July 9th, 2012

Why must pre-fab food nearly ALWAYS suck?

My partner and I very, very seldom ever visit the cases of pre-made frozen meal items in the grocery store. We cook dinner from scratch nearly every evening. We are both competent cooks (and I do it professionally), and the time we spend together cooking and eating is a hugely important part of our whole quality "together" time. But occasionally, especially when I have a stretch of evenings where I won't be home for dinner due to work, we will lay in some pre-fab products so that there is something quickly on hand for one person to eat. Jeff likes the Alessi-brand risotto kits that our local stores stock in the rice/pasta aisle. I bring him some chicken and mushrooms to enhance it with, and a decent dinner for him comes together readily. A couple months ago, he needed a quick dinner option and suggested I just grab some kind of "disgusting" (his word) frozen dinner and he'd suffer through it. But, as I assessed the options in the freezer case, I was discouraged because I knew exactly what it would all be like and that it would all be crap. But then I noticed something that I had not seen before, these Tai Pei Chinese-style meals in the form of a frozen take-out box-shaped brick.

I didn't expect it would be totally great, but I also didn't expect to hear from Jeff that it was just about the worst thing he had ever eaten. He had the General Tso's Chicken version. But since that day, hiding in our freezer, has been another one of these that I bought at the same time: Broccoli Beef. Jeff is out of town and I got home early from work today. I have a dinner planned for later, but decided to eat this Tai Pei food for a quick lunch to hold me over. The box describes it as a totally delicious and restaurant-quality food item, and even boasts of a "new and improved recipe." Years ago, it was almost standard for product labeling to boast of being new and improved. But it's always seemed to me that implicit in the claim of newness and improvedness is a tacit admission that the original product had deficiencies and needed some work. And if that's the case with Tai Pei Broccoli Beef, then, damn, I am sure glad I never experienced its earlier non-improved version. Because this is not a good product. 

Of course I knew it wasn't really going to be "restaurant quality," but I'd hoped it would at least approach the quality of the really bad food at a certain Chinese take-out joint near my home. Their stuff isn't restaurant quality either despite it being from an actual restaurant, but it's actually pretty good compared to what I found in this box. The box is filled principally with cooked rice and a small amount of the broccoli beef dish itself (not actually very much of either broccoli or beef), including a weak sauce. The method of prep is to microwave the thing wrapped in all its packaging for five minutes and then let it sit for a couple minutes. I suppose one could eat it out of the box, but I dumped mine into a bowl and found that what I had was a mass of very wet and insipid rice studded with a few bits of other ingredients. After a taste, I went ahead and did what I knew I was going to do anyway: add a huge dollop of Sambal Oelek to it in order to give it enough agreeable flavor for me to eat it and be done with it. 

Whenever I experience a product like this, I wonder why it must be so and why things of this quality are so generally accepted that they continue to be about all that's available in non-specialty food shops. I get it that these Tai Pei boxes are inexpensive. I don't think I paid more than two bucks for it. To sell a product of this kind that cheaply and still make a profit on it, the manufacturer probably can't put anymore beef or broccoli into it than they do. If I were to make this dish from scratch, I'd spend more than two bucks per serving, so I get that part of it. Even an upgrade to the rice might be cost-prohibitive, but I know enough about food production to know that they can certainly come up with a better flavor profile for that sauce without adding cost. Generally it costs about the same to make a really bad sauce as it does to make a good one. Also, if the product actually tasted good, people might like it a lot more, and then they might be able to actually raise the price a bit and still sell even more of it. 

I'm not such a snob that I don't see some value in the concept of heat-and-serve meals, especially for people who are eating alone or quickly. Having been alone for the last few days, I have been a lot less motivated to cook since I don't have anyone to share it with, but I have done it anyway because I just can't settle for this kind of stuff very often, and I don't understand why it needs to be so mediocre all the time.