This week, as I gazed into my refrigerator at the eight, count them, eight, takeout containers there, I pondered how our approach to food has changed in my lifetime.
When I was a fairly young kid, I recall that, when we would visit family in North Carolina, we’d often stop and buy lunch – usually a hot dog – that we’d get to-go and eat in the car. Of course, I’m pretty sure the term “to go” wasn’t a thing then.
I was probably 10 before I have any memory of eating in a restaurant.
My experience may have been a little different than some. My mother worked full time in a department store with a lunch counter, so I do remember that I was pretty young when we started taking my mother to work (she didn’t drive) on Saturday early enough to eat breakfast at the lunch counter.
But despite my mother’s longer work hours, we mostly ate at home. She did most of the cooking, but she had set menus for the week, all things that were easy to cook quickly after she got off work. We didn’t have a lot of expendable cash, so we ate pork chops one night, hamburgers another night, fat back, smoked sausage and, if somebody had gone fishing, we’d have fish one night. My mother’s day off was Tuesday, so on that day each week, we could look forward to fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. And for many years, she would get up on Sunday morning early enough to put a pot roast and all the trimmings in the oven before we headed to church. And we’d fill in with lots of cabbage, collards, homegrown tomatoes and green beans plus a heavenly concoction my mother called “pot liquor” (cabbage water, tomatoes and vinegar, I think).
Then, when I was maybe 11 or 12, our church started having two services, one at 8 a.m. and another at 11 a.m. My mother was in the choir, which sang at both services. So one Sunday morning she got up, put on the roast and announced, “I’m not doing this any more. From now on we’re going out to eat on Sunday after church.”
And so began my love of eating out.
A large group from my church would go to the same restaurant every Sunday. I recall that at the time you could get a meat-and-three, rolls, tea and dessert for about $1.25. My favorites were breaded veal cutlet – the best I’ve ever eaten – or halibut, salmon or swordfish. And this restaurant made the best rice pudding I’ve ever eaten.
As I got older, a group of teens would go to Shoney’s after church in the evening for hot fudge cake or strawberry pie.
But an interesting quirk of the times was that “doggie bags” were definitely frowned upon. It was somehow an insult to the restaurant, not to mention a bit uncouth, to ask for one.
So as I was staring at those eight takeout boxes, I had to smile. My, how times have changed, and I have to ask why.
I suppose it’s a sign of the times. As our lives have gotten more complicated, as men have become as comfortable as women in the kitchen, we have changed our eating habits. Well, at least my household has changed.
When Tom and I were first married, I cooked and he cleaned up – especially during the years when we didn’t have a dishwasher. But we did eat at home a lot. Eating out was our weekend entertainment. Then, when he went to grad school, I was teaching school, and he had a late lab. As a result, I’d meet him at least a couple of times a week at a family-run restaurant across the street from NC State. It was often the only time we had to talk for a few minutes. And, amazingly, even then, this restaurant had a full menu of blue-plate specials that included a meat-and-three plus a drink for $1.25. We agreed even then that we couldn’t cook for that price.
So, perhaps that was my downfall, as well as the downfall of our entire generation. Eating out became a way of life.
When our kids came along, I went back to cooking most nights. But our “date nights” were often eating out. We loved the Goodale Inn, the Town Tavern, the Telfair Inn (eventually La Maison), the Green Jacket, Eejay’s and Calvert’s.
As my children grew, fast food became a way of life in America, as well. As my kids got older and involved in multiple activities – Scouts, soccer, dance, horseback, Social Dance, etc. – no one was on the same schedule, and the five of us were rarely all at home during supper time. Thank goodness for KFC Chicken Littles, which were their mainstay until they could get home to eat. (This was before Chick-fil-A was here – what are busy parents with busy children going to do for the next six weeks in North Augusta?)
And somewhere along the way, take-out became acceptable. Restaurants started providing containers that made it easy to take home leftovers. And I began ordering meals with an eye toward eating half and taking home half.
Through the years we have purchased food from Schwan’s – things that are frozen but are easily turned into a quick but tasty meal. More recently, my daughter Liz turned me on to a company named Freshly. Unlike other companies such as Blue Apron, which send you the ingredients for a good, healthy meal (but you still have to do the work), Freshly is more like high-end TV dinners. The meals are not frozen but come ready to microwave and eat – and they are definitely tasty, giving a busy household the opportunity for something better than fast food but easy to go from fridge to table.
So now that we’re back to two for dinner, Tom cooks a family meal on Sunday evening, when our two local kids and their families come, as well as my friend Susan. And he often cooks enough to provide all of us leftovers for a meal during the week. That, added to the leftovers I always have from a couple of lunches out and dinner out on Friday or Saturday, means we generally don’t cook during the week.
By Sunday dinner we have eliminated most of the eight takeout boxes, and the fridge has room for another batch.
I don’t think I’m an anomaly in this. I look back on my eating habits through the years and marvel at how little time I spend in the kitchen today. And I’m OK with that.
Now, if someone would just come up with good, recyclable containers. It’s embarrassing to have to toss eight styrofoam containers in the garbage each week.