Feeding Your Family: The Return of the American Dinner!
Back in the dark ages of American food (that would be the entirety of my growing-up years), there were a lot of common dinner staples. Tacos, chipped beef, macaroni and cheese, chicken cacciatore, meatloaf, and chicken parmigiano all come to mind. Everybody I knew in the quiet Connecticut suburb where I grew up ate these foods.
Little did we know that not two miles from my childhood home, Martha Stewart was quietly preparing a revolution in the guise of a small catering company: cooking with sun-dried tomatoes and bacalá and goat cheese and kiwi fruit and other things we’d never heard of as we continued to pop our TV dinners into the oven.
The country’s food obsession at the time was for cheap meals that could be prepared in minutes. These foods came in a plastic bag or an aluminum tray and were either dunked in boiling water, put into the microwave for 60 seconds, or heated in the oven for 15 minutes. (My mother is a great cook, but even she fell prey to the marketers’ insistence that she did not have time to cook a real meal after a long day at work.)
As times changed – and as Martha Stewart went from local caterer to global tastemaker – many of the foods I knew as a child were left behind by the foodie movement. Who cared about classic mid-century American meals when there were curries and rice noodles and mochi balls and heirloom this and organic that to eat?
But now the food world has switched its focus to local ingredients, and it only makes sense to take another look at local traditions and local meals.
What use does a foodie have for a dish like macaroni and cheese? Well, plenty, if it’s homemade with sharp cheddar cheese, a splash of hot sauce and is served with real barbecue and locally-grown baby collard greens. The problem was never with the beef bourguignon – a dish I first encountered in a plastic bag with instructions to submerge it in boiling water for 7 minutes – but rather with the way the food industry had messed with it.
With this in mind, and especially in this season bursting with fresh produce, I’m all for revisiting the favorite foods of my childhood. Family taco night is the first stop. Except for pizza, this was the favorite meal among the kids in my family when I was growing up.
My kids won’t have the same memories I have – of tearing open the flavor packet and mixing it in with the supermarket ground beef, then piling it into my taco shell with shredded iceberg lettuce, canned black olives, diced tomatoes and sour cream. But with fresh, local, real ingredients, tacos have today become – except for pizza – the most popular meal in my household.
Next up: grass-fed Salisbury steak, mashed Yukon gold potatoes and real apple pie. Now if I can just get hold of some of those aluminum TV-dinner trays …
Larissa Phillips is an award-winning writer, cooking instructor and food writer for Parenthood.com. Email her at FeedingYourFamily@Parenthood.com. Check out Larissa’s food blog.