Do Frozen Meals Free Us or Turn Us Into Barbarians?

TV dinners have evolved. These days, they're no longer embarrassing, just for kids, or synonymous with loneliness or junk food ... or TV.2011-05-19-CFFlogo3.jpg

Or with incompetence, sloth, or child abuse. When TV dinners first entered American supermarkets in the mid-1950s, serving or eating them implied that one didn't know how to cook -- which for married women in those days was kind of a crime -- or that one didn't want to cook, which was a sin. Why would a '50s housewife serve her brood formerly frozen chicken, peas and cobbler in sectioned metal trays? Was she really too unskilled, uncaring or lazy to make meals from scratch?

I got almost the same message from famed chef Alice Waters while interviewing her a few years ago about her "edible schoolyard" program which teaches middle-school kids to grow, harvest, prepare and eat their own produce. Waters blamed the collapse of American society at least partly on the fact that families no longer eat home-cooked meals together.

Meanwhile, some scientists and pundits blame readymade meals for the obesity epidemic.

Are Trader Joe's frozen gnocchi and Hibachi House frozen teriyaki chicken destroying Western civilization? Or are they the great liberators of our age?

We have evolved along with frozen meals. Some of us are too busy running nations (or at least corporations) or flying planes to prepare chicken pies from scratch. Some of us aren't, but luckily live in merciful times when cooking competence no longer matters. For me, the first step was admitting that although I can stir-fry onions, I cook worse than any random paid professional. The second and more crucial step was realizing that I don't care. Why should I love cooking or excel at it any more than I love or excel at leathercraft or throwing javelins? That others who love cooking mass-produce nutritious meals that I can buy frozen and eat without lamenting that I did not make them myself is part miracle, part Buddhist crash-course in acceptance.

For those of us who don't love cooking and don't want (or can't afford) to spend too much money or time in restaurants, few meals are more comforting than those that can be heated up in minutes, then eaten while wearing anything, while doing anything, with anyone.

Readymade meals now range from Banquet's retro classics (now brought to you by ConAgra) to Magic Kitchen's mail-order frozen filet mignon (with Feta-cheese beets and chocolate-dipped Madeleines). In between are thousands of options produced by dozens of brands filling dozens of niches, from kosher to Chinese to kosher Chinese. Organic, vegan, gluten-free and Salisbury steak: It's all frozen, it's everywhere, and it's so very easy to eat.2011-07-26-frozenfoods.jpg Safeway Stores produces frozen meals via two house brands: one regular, one organic.

"The competition is getting really stiff. Keep up with it, or you'll be left in the dust," says Dan Barash, executive chef for the Atlanta-based fast-casual chain Moe's Southwest Grill. Having just launched a line of readymade foods now being sold at BJ's Wholesale Club, Moe's prides itself on using only ingredients that are free of trans fats, lard, steroids, MSG, bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or added preservatives; its kitchens contain neither microwave ovens nor (ironically) freezers. Its pork and beef are grass-fed, its tofu organic, its tortillas whole-grain.

Moe's readymade line includes frozen chicken-tortilla soup, steak-and-cheese flautas, vegetable fajitas, beef and turkey chilis and other entrees along with dips, dressings, and salsas. A velvety, sea-salt-seasoned guacamole hummus is a true original.

"Hummus is very popular, so we wanted to Southwesternize it.

"We have a food mission at our restarants that we wanted to roll out" into the readymade line, whose planners sought to keep the products' sodium and fat contents low, says Barash, who holds a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, as does Moe's CEO Paul Damico.

"But we have a commitment to flavor and quality which we will never jeopardize. There are lots of natural ways to add flavors. There are lots of preservatives that are healthier for you, and some new technological advances can extend products' shelf life without any preservatives at all. Frozen foods in general are getting better and better for you."

They sure are. At a food festival I attended this year, long lines sprawled down the aisle as foodies awaited free samples from Sukhi's, a family-owned California company whose frozen Indian entrees include vegan chili "chicken," low-fat jalfrezi, and chewy "naanwiches." That this was by far one of the most popular booths at an event whose other samples included fancy imported artisanal cheeses, meats, breads, chocolate and even wine tells us all we need to know.

Images courtesy of Kristan Lawson.