Hamburger Helper is generally not considered to be the most thought-provoking
food, but earlier this week, feasting on a plate of this homogeneous brown goop
made me think critically. As I stared into my pile of ?dinner,? I began to
ponder its origins. How is it that I, the American college student, became so
comfortable with the idea of eating a heavily processed combination of meat and
noodles dressed in reconstituted, formerly powdered sauce?
In search of answers, I looked into the history of
convenience foods in this country. I was convinced that, somewhere in the
storied narrative of frozen peas and Lunchables lay the answer to my question.
The history of convenience food in this country has no
concrete beginning; processed, ready-made food has existed for ages. Whether
they did so with salty beef jerky, fatty pemmican or starchy corn snacks, the
first Americans found plenty of ways to get their grub on while exerting
Few Americans, however, reach for one of the aforementioned
foods when coming home from a long day at work or school. The beginning of
convenience food as we know it began during the cold Alaskan winter of 1916,
when college dropout and oddball inventor Clarence Birdseye decided his family
was not getting enough vegetables.
In order to remedy this, he adopted the Alaskan native technique
of flash-freezing he had seen performed on fish and used it to keep cabbage on
his family?s dinner table.
Birdseye?s decision to put his veggies into suspended
animation may seem uninteresting and insignificant, but it revolutionized the
way Americans eat. By 1929, his frozen foods were available to U.S. consumers,
and it was not long before the frozen dinner sensation swept the nation. The
post-World War II emphasis on marketing to stay-at-home mothers, the
introduction of the microwave and the increasing availability of inexpensive
airline travel all helped create an atmosphere for frozen food to thrive.
Today, the popularity of convenience foods has led them to
become incredibly diverse. Take TV dinners, for example. As recently as our
childhoods, TV dinners were bland combinations of meat and starch. Now frozen
meals claim to represent Chinese, French, Indian, Thai and a host of other
cuisines. Thanks to the wide variety of flavors available in these ready-made
dinners, Americans can bastardize other countries? foods without even dirtying
Some convenience foods, however, have shown a kind of
culinary conservatism by attempting to reflect old-fashioned, down-home
American cooking. Hamburger Helper, for one, is an interesting case study in
the inertia of some processed foods. A number of new varieties have come out
since the product was introduced in 1971, but none of them have claimed to be revolutionary.
In a 2003 New York Daily News article, General Mills home economist Kelly Thompson said of a new
Helper flavor, ?The Taco Bake never would have
worked a few years ago, but we think people’s tastes have changed enough so
that now it can.?
Regardless of whether they are as innovative as Taco Bake or
as commonplace as the standard meat and potato frozen dinner, convenience foods
have come to define the collegiate diet in a way that Birdseye himself would never
have imagined possible. Much to the chagrin of mothers and nutritionists
everywhere, the modern student is more likely to reach into his or her freezer
for dinner than to take the time to prepare something.
Another group of people that has made use of the advances in
convenience food is the U.S. Armed Forces. The introduction of the Army?s Meal
Ready to Eat in the 1980s to replace the bulkier C-ration signaled a major
shift in how troops ate. Innovations in ready-made food made the new rations
lighter and slimmer while keeping the troops well-fed, and the development of a
built-in, flameless heater allowed troops to enjoy hot food in any conditions.
Like consumer convenience food, MREs have seen a recent
diversification, with the addition of goodies like seafood jambalaya and
teriyaki beef. The military also offers an option called the ?Meal: Religious?
for soldiers who observe kosher or halal dietary codes. Who knew that bland,
processed food could be so pluralistic!
After completing my research, my mound of meat and noodles
had been cold for a long time, but I was satisfied, as I had found the answer
to my questions concerning processed food consumption.
I, the American college student, find it easy to overcome
the alienation I feel at the sight of my dehydrated sauce packet because it
meets my demand for instant nourishment with minimal effort. Other people, from
soldiers trying to keep kosher on the front line to those who want sub-par pad
thai in eight minutes, find convenience foods meet their needs as well.
These foods are hardly a highlight of the American menu ? they
are neither as nutritious nor as delicious as fresh fare. But even a skeptical
observer should be able to appreciate that ready-made foods represent
incredible technological innovation and a commitment to satisfying consumer
Jason Engelhart is a
senior majoring in economics and history. Send all hate mail and Hot Pockets to