2,000 words or less: Pining for foods from the past

I was shopping in Walmart the other day for some groceries – milk, lunch meat, pickles, cheese, that sort of thing. While I was looking for some frozen egg rolls I had been instructed to purchase because we had a $1 coupon for them, I walked past the section of frozen dinners where the Boston Market goodies are kept.

I haven’t eaten one of these in many years. But for a period of about 18 months from December of 2002 until mid-2004, they were a staple of my diet. They were palateable enough; they were a suitably fillilng meal for something contained in a small red box; and they were cheap.

During this bachelorhood interlude between my marriages, the latter of these three attributes was vital. I ate an astonishing amount of breakfast sandwiches constructed of some peanut butter smashed between two Walmart-brand heat-and-serve waffles during this time, and returned to the glory of my college eating habits by consuming huge volumes of Ramen noodles. The frozen Boston Market meals, at a per-meal cost of about $2.30, fit into this scheme quite nicely. About the only single food item I spent more on during this time was the Wednesday splurge of a one-top carryout from Papa John’s, which ran me five bucks.

My assault on the Boston Market freezer wasn’t universal; a lot of these meals include potatoes, and my dislike for spuds is well-known. Why spend money on a meal when I was just going to automatically discard the side dish? So my focus was on things like Beef Steak and Noodles, Chicken Parmesean, Salisbury Steak with mac and cheese, Swedish Meatballs, and, my personal favorite, Turkey Breast with Stuffing.

I had the turkey and stuffing at least twice a week, the salisbury steak at least as often. I rounded out the week with whatever else happened to be in stock and potato-free, which was usually the beef steak and noodles.

The turkey was the standby because I liked it, the stuffing was suitably pasty, and I could always sop up the leftover gravy with a buttery piece of bread. The salisbury steak was this shiny brown color, and the included mac and cheese side actually wasn’t too bad. As with the turkey, I liked that I could scoop up the leftover gravy with a piece of bread or, if I were particularly adventurous, just dump the meat and gravy onto a piece of bread right from the outset. The meat in the beef steak and noodles always had this shimmery quality, like a fish scale, that I just had to ignore and decide I was eating the food anyway. It was pretty good once you cooked and ate it, but that initial oily flash of color on the meat was always a touch disconcerting. The chicken parmesean was OK; I didn’t eat it very often. Nor did I get the meatballs very often; the noodles and sauce were OK, but the edges of the meatballs always got that microwave-induced chewy crust layer that you often encounter when nuking cheap mostly-filler meat.

Five-plus years into marriage #2 to a very good cook has eliminated the need to eat this kind of stuff any more, but there are times like this weekend that I walk past this stuff in the aisles and want to buy it and eat it. Despite the circumstances that placed me into bachelorhood, seeing that shitty food in the freezer still gives me some fond memories of that year-plus period of my life.

Andy Bartlett

By day, I am the executive director of communications and marketing at Bemidji State University. The rest of the time, I'm a husband, father of three, and proponent of super heroes, lasers, space ships and explosions.

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