Now you don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to get gourmet sliders.
It started innocently enough. I was in an odd food mood, and came to the conclusion that what I craved most was something vividly remembered from childhood – Swanson chicken and turkey pot pies, one of each. In my memory, they’d been almost identical: the turkey a shade more fibrous, the chicken a tad more slippery. But lo and behold, when I got to my local Gristede’s and managed to find the freezer aisle – which was much longer and more magnificent than I remembered it – there were no small, round, foil-clad pies to be had. They’d been elbowed out of the way by flashier forms of frozen food.
O delicious pie, seemingly made out of library paste and diced wood, what has become of thee?
The box sure makes them look tasty.
We see in the supermarket freezer the profound effects of the Age of Foodism. Where once this glacial enclosure was the resort of lazy people who didn’t care what they ate as long as they could watch TV, and mainly consisted of pot pies, frozen burritos, and TV dinners, it is now just another excuse for gourmandization. The ice-encrusted boxes that I saw before me were no longer just frozen dreck, they were cuisine. In fact, the words “cuisine” and “gourmet” were everywhere on the packaging. I hadn’t dug anything out of the freezer case apart from filo dough or ice cream for a long time, so decided now was the time to investigate exactly what was going on in supermarket frozen food departments. The odyssey took me through a dozen supermarkets and lasted a week. So put on your cross country skis and fur-lined parkas and follow me into the icy void of the supermarket freezer case.
As I discovered, anything that achieves widespread culinary popularity will inexorably move toward a frozen manifestation. That’s simple thermodynamics. I was not surprised to see not one, but several types of sliders on display, the cartons boasting color depictions with the hamburgers posed like fashion models – though the boxes were often painted with rime in a way that suggested they’d been thawed and refrozen several times.
I picked the most effete sounding: The Perfect Bite Co.’s Gourmet Miniature Burgers, subtitled “Applewood Bacon and Cheddar” like a fine piece of literature. Something called miniature burgers might make you think of sliders, but these were way smaller than sliders..They turned out to be the size of silver dollars, and none too appetizing in appearance.
The instructions on the box were simple enough, unless, like me, you have no microwave. In which case you’ve got to go through this whole thing of swaddling the burgers in aluminum foil, first dripping water over them like the pope sprinkles holy water with a censer. Out of curiosity, I held a few back and simply baked them. The buns got dry as crackers, but really tasted much better that way. I doggedly ate the whole box. They were really bad, and I had to gulp a handful of antacids afterwards.
The worst part was the taste of the meat, riddled with onion powder and relentlessly gray. And the cheese after being frozen and then baked has the texture of polyethylene plastic.
Frozen foods have invaded the realm of ethnic eats, and repurposed it for the modern freezer gourmet. From upper left, going clockwise: Indian, Sichuan (misspelled Szechuan), Mexican, and Californian
It took me a few days to recover, wherein I stalked the frozen aisles looking for my next prey. There were arcane Indian dinners, Sichuan dinners, dieter’s dinners by the dozen, vegan burritos, hot sandwiches containing ungainly combos of ingredients, and a half-dozen versions of spaghetti and meat balls “kicked up a notch,” as Emeril might say. The old classics were often oddly transformed – the old turkey and mashed potatoes TV dinner was now a Lean Cuisine entrée, looking very pale and anemic, the once-floury gravy turned to a thin brown trickle.
In search of the old standards, I ran into revamped Hungry Man products, which used to be the larger manifestations of TV dinners. As with many frozen lines, it now had several “collections” available. Being a gourmand, I was naturally attracted to a series called Pub Favorites, which seemed to hold the promise of gastropubbery in its name: Bourbon Steak Strips. Pulling the frozen tray – topped with a sheet of clear plastic, to be perforated as the thing cooks – out of the box was enough to stimulate the gag reflex. The first thing I noticed was that the individual morsels of “steak” were sometimes actually mired in the mashed spuds, making me wonder if they would by some technological feat migrate back into the gravy where they belonged.
But when the dinner came out of the oven, the steak was still in the potatoes, and the gravy had attained an alarming purplish-brown hue. By some alchemical process, the frozen mixed vegetables didn’t seem to have cooked at all, though the pieces of steak were relatively tender, but reduced to a sad gray color. The mashed potatoes also suffered from a textural deficit, being watery and grainy rather than smooth. (I prefer lumpy.)
Are you a hungry man? Hungry enough to eat this?
Would you get this in a gastropub? Well, maybe not. And yes, I ate it.
After leaving myself two days to recover, I assailed the freezer case again, this time at a D’Agostino. The profusion of Hot Pockets was amazing. These reconfigured burritos are often stuffed with Italian ingredients, but other times seem like wild experiments to attract dieting foodies. I zeroed in on the series called Lean Pockets Culinary Creations, of which only one representative was for sale: Spinach Artichoke Chicken. (Those of you who live in the ‘burbs with more gigantic freezer cases will likely find four more) As the website says:
Experience all the premium flavors and fanciness of a chef’s menu – without the premium price. Get creamy sauces and crusts. Made with Whole Grain in a culinary masterpiece to go – with 8 grams of fat or less. [capitalization theirs]
The low-calorie pockets had it all: low fat and whole grain, and chef-made with luxury ingredients like artichoke, mushrooms, and wild rice. The ingredients and combinations are so diverse, it’s almost as if they were selected by a monkey randomly paging through a glossy food mag.
I heated the thing up. When I bit into it, the wrapper seemed like sandpaper. The filling tasted a bit like a chicken pot pie, only there was a lot less of it. And you’d pretty much have to send it to the lab to detect the artichoke.
But what does it all mean? Well, the foodies I know would never set foot in a supermarket, much less reach into a freezer case. Yet there in icy form were many of the fetishes of foodism, written large in package language, if not in the actual ingredients or flavors inside those boxes. And when everyone in the country – even those who buy TV dinners – have become defacto foodies, then the original foodies will have to find something else to be obsessed with.
My Lean Pocket, in its carboard holder