 1 of Damages (I told you we were going to seed!) and I must say, Hershey's bars are exceptionally tasty, as tasty as almost any cake I have ever baked, plus cheaper and easier. I don't even like chocolate. 
The meal got me thinking. Making those semi-elaborate sandwiches and unwrapping that candy bar took about 7 minutes of what food magazines call "active time." Making lunch earlier in the day (sandwich) took about 1 minute. "Making" breakfast (cereal, peach, coffee), took another minute. My husband took about 1 minute on his lunch (sandwich) and 1 minute on breakfast, so total household food prep time yesterday: 11 minutes. This is 16 minutes less than the American average, which is a "mere" 27 minutes, per Michael Pollan's big, scoldy story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the rise of cooking shows and the decline of cooking.

Here's the thing: Twenty-seven minutes actually seems to me like a lot of time to spend cooking, particularly if you don't have children around, if you have a demanding job, and/or you don't enjoy the process. If you're happy with a quesadilla or some cottage cheese or a Vietnamese sandwich and Hershey's bar, why knock yourself out? Because Michael Pollan says you should?

To illustrate the sorry state of affairs in our kitchens, Pollan alludes to the atrocity of frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A preposterous concept that struck me at first as an extreme example. I've never met anyone who ate frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I've never even seen this absurd product.

Now I have.
One look at that photo and you know Smuckers pumps psycho ingredients into those creepy-looking flying saucers that will make children crave them. 

Still, the homely 50-second act of slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich strikes me as akin to pouring your own juice, brushing your own teeth, wiping your own. . . . Hiring it out feels corrupt. Is this a line a lot of Americans are really crossing? Seems impossible that Uncrustables will ever become as popular as Eggos and canned soup, which really are incredibly convenient. Or so I've been told by lazy people who don't love their kids.
Then I did a few minutes of research on the internet. Uncrustables are a big hit! People are cheerfully crossing that line. 

I forced myself to try to come to grips.

If frozen pb&j 
a. is just as cheap as homemade

b. contains the same (possibly very crappy) ingredients as a sandwich you'd make yourself and offers the same nutritional value

c. tastes good

why not?

If you're already using Jif, Smuckers, and Orowheat, there seems little point in fetishizing the assembly.
But, but, but there's TOTALLY a point in fetishizing the assembly.  If you buy Uncrustables, a corporation decides how much jam, and how much peanut butter, and removes the possibility of marmalade, or Marshmallow Fluff, or a crust. The idea of people ceding that last, trivial bit of control over what they put in their mouths makes my skin crawl. It made me ashamed that a few days ago I was cheerfully eating Hershey's bars, wondering why I ever bothered to bake. Hershey's engineers its candy to be wickedly delicious and produces it in a factory using cheap emulsifiers. I fell for it like a ton of bricks while watching a crass and addicting TV show of about the same caliber. From now on, only scratch cakes and Elizabethan poetry.

Back to Pollan's piece, since I'm in a mood.  There was a line that tripped me up: "The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite."

I know what Pollan is getting at -- if you make coq au vin and salad for dinner, you're probably going to be slimmer than if you grab a bucket at KFC. This is true. But it's not the act of making coq au vin that accounts for the difference, it's the decision to make coq au vin in the first place and the values (moderation, balance, discipline, health) that go along with it. If my experience is any guide, the time and work involved in cooking do not check the appetite -- they sharpen it. Delayed gratification whets it. If Pollan had just used the word "food consumption" instead of "appetite" I would have no quarrel with this sentence.

There's lots of interesting stuff in the story -- about food TV, about Julia Child, about the horrifying Uncrustables -- and I agree in the main with what Pollan has to say, obviously. Obviously!

And I buried the lede in this muddled diatribe: Isabel and Owen are home, which is GREAT.


  1. This bears a more in-depth discussion, since it's what I'm going on about ALL THE TIME, but I will simply quote you what I said years ago when I saw Uncrustables in the grocery store: "How the hell lazy have we gotten, America, that we don't make our own PBJs?"

    Gah! It's so hideous that people abdicate every facet of maintaining their existence.

  2. About the chickens: just know you can get the last laugh on the chickes when you have THEM for dinner, recoup some of your losses..

    About the article, agreed! I can't imagine buying an Uncrustable, for the silly packaging waste alone, yet I DO buy and eat that bagged Yaya's brand pre-popped popcorn..

    I was just thinking yesterday about the popcorn and came to the conclusion it was about washing an oily pan. (Part of me was hopeful that maybe the nice Yaya people get better quality popcorn to start with, less apt to break a tooth...

    But, jeez, starting out, can you imagine their business plan, telling a bank they wanted to sell bags of popped popcorn?

  3. Re: Uncrustables. Let the record show I have never purchased a box of these for my freezer.
    But the pool in town sells them as part of a "kid pack" (with a Stonyfield Farm yogurt pouch, a Capri Sun, and a piece of fruit--it's a carbfest, but hey, it's the pool) and my boys enjoyed them. It did not keep them from enjoying them at home later, or make them demand to have crusts removed or anything else. In fact, it led my younger one, who had recently avoided jelly at all, because (horrors!) we used strawberry preserves and part of an actual strawberry crossed his lips, causing agony untellable, to start eating pbjs again, for which I am grateful. That was an awful sentence. My apologies.
    And, I have to stick up for Hershey's somewhat. Megacorp though they might be now, they are at heart a very philanthropic company (google the Milton Hershey School, for example) and kept hundreds of Pennsylvania cows in business. Come east and we'll do a field trip! (And Google Hersheypark if you wonder what the kids--and I include husbands in "kids"--will do.)

  4. Great post, nice analysis of Pollan's article (saves me from having to read it myself). My thoughts on this:

    "'The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite.'"

    "If Pollan had just used the word 'food consumption' instead of 'appetite' I would have no quarrel with this sentence.

    I would still quarrel with it. When I'm with a group eating what we have just cooked, everyone eats more appreciatively and in more quantity than when the same group sits down to a takeout pizza. And what if people make the choice to make their own fried chicken instead of coq au vin? Lots of people still cook, although more of them may opt for down-home than haute cuisine. Pollan is not only scoldy, he's a bit snooty, IMHO...

    I predict there will soon be a salmonella-incited recall of Uncrustables...

  5. i'm so glad you're back tipsy. we missed you.

  6. Sobaka,
    I agree. When I make a big pot of something delicious I eat more than if I had a Yoplait and called it a day, which is what I generally do when I am alone. Then I jumped to the example of an anonymous "average" person who goes to KFC and has no self control. Interesting choice. I have some snooty problems myself.
    If you have to wait three hours to eat so you can cook your dinner, even if you're making fried chicken and eat a lot of it, the three hours are three hours of not eating. Whereas if you eat KFC as soon as you get hungry, then three hours later you'll be hungry again. Maybe it speeds up the cycle? Except as I pointed out, I personally don't eat KFC when I don't cook, I eat yogurt, or a sandwich. So if I look at my own experience -- and I should because that's what I know -- even my amendment of Pollan's sentence is incorrect and you are correct. I eat more when I cook.

  7. Okay - I cook, using fresh ingredients from my garden and from my friend's pasture (cows and pigs) - and yet I have purchased uncrustables. I am neither lazy nor unloving of my children. I am exceedingly practical.

    I see them as a separate food item - not a substitute for a homemade pb&j, but as a substitute for a happy meal. most commonly employed when we have to pick up daughter 1 from sitter's house at the end of workday, turn immediately around and drive to dance class in neighboring community - and won't be home until much later. Gogurt, baby carrots, juice box or sippy with skim and an uncrustable have been a much needed helper.

    just sayin.

    I commute an hour home and - yes - I could make a pbj in the morning to use later, but I am just as likely to forget and be running late.

    also have taken them on car trips - easy to have in cooler and eat on a break from museum or zoo while we're on a mult-day trip. Yes, I could make a pbj, but I don't want to bring the ingredient jars and have a sticky knife to deal with when picnicking.

    So, I guess maybe I am a bit lazy - but we don't eat them sitting around the table or TV at home... so somehow that seems different to me.

  8. regarding the uncrustables, which are ridiculous in my opinion: how much work is it to slap peanut butter and jelly on six slices of bread, slap slices together to form three sandwiches, and throw them in the freezer for later use? 2 minutes? I don't understand how people have time to drive their kids to this and that activity but can't take 1-2 minutes to put together a simple meal/snack of pb&j for them? where are people's priorities? I would rather have my kid play one sport/activity per year and KNOW what's going into their growing bodies (most of the time), than have them be the All Star kid of the year while shoving sugar/sodium laden who-knows-what into their systems. This is the time of life where nutrients matter most.

    Sorry to rant, but those uncrustables drive me crazy. I'm no Julia Child but sheesh!

  9. Daney,
    The lazy/unloving line in my original post was a joke, just to be clear. I've bought Eggos and Gogurts and I know there's something arbitrary about drawing the line at Uncrustables. The concept just blew my mind, I was so sure Pollan was exaggerating.

    MemeGRL, I am glad to hear that about Hershey's. I feel somewhat better.

  10. Tipsy - my "not lazy or unloving" was meant in the same joking spirit, actually - like as in "let's not make this overly serious" - it's possible to have your priorities straight and still employ a shortcut. poorly executed on my part, perhaps - but I was trying to be all "let's not make this about personal indictments based on one's assumptions"

    anonymous - just as a side note: homemade frozen pbj's don't work the same way - smuckers has perfected making sure only peanut butter touches bread so the jelly doesn't get sucked into the bread and become soggy. When I tried to do my own, they came out with mixed results. If you find a good trick on this one, let me know and I will incorporate it into my batch cooking.

    in my defense I will offer that I also took an hour and a half per day of vacation time to get the the church on time to make dinner for 70 vacation bible school kids during an entire week this summer... so it's possible that i know a thing or two about priorities - and that my kids are in only one activity at a time and we believe in focus and simplification, just that we also aren't too full of ourselves to know that sometimes food is just food... I am also not grinding my own peanuts and my kids won't eat my homemade jelly (contains actual pieces of fruit! this is a problem, apparently) and I don't bake our bread, so outsourcing the assembly a dozen times in a year is not really something I am going to get all down about - I have plenty of other "bad moments in motherhood" like letting them watch TV on saturday mornings so I can have personal time with my husband.... ha!

  11. ewwwwww those sandwiches look gross... and also when you said "why do i even bother to bake" i think that it's definataly more fun

  12. I loved this post - I linked to it today. Thank you :)

  13. I suppose Pollan wouldn't approve of the bag of Trader Joe's frozen orange chicken that we stir fry. He probably wouldn't like the frozen veggies we add either. I don't think I'm going to be inviting him home for dinner any time soon!

  14. those uncrustables are terrible! we have a full kitchen at my school so the kitchen staff really cooks but last year they started serving uncrustables instead of making the PB and Js. the kids can't stand them. they have too much PB and stick to the top of your mouth in an unpleasant way.i am a huge fan of PB and Js. i love PB - but they are a really bad invention. i cannot believe they are successful. are they really successful or are they bought in bulk by school systems ???

  15. I haven't yet bought Uncrustables, but the more I think about it, the more reasonable they seem--I'm often out of one of the three ingredients--pb, j or bread. Plus how quick would it be to just whip them into a lunchbox--no muss, no fuss?

    I like your distinction between appetite and consumption. The article had some good points, but was rather high horsed. The bit that made me laugh was

    "when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? (String cheese?) Never, is when."

    Oh yeah? Was Michael Pollan never responsible for making a family supper while being whined at by one or more small children that "I'm HUNGRY!" and "But I don't WANT that, MOM!"

    I've got an idea for a quickfire challenge: put a half dozen three year olds in the kitchen. Let's see how fast they cook THEN.

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