An inconvenient truth: Our relationship with processed convenience foods is on a troubling trajectory.
There have been some remarkable developments from the world of deeply frozen things lately:
• I recently found the bottom drawer of my freezer to be frozen solid to the rest of the freezer. The only way into the thing, so I could extract the frozen peas, was to first remove the drawer above it. I immediately suspected the children of overfilling the ice-cube trays and creating the frozen disaster, until I remembered that it would never occur to them to fill the ice-cube trays, since I’m the only one who does it.
• Last fall, a young bulldozer operator uncovered some Ice Age fossils at a ski resort in Snowmass Village, Colo. Museum officials in Denver dispatched an emergency paleontological response team — I picture them all dressed like Indiana Jones — which discovered, among other things, the remains of a bunch of American mastodons (I’ll come back to them in a moment), four Columbian mammoths, four bison, two deer and some chewed wood that apparently proves the existence of Ice Age beavers.
• Industry reports suggest that hand-held breakfast items are the fastest-growing product line in the North American frozen-food market. Consumers apparently have realized they can re-create the morning drive-thru experience by conveniently nuking these super-processed breakfast sandwiches in the privacy of their own kitchen. And, for the health-conscious commuter: low-calorie fast-food breakfast fare!
You may think that jab about convenience foods is cynical, but nothing I could ever write would be as cynical as the view taken by the people making and marketing frozen foods.
Last spring, the market-research firm Nielsen Company released a report that described the two largest categories of self-identified “healthy shoppers.” The first was called “Magic Bullets.” These are people who look to fad diets, trendy supplements or the latest exercise craze to improve their health. The second group was described as the “Eat, Drink and Be Merrys.” These are young consumers who may like the idea of eating healthy, but who take a long, long view — they’ll eat and behave in a healthy fashion sometime in the future.
It’s feedback from these consumer studies that results in such items as low-calorie frozen breakfasts and calorie-conscious boxed lunches. If the focus groups say they want all-in-one “healthy” meals, then so be it! The marketers and manufacturers are happy to oblige. Less thought for the average grocery shopper creates more business for them.
Nielsen later released an interesting market forecast that included the major retail grocery trends we’ll be seeing before 2015. My favorites:
• “Mass supercenters . . . will be the big winners.”
• “The big will get bigger.”
• “Holograms to interact with shoppers.”
What can possibly make purchasing convenience foods more convenient for the Magic-Bullet types? Try a giant supermarket where you can buy any packaged food under the sun — with a helpful, futuristic hologram as your guide.
I can see it all now: It’s the year 2015. I pull into a mass supercenter and strap myself into a giant CamelBak (one of those backpack canteens long-distance runners use — the kind with a tube that loops around the front). Clearly, I’m going to be here a while.
I get a grocery cart the size of a casket (check out Steven E. Landsburg on Slate.com for great theories about why grocery-store shopping carts have tripled in size since 1975) and head into the megastore.
I reflect on the fact that it used to be big, back in 2011, when I thought I knew what big was, but then it got much bigger. According to my map, there’s a produce section somewhere in the back of the store, but I’ll have to make my way through towering aisles of boxed meals first. The curvature of Earth prevents me from seeing the
frozen-foods section, but I set off toward it anyway, propelled by faith and the promise of mega-bargains.
When I arrive at the 9 acres of frozen foods, the ubiquitous cameras zoom in to determine my shopping type: I’m a Magic Bullet.
The holograms leap to life. “Fake Egg McMuffin?” coos a Brad Pitt lookalike. “Indulge! You deserve it! You take care of everyone, but who takes care of you? This breakfast sandwich, that’s who! Doesn’t it remind you of your uncomplicated youth in the bucolic past when everything was easier?”
He is interrupted by a hologram in yoga sweats: “Açai berry waffle breakfast pizzas are so good for you, they’re like going to an instructor-level yoga class! If you have two, you’ll be twice as healthy!”
I note that they both make good points, and load a gross of each into my cart. As I continue my long march toward the produce, I only regret that there’s not enough room in my casket for single-serve diet entrées, because I’m told that if I ate enough of those I’d be as healthy as a marathon runner.
I kid. But, you know, I’m also a little serious. It’s hard not to notice the stark differences between not-so-bright mastodons and oh-so-bright people. Mastodons roamed the earth for some 40 million years; we’ve been here for, depending on how you want to calculate it, a percentage or two of that. Mastodons had it pretty well figured out: Eat plants and get a lot of exercise.
Many scientists think that the reason there are no more mastodons is because human beings hunted them to extinction. Why would we do that? Because we’re smart, and we can figure out almost anything — after all, we have collectively defeated mastodons and gravity (with rockets, airplanes and skyscrapers), and now seem to have focused most of our energies toward defeating ourselves.
Not that I have all the answers. As I mentioned, I’m someone who has a freezer drawer permanently frozen to the freezer. I do realize that I could defrost the thing and benefit my day-to-day life, but instead I prefer to convince myself that somehow the problem is going to fix itself. Does this make me an Eat, Drink and Be Merry type? Or just human?
Because I am human, there’s a bright side to all of this: I have the ability to recognize the bizarre contradictions in my life, and I can change.
So maybe there will be one more big new development in the world of deeply frozen things: Local woman sees herself acting against her own best interest and changes. Perhaps I’ll start with my own archeological excavation — an inventory of my freezer drawer.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer.