Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No Cooking Required

I see that Walgreen's is selling flu shot gift cards. Just the thing to hand out this Halloween.

From the Office of Odd Coincidences….The other day my wife and I watched an episode of House Hunters in which the couple was looking for housing near Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, a place heretofore unknown to either of us. That evening at a restaurant in Sioux Falls I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt advertising that same locale. It’s the kind of what-are-the-odds thing that keeps lottery ticket sales going.

There have been big doings on the home front: my daughter has gotten a place of her own. The impetus was her best friend’s need to acquire lodging due to her family’s loss of their home to foreclosure and their imminent move to Missouri. My daughter’s friend is enrolled in the nursing program here and wished to finish here, so she decided to remain. She wanted a roommate, and my daughter’s recent acquisition of sufficiently gainful employment gave her the means to fill the role, though not without understandable anxiety. I assured her that it wouldn’t be much different from her frequent stays with her sister, and that both her friend’s grandparents and we will be nearby if needed. So far the transition seems to have been quite easy for them, with the usual adjustments for having to acquire the various little items necessary for a household (cups, utensils, can opener, etc.)

The apartment itself is part of a motel complex, so they get some similar services, including a telephone that eventually rings through to the front desk for messages, cable TV, wireless internet and weekly laundry for the bedding. It’s made up of three connected rooms, so the living room and bedrooms each have a bathroom. It’s sufficiently furnished, with recliners, a microwave oven, a two-burner hot plate and a kitchen-style sink in addition to standard motel furniture. It’s even within easy walking distance of a supermarket. All in all, it’s a good place for two first-timers, the only major drawback being its proximity to railroad tracks, which they say hasn’t been a big deal.

This has naturally led me to recall my first relatively independent non-dorm residence. My roommate and I had planned on continuing to stay in the dorms, but high pre-registration numbers caused the administration to panic and kick upperclassmen out to make room for what they thought was going to be a huge freshman class. It didn’t materialize, but by then most juniors and seniors had found other housing.

For us that housing was a three-bedroom mobile home owned by my roommate’s family, and shared by the two of us and two other students. It was typical of its time and type: metal roof and siding outside, wood paneling and shag carpet inside. It did have a washer and dryer, though, which was not just real luxury but a considerable factor in keeping the filth level below the average for a place inhabited by four male college students. We also had a classic wooden-console TV/Radio/turntable with a picture tube that took longer to warm up each time it was turned on, but which put out a nice imitation stereo TV sound.

Easily the biggest source of adventure for us was food preparation. Each person took a turn cooking (until a revolt against one roommate’s reliance on macaroni and cheese led to each person being responsible for his own sustenance, which allowed everyone to cook to his own taste but in my view was much less fun.) One night a roommate decided to cook spaghetti, without informing the rest of us that he had never before attempted such an undertaking or asking for advice from those of us who had. He proceeded to make most of the mistakes possible with pasta preparation, resulting in a spaghetti brick requiring a knife with a serrate edge to penetrate. There was a great deal of experimentation, usually with the electric skillet, resulting in some unique casseroles.

Today most of what we did wouldn’t even be attempted by many young people, simply because it isn’t necessary. The microwave oven and the foodstuffs designed for it allow someone to eat quite well (at least by college standards) with very little risk, or even effort. The number, variety and overall quality of microwavable items have truly revolutionized low-skill cooking. The development of techniques for using the microwave oven for traditional food preparation has also been beneficial, at least to an avid user like me. (My wife, on the other hand, didn’t have one until we got together.) I have found that I can cook many dishes just as well in a microwave oven as I can conventionally, with advantages in speed and cookware usage. But the biggest advantage for me – someone who rarely decides what to cook until the last minute - is the ability to defrost meat quickly.

Of course this is a mixed blessing. Young people who might find out they enjoy the art of cooking may never try. The increased packaging necessary for microwavable products has been decried for adding to solid waste. Above all, there’s the fact that most prepackaged food doesn’t taste as good as the freshly-cooked version. But that last statement comes with the old caveat: it depends on the skill of the cook. Banquet microwavable spaghetti and meatballs would probably have been preferable to my roommate’s effort. But he learned from the experience, as did we all, which usually doesn’t happen when you microwave a frozen dinner.

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