Semi-Homemade: Thoughts on Convenience

This morning, I came upon Emily Matchar’s Hairpin article The First Sandra Lee: Poppy Cannon and Her Can-Opener Cuisine, and my brain perked up. I thought I was in for a real treat — the rhetorical equivalent of a triple-layer chocolate cake, cemented with layers of buttercream and lovingly scattered with flakes of chocolate. And I was in for a treat, though one by no means as decadent as the one I imagined — more of an intellectual sponge cake, soaked in low-rent rum and sprinkled with the zest of a shriveling orange.

Matchar begins with an introduction to Poppy Cannon: food editor, cookbook author, and lady about town. Cannon was no dolt; she knew good cuisine when she saw it, yet she elected to write about can-opener cooking. Such a decision brought criticism upon Cannon, who didn’t care — after all, she was makin’ money and livin’ the dream. (All together now: money talks and bullshit walks.)

Further into her post, Matchar compares Cannon to modern-day frozen-foods whiz Sandra Lee, who, like her predecessor, has come under heat for her “recipes.” Superficially, at least, the women are similar: both faced adversity as children and longed to get the hell out of Dodge; both profited enormously from their advocacy of quik-n-easy foodstuffs. But there the similarities end. Where Cannon was an innovator, Lee is merely upcycling a decades-old concept, repackaging it in a millennial-friendly manner.

At the time Cannon was writing, convenience foods were a relatively new concept. Canned foods had been around for a while, but TV dinners were viewed (so I’m told) as a miracle product — a way for housewives to provide their husbands with a warm, nourishing meal without spending hours in the kitchen.

Today, of course, heat-and-eat foods aren’t viewed with the same impunity. Reviled as junk and made the target of class-focused arguments, frozen meals and components are the red-headed stepchildren of the food world. Not as nutritionally void as Pringles, Twizzlers, and Pizza Rolls, frozen and canned foods are almost worse off; by asserting themselves as nutritive, they draw more contempt and cynical evaluation than they would otherwise.

But I’m not here to hate on canned foods; I’m here to examine the critical difference between Poppy Cannon and Sandra Lee. Matchar draws comparisons between the women to illustrate her point about convenience-food haters. She quotes chef Michael Ruhlman, who claims that cooking with other people and eating homemade food is “part of what makes us human.” Retorts Matchar, “unlike Ruhlman, both Sandra Lee and Poppy Cannon understood that some full-blooded human beings actually find cooking a giant pain in the ass.”

Which is true — some people do find cooking a major pain in the ass. I’m not one of those people. What Matchar fails to acknowledge is that Sandra Lee doesn’t cater to people who truly find cooking a pain in the ass. Those individuals have available to them a glorious array of fully prepared, fairly nutritious meals; every supermarket has a frozen section filled with fully prepared meals, and more and more markets have salad or hot bars with entrees ready to be eaten. People who actually hate cooking rely on these options. Or they eat at restaurants. Or they wait for others to cook for them.

On the contrary, Lee targets people who like the idea of cooking, who view the process as something valuable, but for whatever reason don’t want to engage in the process from start to finish. If Lee’s target demo didn’t care for cooking at all, they’d open a can of Dinty Moore and call it a day. Even the title of Lee’s show (Semi-Homemade) acknowledges the value of a homemade meal. Matchar miscategorizes Lee’s audience and, as a result, weakens her argument.

Cannon, who aimed her book at “working girls,” was writing at a time when women had recently gained the option to enter the workforce. The necessity of balancing work life and domestic tasks was a new one for many women. Not so for Lee’s audience. That is to say, many women (and men) still struggle to balance their work and home lives, but the struggle itself is nothing new.

Lee’s purpose isn’t to alleviate the struggle; it’s to stoke the self-esteem of people who want to make homemade meals but are too lazy. Her recipes occupy a strange doldrummy space: hideously unappetizing, they require a decent — but not an overwhelming — amount of prep. They yield products that are pointillistically “homemade;” get closer to the table and you’ll recognize that that gorgeous pie is really just graham-cracker crumbs topped with cherry sludge and Reddi-Whip. Failing on the levels of nutrition and taste, Lee’s recipes are little more than window dressing.

Maybe Cannon’s are, too, but they’re the window dressing of an earlier era, a time during which such a classification held different cultural associations. Food snobbery has always existed, but its targets were different in 1951 than currently. Matchar’s primary oversight is her failure to acknowledge the very different cultures in which Cannon and Lee worked.

Matchar is right: there are people for whom cooking is a giant pain in the ass. There are also people for whom cooking is a semi pain in the ass, and those people are the followers of Lee.

***

Image sources: [1], [2], [3], [4]

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