280 W. Coleman Blvd.
You can see the allure of take-out dinner every day during five o'clock rush hour. Up and down the main arteries of the metro area, minivans and station wagons zip and zoom, loaded down with kids and a busy itinerary. Soccer practice, piano lessons, spelling bees, and band camp -- whatever these people do with their kids, they certainly do not have a gas stove and a portable sink hooked up in the back of the Land Rover, whipping up grandma's homemade lasagna and a green salad, fresh from the backyard garden, for dinner. This is your stereotypical take-out crowd, parents and kids raised on pizza, Coke, and the warm buzz of the television.
All of that is changing. The TV dinner has taken a turn toward — dare we say it — quality. Yes sir, with the addition of Take & Bake and Dream Dinners to the busy suburbanites' schedule, they can self-assemble, prepackage, and otherwise get an entire bevy of 12 meals ready to feed six for just over $200. What better way to assuage the creeping guilt of busy working mothers; what better way to take advantage of their concern for their children's dietary health than through savvy advertising and tempting websites? These pre-fab meals do offer convenient sustenance, a reasonable price, and far more nutritional peace of mind than the Chinese take-out box.
To enter these places is to step into a sort of culinary North Pole. Busy with frenetic energy, patrons (mostly middle-aged women dressed in dainty little aprons) dart between work stations, mixing and packing an assortment of ingredient combinations into plastic bags. Completed orders line the shelves of large freezer cases awaiting the trip home in the customer's cooler. Like a bunch of mice probing a research maze for hidden cheese, the people who congregate here assemble meals the way they run the rest of their lives, at maximum capacity. If you get in the way, you are liable to get taken out with a heavy piece of Pyrex.
You need an appointment at these places, the internet being the most convenient approach, and you preselect your meals at that time. Both places, similar in their physical layout, also offer the same general recipes — in fact, both had stuffed Italian shells on the menu when we visited, and the dishes were almost identical in flavor. Each entree on your list resides at a separate workstation and you jostle among the customers to get onto the tables that complete your order, which, for a NASCAR fan, could be the most enjoyable part of the whole assembly process. You certainly don't do any cooking at these joints. The recipes and cooking directions are pre-prepared, there's no real creative context for adventurous experiments (even if I did sneak a few extra ingredients into a few bags); even the spoon measures are already placed in the correct vessel. So if the recipe calls for ½ teaspoon of black pepper, you don't even need to think about the ½ teaspoon part, you just grab the spoon and dump it in. I found this boring, but others that I observed marveled at the convenience.
There's that word again, convenience; you have to give the concept its due credit. It's very convenient. On the home preparation side of the equation, one can fire up the kitchen and be out of there, dishes and all, in under an hour for most preparations (of course, the Crockpot stuff takes all day). Having a wife that loathes my six-hour kitchen odysseys, I can attest to the impact that such convenience can have on a relationship. The trade-off, of course, revolves around taste. The dinners themselves run the gamut, from fare that you might find acceptable at the local Outback Steakhouse or Applebee's to downright school lunchroom fodder. The bins from which you assemble the meals contain little in the way of fresh herbs and vegetables (there are generally no side dishes included, only main courses) and the proteins come pre-frozen. If you get a stuffed flounder, it comes pre-stuffed, already frozen, and the directions will instruct you to place it directly in the oven — frozen.
This is why so much of the food fails to approach a bona fide, home-cooked meal. Good cooking is not so much about some secret combination of ingredients; it relies more on good technique, something that neither Take & Bake nor Dream Dinners provides training in. The directions assume that you will salt the pasta water (but what if you don't know?) and the packaging uses generalities like "cook until done." What does that mean? These dinners are certainly better than feeding your kids fast food burgers or entrees from the freezer case at the local Piggly Wiggly, but in the end, if you want delicious food, you have to slow down and learn to cook, and sometimes that's just too inconvenient.