Over the past couple months, I’ve done all sorts of things in the kitchen. Rolled out and folded up light and springy milk bread. Peeled and cored pears before preserving them in sugar syrup. Pureed celeriac in a food mill, made apple sauce in an Instant Pot, endlessly whisked stock and roux into gravy. Taken the Amy’s mac n’ cheese out of the freezer, cut a slit in the plastic wrap, and microwaved it for three minutes. If I’m honest, I’ve done that last one the most.
Seven months into lockdown, my culinary ambition isn’t gone, but it’s shredded. Sometimes it’s cake from scratch; others it’s the microwave; sometimes both at once, like last Sunday, when I baked brownies but neglected to make dinner. I don’t think I’m alone in my hi-lo cooking derangement, though I do have a strange, specific excuse. Back in May, I thoughtlessly placed a burbling, superheated spoonful of bechamel sauce in my mouth to taste for salt; my mouth ejected this morsel of lava by swallowing, searing my esophagus (my doctor has almost concealed her horrified fascination with this injury). For months, I’ve been on a soft food diet to help it heal, rendering restaurant take-out more or less impossible, and requiring me to peel every vegetable and porridge every starch. When I can’t bring myself to puree another soup, there is the Amy’s mac and cheese, which me and my miserable esophagus agree is good enough.
Frozen food sales have been rising throughout the pandemic. The reasons are twofold: In the early months of lockdown, food shortages and supply chain breakdowns lead to freezer-stocking; as the crisis has worn on, the convenience of ready-to-eat meals has become increasingly appealing to those sheltering at home. Many more people are cooking more at home; many more people are tired, desperate, or sick of it. And beyond the unique, horrible crisis remaking how Americans eat at home, the slower-burning economic crisis is pushing middle class diners toward their freezers, too — frozen food booms during recessions.
Frozen food companies have spent the past few years trying to attract younger consumers with healthier or at least updated options. In 2018, the CEO of Con-Agra Foods said, “a millennial does not know what a Salisbury steak is,” so when the pandemic hit, the Adobo Chicken Power Bowls with Pepitas were waiting. Whether Power Bowls taste better than a Salisbury steak is an open question, but they fulfill the real purpose of frozen food for a new generation: an acceptable simulacrum of a meal you crave.
Unlike a lot of people in their thirties, I’ve always bought a lot of frozen food — but not for me. My girlfriend finds cooking baffling and aversive. When we got together over a decade ago, her freezer was stacked to the brim with organic-branded frozen food and her refrigerator was bare. When she did dishes, it was only forks. I now do all the cooking, and she does all the dishes; she subsists on a small, rotating set of favorite frozen dinners (currently: chicken tikka masala, fish sticks, and cheese ravioli) when I’m out of town or otherwise unable to cook us both dinner. I can’t even get her to reheat leftovers.
Until a few months ago, I basically refused to join her in eating frozen dinners. It went beyond taste or health or satisfaction. Frozen dinners felt closer to non-food than food, and sharing them together felt like a dire verdict on the state of our household, relationship, and maybe the world. Even though (or likely, because) I spent my childhood eating my own portion of Healthy Choice turkey with gravy while my mom and siblings did the same, to do so now threatened my sense of being a competent adult, one who’d taught herself to cook and cared about food for a living.
But that was before I was humbled by the bechamel. When you have to change your diet to take care of yourself, you’re forced to confront how many shoulds and arbitrary rules guide your eating. I was sure I couldn’t eat scrambled eggs without toast, sure that lettuce soup would be unbearable and cheese sticks a bore. But as it turns out, they’re fine. (Lettuce soup is delicious.) Also fine: frozen meals.
In an ideal world, there’s always time and mental energy to cook a meal; in a shitty world, cooking that meal creates a sense of accomplishment and meaning otherwise unavailable; but in all worlds, there is hunger, and a body needing to be fed. Now, on some exhausted Fridays, I microwave a perfectly fine chicken tikka masala for my girlfriend, and then a soft and comforting mac and cheese for myself, and we eat them together on the couch while playing video games, and I feel satisfied.
Photo credits: Frozen dinner, CSA Images/Getty; flowers, Fine Art Photographic/Getty