Semi-Homemade Kind of Life, Baby.

Generally, when I sit down to try a new recipe, I look for something that has as few  processed or pre-made ingredients as possible. The line is sort of arbitrary; I’ll buy corn syrup so I can make pecan pie, but I’m really anti-cobbler recipes that use cake mix (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I am pro-cake mix). Even within the broad category of semi-homemade, there’s a whole spectrum that goes from charming simplifications and creative uses of box-products to the Sandra Lee Disaster Hour. So while I embrace certain aspects of semi-homemade, I’m not willing to go whole hog.

There are two major things that go into my desire for less-processed food. First, I like to think of recipes as a challenge, so starting with bare bones and working up seems like more of an adventure than relying on processed/pre-packaged products. There’s also some discussion about the health benefits of not eating a lot of processed food, but as much as I wish I could don the cloak of caring about serious issues, for me, it really is more about the challenge.

Second, I wonder how much my feelings towards processed and pre-packaged foods come from ingrained classism. I mean, not condoning the process of putting corn nuts on a cake and calling it Kwanzaa transcends all barriers, but the general aversion to Corn Nutzâ„¢ or using canned mushroom soup in casserole recipes seems to fall right along the class divide.

Maybe I should take a step back. Here I refer to the American definition of class, which relies strongly on economic status, though aspects of race, education, and cultural experiences are thrown in. I’m not trying to say that all people of a certain class have certain preferences or relationships with food. I am saying that certain foods are seen as indicative of class, and certain foods are defined by the perceived class status of their consumers. In the most extreme, compare caviar and Gorton’s fish sticks. Eschewing packaged foods shows that one has time (to seek out and prepare the food), resources (money to purchase and equipment/space to prepare the food), and access (transportation to good grocery stores).

I understand that conflated with this issue is the issue of time – processed and pre-packaged foods are just faster and easier to make. As the movement away from processed and pre-packaged foods grows and as time spent cooking increases, who do you think will be doing the work? The division of household labor is still unequal, and it seems likely that most of this pressure falls squarely on women.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m re-evaluating my perspectives on cooking. I don’t anticipate a strong shift in my behavior, but there’s always room for more thinking.

What say you? What are your feelings on semi-homemade?


11 replies on “Semi-Homemade Kind of Life, Baby.”

In general, I hate cooking. There are however, a very few key exceptions. When I make Eggplant Parmesan I try to do everything from scratch, even my sauce. I’ll even put down the extra money for fresh herbs if they are available. The only thing pre-packaged is the bread crumbs, because I HATE making my own bread crumbs. Same with making Vegetable Stew. All from scratch. The BIG difference is that these things are my favorite things to eat, and making them is more like crafting edible art to me than cooking.
However, for day to day meals, I do not avoid semi-homemade because it is easier and quicker. And I’m cheap – let’s face it, buying whole fresh ingredients is SO much more expensive which is a shame, but reality nonetheless.

I saw an interview with Sandra Lee once that was pretty fascinating. I can’t remember where it was, but she talked about how she grew up less than wealthy and had a Mom that was pretty much absent in the kitchen along with everywhere else. When she went to Cordon Bleu, she’d come home to her dorm every night and figure out how to make these elaborate, expensive recipes translate to the every-person who might not have much money and/or time. For that, I love her. In recent years she’s become a total parody of herself and recipes like that dastardly Kwanzaa cake are just awful. I do like the basic idea of the show; I just wish she hadn’t become so commercial and cheesy.

I try to make things from scratch 85% of the time, but if I have canned items or boxed items laying around the house I will use them occasionally. I’ve tried to cut certain items out of my diet, things like pre-packaged, flavored rice and pasta mixes, jarred sauces and dips, frozen meals, etc, and for the most part I do stay away from them. It has saved me money in the long run, and since I don’t rely so heavily on those items I do feel healthier (not quite as much MSG or sodium, fat etc as I used to consume). Every now and again, though, I’ll pick up some Amy’s mac n cheese for my son or heat up a can of tomato soup. Everything in moderation. I doubt I’ll ever buy another box of rice a roni in my lifetime, though.

I guess it’s just never occurred to me to use so many pre-packaged or processed products. I never had much access to them growing up as my mum’s an amazing cook. When we wanted something ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ it tended to mean a quick stir fry. Today the boy and I cook from scratch I’d say 80% of the time as it just doesn’t occur to us to do anything else and he loves to cook and try out really crazy recipes (our most recent kitchen success: confit duck. Yes that’s duck cooked and preserved in fat, and it was *amazing*).

But I don’t think anyone really cooks 100% of everything from scratch anymore unless they’re some kind of food evangelist. I don’t make my own pasta, for example, but use dried pasta or even the ‘fresh’ stuff they sell in fridges. We buy baguettes. We don’t usually make our own mayonnaise. And last week I did something I’d never done before – bought a jar of chopped garlic, to make my salad dressings a little easier. For shame!

I do think there’s a class element to this, though, especially in the US. There has to be, in a world that pits Whole Foods against inner-city food deserts. I get the impression that the advent of processed foods in the 1950s and 1960s really eradicated the idea of ‘peasant’ cooking in the States (my dad’s family, for example, who were lower-middle class in the Midwest, buy everything processed – from instant oatmeal to tinned soup). It’s a little bit less the case over here where poorer people didn’t always have access to packaged products, but I would imagine that’s changing now as well.

I generally enjoy cooking with fresh ingredients more; it’s a stress-relief activity for me, and a labor of love. Plus, tasty and healthy. And I definitely prefer to bake from scratch (if only to brag), but I do make the occasional semi-homemade meal. I concocted something last week that began with fresh veggies and chicken but ended up including a pre-flavored rice thing and a can of cream of chicken soup. And dude, it was delicious. Full of sodium, but delicious. I can be kind of a snob about casseroles though, especially if they involve ritz crackers or chips. On the other hand, my Italian-American (fantastic) family’s red sauce recipe? It starts with tomato paste, not fresh tomatoes. So, I don’t claim to be a purist.

I’m a college student and I love to make everything from scratch. However, I also had a meal plan last year, so the only time I needed to cook is during vacations when the dining halls were closed or when I was at home. And when I’m at home I have endless time and a grocery store walking distance from my house. As far as baking goes, I had to bake something for a club I was in every other week, and of the other two students with this responsibility one was in culinary school and the other had a father who was a chef. So something not from scratch was not really an option if I was gonna live up to the standard they set.

I’ve loved taking the time to cook from scratch, and I think it’s really helped me build up my culinary skill set, but I know things are gonna change next year when I don’t have to cater every other week and my meal plan goes from 19 meals a week to 7. I hope that once I graduate I’ll be able to have a lifestyle that allows me to cook the way I want to, but I recognize that semi-homemade will probably be the way to go until I’m economically established.

I am so glad that the semi home made thing has not made a real impact in the uk yet ( even though we are not known for good food). I often search for new recipes online and so many of the american recipes contain an unbelievable amount of ultra processed ingredients. Even for super basic things like a sponge cake. It has 4 ingredients, that are cheap, and not filled with preservatives and trans fats and all the other crazy stuff that is used in the store bought varieties. I try to avoid eating that kind of junk as much as possible, and really 10-20 mins extra prep time is definitely worth it.

I hate cooking so ease is important to me. If you can do homemade and from scratch, more power to you, but I no longer judge people by ease of preparation. It’s the heart and love put into food that counts. I am the local queen of cheating entertainment.

The processed food/lower class theory does not explain why my boyfriend’s Lexus SUV driving-, Nanette Lepore-wearing mother forced me to eat a casserole made with canned chicken and Ruffles potato chips.

Seriously, though, I find this really interesting. My parents both grew up very poor, and my mom worked MANY hours, but I remember still eating a lot of homemade meals… and yeah, the topping to the tamale pie was Marie Calendar’s cornbread mix, and the veggies in the casserole were from a frozen mixed bag (I don’t know if that’s considered processed), and the casserole topping was Pillsbury crescent rolls, but I feel like even if we’re using processed meals to make a “homemade” meal, that’s better than eating at McDonald’s or KFC. Personally, as a student/unemployed bar taker, I have minimal time to make food for myself, and “myself” now usually includes my boyfriend. I don’t have too may processed foods in my kitchen, now that I think about it, and if I am making dinner, instead of ordering Jimmy Johns or eating cereal, it’s usually a recipe from Smitten Kitchen or the Pioneer Woman. However, boyfriend and I are planning on marriage and possibly a child (me) or two (him), and this could entirely change my current practice. I am all about healthy eating and knowing what we’re consuming, and I come from a family that put family dinner time at the top of the priority list, so I still have those values. I just don’t know that I’ll practice what I preach if I am a lawyer mommy.

For the record, I DO tend to make the meals, but boyfriend is not opposed to cooking. It’s just that he never learned how, so if he’s cooking, I am supervising anyway, and we have a “the cook makes what the cook wants” and he generally wants macaroni and cheese, and I don’t care if it’s baked in the oven with prosciutto and gruyere, I WILL spend the next day feeling like I’m carrying food directly on top of my sphincter (sorry, TMI but I think I might be intolerant of gluten a little bit). Just wanted to clarify that I don’t do the cooking because I am a lady, but because I like it and I don’t want to eat pasta and cream all the time.

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