Slightly Off Center: Food Porn

The food fit the era.
by Dennis Hinkamp

Though I support the slow food movement and foodie groups, I sometimes find myself longing for the faster, highly processed, yet less complicated days of TV dinners and Pop Tarts.

Given my food background, it is amazing that I can fit through most doors and into restaurant booths. I grew up in a home that was drunk on convenience.

My educated peer group can get pretty snobby dismissing the historical significance of Hostess Twinkies and the boil-in-bag concept, because they are not taking into consideration the context of the times. Besides all the 1960s hippie Woodstock stuff people like to reminisce about, there was also an emerging fast food and convenience food orgy. People now like to mock the global reach of McDonald’s, but back then it had just begun to dominate the US with something called the All American Meal. It was a milk shake, fries and a hamburger which I think you could get for a dollar (remember gasoline was 25 cents a gallon then). This became the standard for what people wanted to eat in the new drive-in, drive-through lifestyle and the emblem of what passes for American cuisine.

There was also an international space race in the news every day and eating like the astronauts didn’t involve home-baked bread and steamed fresh vegetables. Instead, there were space food sticks and powdered orange juice-like beverages. The magic word “instant” was attached to hundreds of foods and beverages. Of course none were exactly instant, but they were faster than the brewing, boiling, peeling and soaking that we were previously chained to. The grocery aisles were filled with instant mashed potatoes, coffee, ice tea, lemonade chocolate milk, ready-to-bake crescent rolls and cookie dough, whipped cream in a can, aerosol cheese, and freeze-dried soup.

Television was relatively new and it shaped how people ate as well. There were only three channels, airing about 12 hours a day each with none of the recorders, streaming or digital excess we have now. You kinda sorta had to watch the program when it was on or miss it forever. This sometimes meant watching during dinner; hence the invention of the TV dinner and TV tray to put your TV dinner on while you huddled around your 16-inch black and white RCA. The appeal of the TV dinner was that you could have your meat, vegetable, potato and dessert all in one easy-to-throw-away tray.

To add further temptation, there were few non-human dish washers so being able to boil stuff in a bag, defrost it or just scoop it out of can saved a lot of preparation and clean up time. This era was also right on the cusp of readily available microwaves ovens. The speedy alternative was stuffing all manner of foods into a toaster or some aluminum-wrapped thing into regular oven and have it magically appear as a whole meal in 30 minutes.

I don’t regret my past even though meals were more like a chemistry experiment than a Norman Rockwell spread. I still wonder how they were able to keep the Pop Tart icing from melting in the toaster, but I probably don’t really want to know.

Dennis Hinkamp has tried to atone for his unhealthy past with an active lifestyle but he still yearns for the occasional Hungry Man dinner.