Meals from a box pack a lot of nostalgia and convenience.

Meals from a box pack a lot of nostalgia and convenience.

My kids had no idea that a salad could come in a cardboard box on a grocery store shelf until I took them shopping for Suddenly Salad.

Betty Crocker’s food had been a staple in my grandmother’s house, where I grew up. And the trio of noodles, dried red bell peppers, and a savory seasoning packet brought me back just as instantly as Suddenly Salad was made.

I hadn’t eaten boxed convenience foods since I was a child, but grief over my grandmother’s death before the pandemic prompted me to make a special trip to the grocery store.

Food and pain have been intimately linked for millennia. We bring food to families who have lost a loved one. We serve food at lunches after funerals. We “eat our feelings.” During the coronavirus lockdown, with time on my hands after a layoff, I found myself obsessed with things that I have no control over. At night, I lie awake reflecting on how much I hated that Grandma was dead.

Suddenly Salad and his guys, I thought, might ease the pain by evoking feelings of closeness to Grandma. It could help maintain your connection with my children.

A dinner of Betty Crocker's Suddenly Salad (left) and Tuna helper is served.  Boxed foods are not just dinner.  For many people born in the second half of the 20th century, they are also a source of nostalgia.

A dinner of Betty Crocker’s Suddenly Salad (left) and Tuna helper is served. Boxed foods are not just dinner. For many people born in the second half of the 20th century, they are also a source of nostalgia.
AP

Boxed foods are no longer particularly interesting, but they have a market. For the women of my grandmother’s generation, they were a miracle that saved them time. And for anyone who grew up in the second half of the 20th century, they can evoke memories and nostalgia.

From farm to town

Grandma didn’t cook much from scratch, even though she came of age during the Great Depression on a farm in the southeastern corner of Colorado.

Her family had a huge garden and, as a child, she prepared everything from the basics. Nothing was wasted. If butter was needed, it was whipped. Cows for milking. If chicken was on the dinner menu, Grandma would break an unfortunate chicken’s neck and then scald it in boiling water to loosen its feathers.

But sometime in the 1960s, Grandma abandoned those old-school methods and opted for ready-to-eat meals from a box. Dinner, cakes, sides. The shift coincided with her taking a job outside the home.

For 25 years, she worked a physically demanding job as a grocery store cashier. After standing on the cold tile floor for eight-hour periods, the last thing she wanted to do was stand in the kitchen and cook.

In this, the grandmother reflected the women’s movement of the time.

A move towards convenience

“After the war, women moved from the country to the city,” says Jenny Barker-Devine, a professor of American rural and agricultural women’s history at Illinois College. “They lived through the Depression, the war, there were many deprivations and they didn’t want to cook anymore.”

Betty Crocker (founded 100 years ago and now owned by General Mills) was not a home chef, but an invented marketing scheme, says Leah Lizarondo, an entrepreneur in residence at Carnegie Mellon University.

Boxed meals are relatively inexpensive, last a long time on the shelves, and taste good enough, he says. “At that time between the 50s and 70s, women started working more and convenience was important. That leading role of homemaker did not diminish for women. “

The next generation

When I grew up in the ’80s and’ 90s, packaged foods were on the menu every day. Cheesy ground beef noodles, one packet broccoli cheese soup, and mashed potatoes were a regular in our cupboards. We don’t pay attention to sodium levels or whether these “convenience foods” contain preservatives.

After I left Grandma’s nest and went to college in Boulder, Colorado, I experienced my own change in eating behaviors.

A homemade “Hamburger Helper” dish is served, made with caramelized onions and white wine.  The recipe is available on the New York Times cooking app.

A homemade “Hamburger Helper” dish is served, made with caramelized onions and white wine. The recipe is available on the New York Times cooking app.
AP

I started shopping at farmers markets and buying organic products. I gave up meat most of the time and never drank soda. I became interested in ancient cooking methods and asked Grandma to show me how to can can fresh tomato sauce.

As a stubborn young man, he thought Grandma’s reliance on packaged foods was silly, even in bad taste. Why would you turn to a box when your culinary skills were unrivaled?

But her decision to avoid elaborate cooking allowed her to have a job and take care of things she considered more important, like raising her granddaughter. Now, instead of questioning his actions, I looked inward. If I enjoyed the experience of eating a Suddenly Salad or any other box of food, who cares?

A trip to the grocery store

After Grandma died, I wasn’t sure if Suddenly Salad and other packaged foods from my childhood were still popular. They are.

Hamburger Helper has enough of a pop culture cachet that the New York Times cooking app offers a homemade version, with caramelised onions and white wine.

I came home from the store with not just Suddenly Salad, but also boxes of Tuna Helper and a Betty Crocker confetti cake. My husband stared in disbelief as he unpacked the bag. He never expected his organic evangelist wife to bring home a variety like this.

A box of Betty Crocker Tuna Helper from 1999.

A box of Betty Crocker Tuna Helper from 1999.
File Photo Sun Times

My children did not miss the novelty of these foods. My 10-year-old son, who was more picky about food than his 5-year-old sister, loved everything. But about 20 minutes after lunch, he complained of a stomach ache. Meanwhile, he couldn’t drink enough water after all the salt he had consumed.

Although I wouldn’t eat these packaged foods regularly again, revisiting them filled me with joy. More than anything, I remembered my childhood with Grandma, loving and sharing that instant pasta salad from a box.

“The foods of our childhood are the most powerful, they attract us very much,” says Laura Shapiro, food historian and author of “Something from the oven: Reinventing dinner in 1950s America.”

“Memory, nostalgia and love are much more important than candy, salt, umami and anything else.”

And I’ll happily make another boxed meal with my kids, in memory of my grandmother and her cooking.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks, however small,” the late Anthony Bourdain wisely said. “Most of the time, those marks, on her body or on her heart, are beautiful.”

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