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Cheating

OK, I'm probably going to be banned for life for asking this, or at least have to deal with an onslaught of comments about my complete lack of taste, but here goes...

Why is cheating (i.e. - using prepackaged mixes, or processed foods, or anything you didn't grow yourself on your own acre of land in Tuscany) so widely disparaged? Perhaps it's a lack of experience on my part...I'm an intermediate cook at best. There are some things I do really well (and from scratch, mind you), but there are some times when you're in a rush getting home from work, or you need to bring something to a party you forgot about, and cheating is the simplest answer. Now, I do try to cook from scratch and use organic ingredients whenever I can, but my husband and I both work full-time. We don't have time to be traipsing about from the farmer's market to the fishmonger to the butcher to put dinner on the table every night. Don't get me wrong, I love Chowhound, and I've learned a lot here, but at the same time, I'm getting sick of logging off and feeling like crap for having condensed soup in my pantry. What gets me is that there are threads on here where people secretly admit to loving spray cheese and spinach dip. Why does something simple automatically have to suck? Aren't we all here for the love of food? Does something have to have an unpronounceable ingredient and be cooked by a celebrity for people to be willing to discuss it? Am I wrong for wanting to stand up about proudly say that the secret ingredient in my creamy tomato soup is spicy V-8? Please, someone tell me I'm not crazy...or at least explain to me why I am.

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  1. I don't think you need to feel guilty; I think most Chowhounds are gonna support you 100%. I'd like to believe Chowhounds at their best only ever object to closed-mindedness, to willful ignorance...and at their worst (and I'm speaking for myself here of course!), at their own most closed-minded, at least remain aware that taste is the ultimate in subjectivity.

    The reason I stay away from, say, soup mixes etc. is I honestly don't like how they taste compared to "the real thing," whatever that means. That said, I'll take processed PB over the organic stuff any day. I'm not even trying to defend that inconsistency, and I assume here most people can relate to it. Also, I drink V8 all the time.

    Finally, I hardly think it's the case that unpronounceable ingredients and celebrity chefs are what most Chowhounds are all about. If anything, to the contrary. I mean, we're excited by discovery, so to that extent, bring on the stuff I've never heard of. But that's the opposite of snobbery.

    1. As far as I'm concerned if, at the end of the day, you produce something delicious, that's not a problem with me. That said, just because I do love to cook, and have the time (which I know many do not), my cheating is pretty much limited to buying stock and maybe some jarred peppers, etc., and bread (haven't gotten there yet).

      I don't think something "sucks" just because you've used a canned ingredient. My chosen dish for my birthday as a child, which I still love, is shrimp curry, and I know my mother used Cambell's cream of chicken as a base.

      I do find that, for example, making pancakes or even basic cakes from scratch is just as easy to do without a mix, as with one, and with better results.

      1. You'll feel redeemed - and laughing - after reading this post by a longtime CH poster. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5554...

        OK so I'm a bit behind times, but I've just finished reading a self-congratulatory article in the August 2008 issue of "Bon Appetit" magazine extolling the virtues of country life, farmers' markets and eating seasonally/locally/etc.
        " ......... I happily trek over hilly pastures to get to farmers who coddle tomatoes to perfection or pick basil in its infancy......." " .......how much better treasured recipes taste when the ingredients that go into them come straight from the garden that day....." and a lot more in the same vein. Granted fresh food tastes great and if it's grown around the corner or across that hilly pasture in Connecticut there really is a certain charm to making meals straight from the earth. I am the first to agree and voted with my feet when I had a very large garden and still shope at my FM when feasible.
        NEVERTHELESS, extolling lemon marinade, tuna and Moroccan couscous salad in the same article (where she didn't forget to mention the "carbon footprint" buzzword) seems to speak out of both sides of the author's mouth. Last time I looked, there were no lemon groves in CT, pretty daunting for that tuna to swim past that hilly pasture and it is a long walk to Morocco.

        You can only feel guilty if you agree to feel guilty. Take a stand, theferlyone, and keep doing what you do that makes you happy and well-fed. There have been many posts recently about shopping at Costco, guilty pleasures, as well as stocking pantry shelves with condensed soups! Read those and ignore the holier-than-thou posts.

        1. I like your post! There is nothing wrong in my opinion about "cheating". Everyone is on different levels with cooking and food here. Some people are real foodies, some are food snobs never eating at a chain restaurant, some are professional chefs- you get my point. We all probably come here for different reasons- I come here to get ideas from others, learn about new brands and yes I do learn alot about food.

          I definitely have evolved over time with food and the choices I make, god, I used to eat Ragu at one time and lots of frozen food, I just never tried to cook, jump ahead ten yrs later- now I am hooked on Rao's, won't buy factory farmed (grocery store) meat and try to make more food homemade (which is always trial and error, but that's how you learn). I've read and learned and tried alot over the years and have evolved on food issues. You just try to do the best you can.
          But yes, there are some days though where you just throw the frozen pizza in the oven and call it a night. In the end you're the one eating it and I am sure the chowhounds aren't losing sleep over it! You are not crazy!

          1. My personal guideline in eating and life is: Does it pass the "reasonableness" test? Sure, most of the posters are for good healthful food, a small carbon footprint, motherhood and apple pie. But sometimes you just have to step back and take a breath. Even asking about "cheating" implies that something you are doing is "shameful.' Is this reasonable? Of course not. Eating is necessary; and,for many of us, enjoyable, IF we are fortunate to have enough to eat. But "guilt" because you like canned soup or processed food?

            I certainly understand your feelings and a poster eating only locally and organically, etc,ad nauseum should not undermine your self worth. I do have to step away from the computer sometimes and take a break. A quick look at the latest from Sudan usually puts things into perspective. Each of us should strive for self-improvement but to paraphrase what the Poet says " (ones) reach should exceed (ones) grasp or what's a heaven for?"

            1. Nope - you're not crazy!

              I've got my share (and more - you should see my pantry) of jarred or canned soups, sauces and other goodies. I need them and use them. If they taste good and work well - that's what matters. We're having a red curry for dinner tonight using Trader Joe's Red Curry sauce, a rotisserie chicken I'm picking up at the grocery store along with 2 lovely little Chinese eggplants I did pick up at the farmers market on Saturday.

              I love Campbells tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a cold gray day. And spicy V-8 is da bomb.

              1. I think the quiddity of being a chowhound is enjoying and appreciating food for what it is, no matter how it's made.

                I like hot dogs -- ain't no way am I ever going to be making my own sausages.

                I like Pop Tarts -- ain't no way am I ever going to make those things from scratch.

                I like tomato soup -- but only from Campbells

                I like Twinkies -- the more flourescent yellow, the better.

                I like HFCS -- I would buy it in bulk if I could.

                I like MSG -- couldn't imagine life without it.

                Eat and let eat.

                2 Replies
                  1. You can start right now by not calling it "cheating". There are a ton of great people here, and I've been helped and encouraged by many. I've also been inflicted with a fair share of flaming darts of shame as well. Cooking and eating is a joy and journey, and you are the only one to decide if it's working for you or not.

                    There are days I'd like to grind my own grain that I grew. It probably ain't gonna happen. I do have a nice herb garden, but sometimes I use dried garlic! I love fine cheese, and still dig Velveeta. I have white plates, but I sometimes like my colored ones too.

                    Everybody wants to be the judge. But I think it's best if you decide what's best for you at whatever point your at. And hopefully you be blessed to have a few kind souls to encourage you on your way.

                    1. It's about balance. And time.

                      I shop predominantly from farmers markets and independant grocers. Hell, I run my own site extolling the virtues of SOLE, but ya know what?

                      There are just some nights when take-away pizza is called for. All I gots to do is make a phone call and the majikal pizza-pixies bring it riiiiight to my door.

                      And after some weeks at work (or at home) I can muster just enough energy to toast some white bread, nuke some leftover spag bog sauce and call it dinner.

                      You'd have to be a saint, or a lunatic to "only" eat SOLE, and yes, I have canned tomatoes, beans, and thai rice in my cupboard. I also have a can of "chilli" and some Asian sauces with a carbon foot-print the size of Uzbekistan.

                      But for me it's about robbing Peter to payPaul.

                      If your secret ingredient is V-8, then be loud and proud about it!

                      As much as I can make my own mayo any time I want, the secret ingredient in my potato salad is American mayonaise (Best Foods).. as the Australian palate (well, some sections of the community) grew up thinking vile sweet Praise may was "the real deal", the addition of this "secret" ingredient is what WOW's my punters!

                      So, here's how I justify it...

                      If I was having someone over for dinner who was as food-obssessed as me, I'd make the mayo, make the pizza dough, make the Bulgarian Larks Vomit Salad with Baby Alpaca Caul dressing.... but when it's pearls before swine, I'll go the Best Foods and V8 every time.

                      My dear ol' Mum, Mater Beige is having her 70th b/day at my place this weekend. Ya reckon I'll be making pizza dough for 122 people??

                      Nup... pre-bought, imported pide/turkish pita bread bases, canned Italian passata, and tommies/capsicums/onions from the local farmers markets. Cheese, ham and salami from local suppliers, and assorted antipasto thingies from an independent supermarket.

                      A fair balance that works for me and my budget.

                      1. I think it is clear that most of us "cheat" and happily at least some of the time. And as you point out, there are times when cheating is necessary to capture the elusive quality of a certain dish, such as your spicy V-8 trick. Or cream of mushroom soup in various casseroles.

                        There are a lot of people out there who don't know how to cook, or don't like to cook. If they can eat better by using a pre-made product, that's fine. If someone who needs to save time by using pre-made, that's also fine. Don't find anything wrong with it!

                        I would comment that as I cook more, and experiment more, I often find that fresh made-from-scratch food has a special quality that is (for me) worth the extra effort and time. It is also very satisfying to make a meal this way. My experience with many pre-made foods and sauces is that they can be very good, but are rarely better than something made from scratch by a skilled cook. Now of course there are exceptions to this rule. And of course, there are many cooks who don't have the skill to match the quality of pre-made packages. But when the stars are aligned, a meal made from scratch is a truly special thing.

                        1. No, you're not crazy. Sometimes it's a matter of time. Sure, homemade whatever is going to taste better than canned or jarred, but not if I'm too tired to enjoy it. Then it's just a chore (not to mention the drag that is known as the clean-up). Sometimes good enough is good enough. Like, I have no doubt that homemade chicken stock would add depth of flavor to, say, risotto, but I have neither the time nor the freezer space to make my own chicken stock. Or maybe it's better to say I choose to spend my time doing other things. Boxed stock will do just fine for me. I'll make my own stock when I'm retired :)

                          1. I talk to a lot of people about food and cooking. It's like I'm doing my own personal survey and I can't seem to stop. It's almost like I'm obsessed. He he. What I have learned so far is that there is a sliding scale. And there is no reason to feel ashamed for taking shortcuts. There are millions of people who likely don't post or read chowhound and Boy do they know shortcuts! Always remember that you are preaching to the choir when you post here. My favorite shortcut was told to me by a friend: It was three days before christmas, his mom who is retired and wealthy and not busy that night or not feeling sick or anything handed him a cup of yogurt and said here is your dinner. She had yogurt too. Now there is a lady who knows how to save time. She had yogurt too. She just doesn't like to eat out or cook much or spend much money on food So why should she? It's her choice. I guess it's all about perspective. To me, eating is one of the most life-affirming things we do. After a christening, wedding or funeral the first thing we do is have a shared meal. And I want my food to be extra yummy whenever possible. Chowing down is one of the things that makes me feel really alive. To each her own. But I'm awfully glad I'm a chowhound.

                            1. Sorry it took me so long to get back to this post, but I really wanted to say thank you for the outpouring of support. As I said in my OP, I'm an average cook at best, and I have enough self-doubt about my culinary skills without feeling like I'm not making real food just because I can't trace all my ingredients back to the source, and didn't have time to let them simmer for hours. And as a token of my appreciation, I'd like to share with you all my incredibly easy, incredibly delicious, creamy tomato soup recipe. Enjoy!

                              Prep/cook time: about 30 minutes
                              Serves 4

                              1/4 cup unsalted butter
                              1 tablespoon vidalia onion, chopped
                              1/4 cup all-purpose flour
                              3 cups Spicy V-8
                              1/2 teaspoon baking soda
                              1 cup milk
                              1 cup cream
                              1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
                              1/2 teaspoon celery salt
                              1/2 teaspoon black pepper

                              Melt butter over medium heat, then add onions. Saute gently until slightly softened and starting to turn translucent. Add flour and cook while stirring for about a minute until flour is "dissolved" in butter, then add V-8. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until beginning to boil. Add baking soda and stir until foam subsides. Add milk and cream, and heat through. Add garlic & celery salts and pepper. Do not allow to come to a boil after milk and cream have been added. Serve with grilled cheese sandwiches made with white bread and Kraft singles. Sit back, relax, and enjoy something simple and fabulous.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: theferlyone

                                Kraft singles is not food - it is manufactured from chemicals and powders. Using a real cheese, rather than a cheese product, would make no difference in the simplicity of your meal, but would improve the quality by just that much. Ditto squishy white factory bread.

                                Same thought applies to your soup. If you like this soup, then by all means, you should make it as often as you wish. But for just a little bit of adjustment to your time and effort (and you're already putting in a lot more than just popping open a can), you could make something a bit more complex and perhaps, satisfying. Use EVOO instead of butter - saute a whole mirapoix, not just onions, add real herbs and spices, starting with crushed garlic, some bay, thyme, pepper. Then add chicken stock (home made is best, but Swanson's if you must). A can of cannelloni beans, a can of san marzano tomatoes squished up, some escarole... If you had some rotis chicken or grilled italian sausages in the fridge/freezer, they could be added quickly.

                                But then, you'd have to come home with some decent bread. (or make some!)

                                1. re: applehome

                                  Ah, but squishy white bread and kraft singles make the best grilled cheese, the ultimate comfort food. Dense crusty bread and sharp cheddar makes a good grilled cheese too, but when I have tomato soup I want the gooey processed goodness and kraft and wonder bread. And that's the whole point of being a Chowhound, isn't it? If it tastes good, eat it. If not, don't.

                                  There's seems to be this attitude, by some but certainly not all, that "I will eat ABC because it is this best and I will not eat XYZ because it is not the best" and that's where the self consciousness about "cheating" comes from. For me it more like "I will eat anything at least once, because I don't know if it's the best yet." I don't consider it cheating to use stuff out of a box/can if you like the way it tastes, but it you don't like the way it tastes you're only cheating yourself. Heck, I routinely enter the corporate sponsored recipe contests at the state fair that require you to use a packet of ranch dressing mix of a cup of commercial barbecue sauce in the recipe. It's a lot of fun to think about a new uses for packaged ingredients. The prize money doesn't hurt either :)

                                  1. re: mpjmph

                                    The right attitude is about learning. If you learn about the whole world of incredible cheeses and breads and still insist on a kraft singles on wonder bread, then while I would say that you have incredibly bad taste, it's nevertheless a legitimate position - I like what I like. But learning usually affects taste. Once you use fresh herbs, spices and aromatics, for example, it's hard to go back to dry and powder, except for specific uses, like rubs. So there are real qualitative improvements that one learns about while traveling the food journey. Nostalgia and comfort food aside, it's always about learning more and different.

                                    1. re: applehome

                                      there can be room to enjoy both. Yesterday i ate a grilled cheese with tomato and american cheese on white bread, with a side of cole slaw from a diner near my office for lunch. It was delicious.

                                      Last week for dinner I made (homemade) cream of tomato soup and grilled cheese with fontina and basil on acme bread with truffle oil. It was also delicious.

                              2. I think everyone has to make their own peace with today's food world. But I also think some draw up better treaties than others. For me, I avoid a LOT of "convenience" foods because A: they taste like crap; B: they take too long, or C: they have a lot of junk in them I'm allergic to.

                                I've related the story on these boards before about picking up a box of Betty Crocker Instant Potatoes Au Gratin on my way home from work thinking they'd make a quick but interesting meal with pork chops and buttered zucchinni for dinner. Should have read the directions before buying! "Soak dehydrated potatoes for 45 minutes." Where the hell did the "instant" come in? They went in the trash and I made potatoes au gratin from scratch in 40 minute's time, peeling to plating. Absolutely no "convenience" with that fiasco.

                                There are a lot of "convenience" food items I just don't like the taste of. First to mind is "stuffing mix." Once upon a time you could buy unflavored dried bread cubes for stuffing. Today all you can get are preseasoned and I don't like the seasoning! I've tried those aluminium bread pans that are packaged with light and dark meat turkey with a gravy packet. Disgusting! Tastes like turkey that died of natural causes. The latest fiasco was the "Italian" frozen dinner-in-a-bag that Rocco what's-his-name pimped on Top Chef (or was it TNFNS?) that ended up feeding the garbage disposal. It was the epitome of what I hate about "Italian" food today. A ton of basil and that's all you can taste. So the market place and manufacturers have trained me to avoid most convenience foods.

                                But there are some I like. Lately I seem to be drinking an awful lot of Campbell's "Soup at Hand" creamy tomato! And I'm lazy. I can't remember the last time I made refried beans from scratch, as in boiling my own beans and going from there. I consider one of the world's great convenience foods to be tomato sauce. Oh, and tomato paste too! And lately I've taken a shine to Eggbeaters. Half the calories, no fat, no cholesterol, and they made a damned good cheese omlette and not too shabby for French toast either! But they're difficult to serve soft boiled in the shell, or sunny side up, so they're in the fridge right next to the organic eggs.

                                I tried those little square boxes of cous cous. Once. They weren't any quicker and just didn't deliver the satisfaction of buying bulk cous cous and steaming and flavoring it myself. Same thing with tabouli. I don't think I've ever tasted RiceARoni in my entire lifetime! But I do love a jar of really good pasta sauce to make quick and easy instant pizza with pita bread or an English muffin. But don't try putting it on any of my pasta! I think we are all the end result of how life and chance have molded us. I just like to cook from scratch.

                                Oh. And I'm not 100% convinced that some of the chemical additives in today's convenience foods are that good for us. After all, none of those have been eaten by man for millennia.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  I really can't comment on canned soups or processed cheese, but how on earth can somebody dis V8?? It absolutely makes the best Bloody Marys!

                                  1. re: Whosyerkitty

                                    I agree. It also makes a great chicken veggie soup. Toss a thigh, a variety of raw veggies of your choice, a bit of macaronni, and some V-8 in a covered casserole and nuke for fifteen minutes or so at 70% power. Good eats! '-)

                                2. I think that generally, there's a difference between anyone who reads and posts here, or who is somewhat of a hound even if they don't know about our site, and those who rely 95-99% on the processed junk available in grocery stores and restaurants.

                                  There are people who are pretty extreme, most of them are chefs or food writers, who seem to insist there is absolutely no room or excuse for not making everything from scratch, every time, and I think that's the opposite extreme of the first example. Extremism in any form is not something I like dealing with.

                                  I think we all have our shortcuts or processed favorites we have held on to, but overall most of the time we strive to eat and put on the table whole and good foods. I prefer to think of this middle lane as "Doing the best we can to make the best choices we can, every day." some days those choices are pop tarts, but it's not every day. Some days those choices are homemade spaghetti sauce, but it's not every day. KWIM?

                                  1. Jfood missed this one, and Scuzzo took his line...please stop calling it cheating.

                                    There are foods that jfood likes that others frown upon, Ipse had a great list above which sounded like the buffet from heaven (w/o the MSG thank you very much) and jfood can not stomach many things that other posters say they use. C'est la vie.

                                    Some items just bring back bad memories for jfood (string bean/cream of mushroom soup/fried onions in a can casserole for example) and others he just does not like, non-all beef hot dogs. Others do not like My-T-Fine chocolate pudding but jfood could spend an hour eating 5 boxes.

                                    Jfood has served 40-50 people his "famous" skirt steak made with Wasabiyaki marinade. He laughs every time people ask for the recipe and he now keeps extra bottles in the basement and just hands them out when asked. Others will think that is cheating personified. Too bad, it is really freakin' good.

                                    So don't let some of the CH clowns get to you and ignore them (now if jfood can only take his own advice - right Mods). Cook and eat what you like, share what you think others might enjoy and move on.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: jfood

                                      jfood- i totally agree on the Wasabiyaki marinade- it is nthe ONLY marinade I do not make from scratch..people RAVE about it!

                                      1. re: missmar79

                                        well well, welcome back to the boards.

                                        always glad when a good reviewer returns.

                                      2. re: jfood

                                        Tonights menu, my "famous" pork tenderloin kabobs with Wasabiyaki marinade, have been a Soy Vay fan for many years.

                                      3. Chowhound is the place to be out and proud!

                                        1. I'm a big time cheat and I never cheat, and I'm proud of it! Here's some of me:

                                          1. I've done ribs for 200+ several times: seared in pots and then braised in the same - much to the disgust and loathing of several hounds.

                                          2. Here at home I never use processed foods, never go out to fast food, and rarely go out - but this is because I love to cook AND because there is little to no fast and processed food here. You all would (be forced) do the same.

                                          3. As you've heard me say, however, I'll eat and enjoy two Big Macs or two Whoppers on airport stopovers.

                                          4. I love gas station corn dogs and the like on US overnights.

                                          5. I stay in the US in a suite hotel and eat things like Cef-Boy-R-Dee ravioli and love it.

                                          6. But I make my croquettes just like Paul Bocuse (and French sauces) but allow that jfood's croquettes are indeed croquetes.

                                          7. With over 1.5 million frequent flyer miles, I can say that I like and enjoy airline food.

                                          8. I use the microwave, plastic wrap, drink way too much, have had many wives, have lost a few, have won a few, live by choice where there are few trans-fats and trans-farts, few morbidly obese, and no HFCS, and havet o pay way more for groceries and gas than all of you in the US.,

                                          9. I'd use Campbell's now and then (especially for five minute creamed spinach) if a can didn't cost $5.00 here; and I will pass off steamed smoked capybara as Virginia smoked ham anytime I can.

                                          There is no cheating. Living well is its own revenge!

                                          11 Replies
                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              OT, but since I provided the Julia quote - I'd love to see Bocuse's quote for a croquette recipe and definition.

                                              But this is a silly argument, overall, because we all know shortcuts that work or are good enough for a given situation, and we all know dishes that require a real effort and the absolute right ingredients. There's no way any one of us could argue that the best sushi can be made with canned tuna, nor that it's impossible to find dishes that can be made well using a can of soup.

                                              Nevertheless - as a chowhound, you shouldn't stop at a quick and simple recipe. Try the real version (where practical) and decide whether it's worth the effort. Make up your own mind as to the effort and money you want to put in to each dish you make.

                                              1. re: applehome

                                                I think I have trouble with the idea of a "real" recipe and the implication that it's somehow what we should strive for, and that something that is "quick and simple" isn't.

                                                I grew-up on Mom's tuna macaroni hot dish - the "real" recipe involves two can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, two cans of tuna, some cooked macaroni, and Lay's potato chips crumbled over the top. It's perfect.

                                                I've also had "adult" tuna macaroni hot dish that involved a from-scratch white sauce with fresh mushrooms, some imported canned tuna, a homemade pasta - and (what I recall) toasted fresh bread crumbs on top.

                                                The first is what I crave. The second was edible.

                                                I can and do cook from scratch. And at other times it's boxes and cans and jars and frozen things - for me, it's what tastes good, plain and simple.

                                                1. re: ElsieDee

                                                  Since I find Campbell's cream of mushroom to be simply horrible, I cannot imagine that this dish or the ubiquitous green bean casserole could be anybody's comfort food. But I know that it is. I guess I should interpret this entire genre of making food by throwing packages together (The Sandra Lee school of cooking) to be a genuine cultural phenomenon, no less valid than an ethnic or geographical one.

                                                  But if there is an element of validity or relative scale of admittedly subjective goodness that applies, it might be that the packaged goods are further removed from nature. The ethnic cultures that eat offal and raw fish may seem strange to those that eat green bean casserole, but it has to be said that they don't require the abstraction of a factory food process, and that the natural foods represent millennia of food preparation and eating.

                                                  I agree that not every dish will be better made with more natural and less factory made ingredients. But in the case of those that are known to be better (generally accepted), it would be a shame to not ever try the more complex and better versions. If all you know is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese - regardless of how much of a comfort food it is to you, you should eat a gourmet version made with lobster at a fancy restaurant, and you should make your own baked version, perhaps with pancetta, bechamel and gruyere. You may go back to having the box version most often, but it would be an unexplored life indeed, to not have experienced anything else.

                                                  1. re: applehome

                                                    I do agree that it's a shame for someone not to explore different versions of foods - after all, a large part of my 'Houndness is the desire to find new tastes and textures and ideas and experiences - and that quest is something that I like to share with those in my life.

                                                    But, at the same time, I have a strong appreciation for the "tuna hotdish" foods - they are tasty and warm and salty and filling and, at least to me, speak of love and life and home.

                                                    I don't know that one is necessarily "better" than the other - healthier? Probably. Better for the environment? Yep. More or less tasty / pleasing? Depends on the circumstances, the tastebuds, and intangible factors.

                                                    I'm all for healthy eating - less packaged foods, more locally-grown products, etc. But so much of eating, for me, is about pleasure - and what I find pleasurable to consume might well be Kraft Mac and Cheese (made with extra milk, and then chilled and eaten cold, straight from the pan) one night - and a week later it might well be stir-fried veggies from my garden with steamed brown rice, followed by fresh peaches.

                                                    I object to the use of the word "should" - I would encourage someone to explore different food avenues, but I hope I'd never tell (nor imply to) them that they "should" do something. It's their life - they can live it as they like and be as adventurous as they choose; I can offer ideas and suggestions and opportunities, but it's up to the individual to do what they desire and I'm not here to judge them.

                                                    Back to the mac and cheese for a minute - I've actually discovered that I don't care for much that is called real "mac and cheese" - it's too cheesy, the noodles are frequently mushy, and I don't like the flavors. Kraft Mac and Cheese is bland, warm, salty, comforting - "real" mac and cheese is too darn stimulating and challenging.

                                                    It's like Taco Bell vs. a local taco truck: both have pleasing offerings, and some I crave more than others. But I see them as offering completely different foods that happen to share the same names - both venues have a place in my world and I like the fact they they both exist.

                                                    Likewise, homemade honey oat bread and store-purchased honey oat bread are two things sharing a name but offering very different experiences - I like both and both are in my life.

                                                    (I'm sorry if any of the above comes across as being snarky - that is far from my intent, but am tired tonight and concerned that I haven't phrased things as well as I could.)

                                                    1. re: ElsieDee

                                                      I think you phrased them very well indeed, and agree completely.

                                                      1. re: ElsieDee

                                                        ElsieDee, you took the words right out of my mouth, with much less snark than I would be apt to use :)

                                                        As a side note, I'm also a blue box mac and cheese chiller - the texture is so much better when the sauce thickens!

                                                        1. re: mpjmph

                                                          I can't say I like it cold, but I do like it a little bit cooled down when it's less runny. When I lived abroad, I was so excited when I could find the blue box in the foreign foods stores (none of which were in my city). I have no shame about liking the blue box.

                                                        2. re: ElsieDee

                                                          "Back to the mac and cheese for a minute - I've actually discovered that I don't care for much that is called real "mac and cheese" - it's too cheesy, the noodles are frequently mushy, and I don't like the flavors."

                                                          I understand that this kind of like and dislike is anything but objective - it is based entirely on past memories, mainly childhood experiences. Yet, you have to admit that mushy pasta and cheesy sauce is nothing more than bad cooking, and that you could overcook Kraft Mac'n Cheese just as well. In fact, given the thin-shell pasta they use in those boxes, it is more likely to be overcooked. A well made scratch version may yet impress you, (there's hope!).

                                                          This business of comfort food and childhood memories only goes so far - or it *should* only go so far. We're adults - we need to be looking forward to bigger and better experiences in our lives. Do you still enjoy the wonderful blandness of Gerber mashed and screened carrots out of a little jar?

                                                          I also draw a distinction between what the OP asked and was talking about - cheating and shortcuts, which are done with the understanding that there is or may be a better scratch version, but due to circumstances shortcuts become acceptable, versus the position you seem to be taking, that the prepackaged factory version of something is actually the best in the world of that dish. The first is logical and acceptable, the second is just religion. Believe what you want, there's no arguing with that kind of faith, no dialectic, no debate... nothing we can learn from, other than that you are a person of faith (in Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup and Kraft Mac'n Cheese!).

                                                          BTW, I have nothing against canning or packaging per se - the Tapas bars in Barcelona that serve $100+ canned fish proves that virtually any technique can be utilized for extending our world of deliciousness. Every time I open a ball jar of my mother-in-law's pickled okra, I virtually cry knowing that it's the last batch that she sent us, (and I don't know if I'm as sad from the memories of her or from thinking about there being no more delicious okra). But I do have a problem with lowest common denominator preparation and packaging. Lowest cost, highest sales... not exactly a formula for us at Chowhound to be celebrating. Just like with chains, Taco Bell, McD, or whatever - there is nothing new here - no new deliciousness to open up our minds to. Move on. There's nothing to see here.

                                                          Let the people who pray at those temples do as they please - it's a free country. But proselytizing on Chowhound for Taco Bell? Puhleese...

                                                          1. re: applehome

                                                            I carefully guarded, savored, and finally finished the last (Ball) jar of ume boshi that "Aunty" Kiyo made a good five years after she passed away.

                                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                              Ditto for the bottle I took out of my mother's fridge after she passed. It seemed to last forever, but I've finally had to go buy some more. I'm also out of the special sencha she had her sisters send to her and kept in the freezer - but there seems to be some good teas available here now.

                                                2. When people tell me they "cooked" and everything is heated up from a box, or a mix, or they used pre-cut onions, etc - it doesn't mean I automatically think the food they made "sucks" - it's just not how I like to cook. When I say something instant or ready-made or from Sysco 'sucks' it's for the simple reason that based on my experience, I do not like the taste of it. I admit to short cuts. I freely admit to 'doctoring' things up such as cake mix, or (gasp) jarred pasta sauce. It's still cooking, but we enjoy it even if it could be considered as 'cheating'. I clip coupons, comparison shop, and strive to buy the freshest, highest quality ingredients that we can afford. We eat out now less and less. It's just faster, cheaper and BETTER when I cook instead of going out to a chain or getting take out, etc.
                                                  That said, we still love a quickie diner-type meal. We still sneak over to a 'grease truck' to check out what they've got. When we can, we will still jump in the car and drive a few hours for great sushi, or even further just to get a gelati from Rita's. If I pay $50.00 for a steak, it better be a DAMN good steak and not the perception of a good steak just because Chef X 's name is on the place.
                                                  My foodism is this: Enjoy your life, make the most of what you have and always, always share it with people you care about. And don't eat frozen, precooked shrimp from Wallamazoo. <----just kidding.

                                                  1. I don't have a problem with liking 'trashy' foods but what does get my goat is pre-made cake mix, pancake mix and any other mix that 'saves' time. I guess I'm of the opinion that it is fairly easy to keep flour, sugar and salt in the cupboard and milk, butter, parmesan and eggs in the fridge. If you always have these things then its never much of a stretch to make cakes, pancakes, sauces, gravies etc.

                                                    I think this becomes more important when you have children as cooking with them when their at a formative age helps develop a healthy attitude to food and food preparation when they're older. However, if all you're teaching them is that when you want to bake a cake you purchase a box with all the ingredients in it then just add water then it strikes me that it would be encouraging short cuts and highly processed options as a necessary part of cooking.

                                                    11 Replies
                                                    1. re: irisav

                                                      But read the information in the Cake Mix Doctor books that explains why so many people - cooks and cake-eaters - often find cake-mix based cakes superior to from-scratch. There are technical reasons, not merely convenience.

                                                      A good friend of mine is a superlative cake baker. But her cake-mix based cakes are almost always the crowd favorites - and she conceded that they often have superior texture and succulence.

                                                      Let's face it - the standard American butter cake may be beloved as an idea, but less so as an eating experience compared to alternatives.

                                                      1. re: Karl S

                                                        I'm not convinced cake mixes are superior to scratch cakes. but they certainly do free up time! It also depends greatly on what you intend to do with the final cake. Are you going to just slap on some frosting and serve it, or are you going to decorate it like there's no tomorrow and force those oohs and ahhs out of all those who see and/or eat it? People truly do eat with their eyes first, so unless you're baking a cake for the Braille Society, mixes free up a lot of time and mess so you can decorate. At least this is the street where I live!

                                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                                          Actually, what I witnessed with my friend's cakes (and she was the one who pointed this out to me) was that the unfrosted/uniced doctored-mix cakes were more popular than the plain butter cakes, because plain butter cakes are so dry without frosting/filling/icing (even if they have somewhat superior flavor). So her rule of thumb was it was better to doctor the mix for plain cakes.

                                                          I realize this is counterintuitive, because many bakers assume mix cakes can only serve as a vehicle for frosting, but there you have it.

                                                          1. re: Karl S

                                                            Box or scratch, I always douse my layers with booze (liqueurs) before filling and icing, so for me that part doesn't make a difference. Mothers are always amazed how well their kids nap after cake at my house... '-)

                                                            (Joke! Don't yell at me.)

                                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                                              Ah, yes, that's the way the American butter cake indeed found a home. Unfortunately for it, boozy cakes no longer the fashion they once were (a lot people either don't touch alcohol or are mighty picky about their preferences).

                                                        2. re: Karl S

                                                          I'm yet to experience a cake made from pre-mix that is exceptional (granted I don't eat a lot of cake). Mostly I find them dry, airy and a bit on the bland side.

                                                          1. re: irisav

                                                            Ghirardelli triple chocolate brownies. :-)))))

                                                            1. re: jfood

                                                              I made these last week and by the end of the night had eaten half of the pan. I am hard pressed to remember a from scratch brownie that can beat these!They need to make these less perfect.........so that maybe I can resist eaten them all.

                                                            2. re: irisav

                                                              Well, I would say the Cake Mix Doctor-type cakes are often superior to the scratch butter cakes. The super-moist cake mixes are the ones those cakes typically use, and they represent an advance over the old airy, dry cake mix (and over from-scratch). They still need some doctoring, but the emulsifier/leaven ratios are carefully calibrated to defeat common baker errors made in from scratch cakes.

                                                          2. re: irisav

                                                            Flour, sugar and salt, yes. I have to keep the flour in the fridge to keep it from getting damp and mildewy, but I can keep it. I don't ever keep milk in the house. I'm single, I don't drink it (I think it tastes nasty), and when called for in recipes I either have to go buy some or mix from powder. I try not to keep butter in the house because if its there it ends up on crackers, toast, vegetables, anyplace I really don't need the extra calories. Eggs, same as milk, I don't like the taste, and I don't keep them in the house. The most important thing that you conveniently left out is leavening. I bake cakes maybe twice a year, make pancakes maybe once a month. Baking powder has a very short shelf life. If I am baking something that needs leavening I have to go and buy a new container every time. What a ridiculous waste of money.

                                                            1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                              Well I did suggest it was a short stretch from these ingredients to baking a cake - a stretch you would presumably have to make anyway if going down to the shops to purchase pre-made cake mix. I guess I'm just lazy, and a poor baker, because I've been using the same baking powder for two years.

                                                          3. I might still buy a box of Rice a Roni, just because I have fond memories of it and SO has never eaten it! I'll buy a few soups for when I am sick, snowed in or mad at SO. Let her eat Cambells!
                                                            I don't want to make my own sausage but I do sometimes grind my own steak for rare burgers or grind pork for Thai or Italian dishes.
                                                            I made a bunch of tomato sauce from my tomatoes, but I still buy Marzanos and chunky tomatoes and paste. Who makes their own paste?
                                                            I occasionally make pasta but that's probably 1% of the time.
                                                            I usually make my own chicken stock and feel guilty when I get out the jar of concentrate, but it sure is simple...
                                                            Lately I've gotten lazy and have bought canned beans rather than making them from dried or fresh. Still, I won't buy refried beans in a can! I buy canned straw mushrooms, jars of artichoke hearts and many pickled ingredients. I suppose I could manage a meal from cans if I had to.

                                                            I thought this topic funny, since I had just had a long conversation with a nephew, who is about thirty, and an excellent cook. He talked about how he was "exploring cooking" from the thirties and forties. Said he was opening a lot of cans, making very simple dishes and influenced by Kenny Shopsin. Made me feel really uptight and unadventurous.

                                                            I'd say, do what you want with the realization that pre-packaged and canned foods are compromised in quality, texture and taste. Often they are salt-ladened and fuzzy-flavored. Sometimes you can get away with using them or sometimes you may need them for a "plan B". I actually have sardines and a can of corned beef hash "for emergencies".
                                                            Tonight I had a great meal fixed, with chicken and risotto, but I felt like it was lacking in balance and I didn't want to expend the energy to fix a salad. Not with SO not feeling well (she didn't appreciate the meal and hardly ate), so I opened a can of green beans and added fresh onion. Shoot me!

                                                            6 Replies
                                                            1. re: Scargod

                                                              Great post scargod! Yeah my theory is that being a perfectionist can take a lot of joy out of life. But if I ever undergo brain surgery I want the gal operating on me to be a perfectionist!

                                                              1. re: Scargod

                                                                I bought a can of green beans because I thought that *MAYBE* it was the secret to the incredibly delicious green beans that you can get at local BBQ places here in Florida. They make happy beans that are ultra tender (probably from salt) and they add ham and spices- they are just so good if given a choice of 2 sides I will always get double green beans and just eat them instead of the main meal. I still have that can because I realized I got the french cut and that is not the same texture I am looking for...
                                                                And I just heard about hoppin' john and after my last black eye pea fiasco, I am going to attempt canned.

                                                                1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                                                  Ya know, those green beans.... after having them out of the garden most of the summer... SO would not touch them. Del Monte, I think; they were really pitiful tasting.

                                                                  1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                                                    My grandma from rural KY used a pressure cooker to get those results.

                                                                    1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                                                      I actually love canned french cut green beans. They don't taste anything like green beans from the garden, but they have their own unique appeal. I just heat them and douse with lots of fresh cracked black pepper - ummmm.

                                                                    2. re: Scargod

                                                                      Actually my grandma made her own tomato paste, quite an amazing process from what it sounded like. Alot of older ladies did/still do back home.

                                                                      Just an interesting fact :)

                                                                    3. I put V-8 in my "Summer Soup" the other day--as in some of this and some more of that. I think most kitchens in this country couldn't get along without some frozen ingredients, especially given what is available to us otherwise in the markets. I love garden fresh greens and freshly caught wild fish and chickens that had a real life. But I don't always have a choice. Still, I read labels on cans and jars and avoid processed foods that have msg and corn syrup and some other additives. And I use fair trade stuff when I can get it. I think we should all cook mindfully and eat mindfully but not feel guilty because we don't measure up to someone else's idea of perfection. There are a lot of other things in life to be concerned about as well.

                                                                      1. Ghiradelli brownie mix. Try to beat it.

                                                                        1. I totally get what you are saying. After reading all the responses, I see there are still a select few who believe that homemade means a greater/better appreciation of food. I definately like to make homemade, but with two busy children, with varied palates, it is not always possible. Sometimes after school, soccer, homework, playtime and art class, it is easiest to fix up a can of chef boy-ar-dee (they love it, but do not consider it italian.) Don't tell me that heating up my homemade sauce in the freezer, and cooking up a plate of pasta is easier. The can stuff has a pull top can, one bowl, and one minute in the microwave, the home cooked, much more involved. Now, they do not eat like this every day, but there are some days, especially when daddy works late, that this is an easy quick dinner. A special meal that comes at a very cheap price. (try to do that with an adult, tell them they can have a special dinner made, I guarantee you will not have them choose something so cheap and easy)
                                                                          People with an attitude toward convience food strike me as the judgemental people who stand arround sipping the current in drink, looking bored, and discussing social ramifications of a fallen cultural society. I would rather hang with the folks that throw on the music and dance crazy just because they want to. Who aren't afraid to shake it in the grocery store, without fear of looking silly, just because they feel like it.

                                                                          1. i totally use premade curry pastes all the time. it's a jumping off point for many dishes that you can take in different directions depending on what other ingredients you use. some processed foods are so ubiquitous and cheap that people don't even consider making them themselves-- examples would be salad dressing & ketchup. when you go to the trouble of making these staples yourself, you suddenly realize that commercial bottled dressings use really low-quality oils and other ingredients, and mask the taste with a bunch of salt and HCFS-- telling you that their product is lower fat as a result. same for tomato ketchup, a much-maligned sauce. it's easy to make your own ketchup (even easier if you "cheat" and use prepared canned tomato puree) and you can get an interesting flavor profile. when you make your own ketchup you realize how sweet the commercial stuff is, and how all prepared tomato sauces, etc, are skewing toward a commercial ketchup flavor to some degree. i'm not saying i'd never ever buy ketchup in the store again-- i might be in a hurry on my way to a cookout someday-- but i learned a lot from making my own version of this simple sauce. i do think i can safely say i will never purchase commercial salad dressing again, at least for my own use.

                                                                            having a few convenience products on hand can be really great in a pinch-- but sometimes they aren't truly timesaving, once you have the scratch skills of mixing your own pancake mix, hollandaise sauce, or veg prep abilities. it's good to experiment and make some items from scratch so that you can make a good decision about what you'll make from scratch and what you'll purchase-- after all, most food is prepared and packaged for convenience at some point, few of us are churning our own butter or grinding our own flour. heck, few of us are actually washing dirt off of our produce anymore.

                                                                            op-- you are not in any way a bad person for using v-8 in your tomato soup, don't be silly. if it is delicious, that's all the justification you need.

                                                                            1. You are being disingenuous. There's a whale of a difference between using prepackaged mixes and something you grew "on your own acre of land in Tuscany." I spend 30 minutes shopping at my farmers' market, and fill that in with about 15 minutes per week at the local supermarket. If you want to use a highly-processed product with an over-the-top sodium content such as V-8, be my guest. But don't pretend that you're serving healthy, sustainable food. You're not.

                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                                                Disingenuous? Wow. That's exactly the attitude I was hoping to avoid when I posted this. So, I suppose from your sanctimonious viewpoint, I'm slowly killing myself and the local economy by buying V-8, right? Thank you so much for illustrating my point so clearly.

                                                                                1. re: theferlyone

                                                                                  Actually, it isn't just pika's opinion. Read Michael Pollan's latest suggestions to change our very definition of what food is, and change our entire farming infrastructure (in fact, he says it's an imperative). Here's Ruhlman's synopsis and commentary - it's more succinct than Pollan's article in the NYT, but there is a link to that article in this one:

                                                                                  http://blog.ruhlman.com/ruhlmancom/20...

                                                                                  Amongst his suggestions are

                                                                                  —Create a Federal definition of food, to encourage people to think about what is food and what is not, stuff we consume that has no caloric value (“junk food” should not be considered food).

                                                                                  —Food stamp debit cards should double in value when swiped at a framers’ market; give farmers’ market vouchers to low-income women and children (why does he exclude men, I wonder; a different subject perhaps).

                                                                                  —Make changes in our daily lives: teach children how to cook; plant gardens in every primary school and equip them with kitchens; pay for culinary tuitions (or forgive loans) by requiring culinary graduates to give some service back to such undertakings such as teaching kids how to cook; increase school lunch spending by $1 a day; grow more of our own food and prepare and eat our food together at a table; accept the fact that food may be more expensive and eat less of it.

                                                                                  —Make our food production system as transparent as possible: have a second calorie listing how many fossil fuel calories went into its production so that consumers could discourage production of fuel expensive food by not buying it.

                                                                                  You know my opinion - if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

                                                                              2. Ferly, stop feeling bad about your "cheating". At least you cook from scratch and try to buy organic. You are more part of the solution than the problem, IMO. We can't all be like Mr. Pollan or Mr. Applehome, able to shop at The Berkeley Bowl, worried about the carbon footprint of every single thing we purchase to consume. Who has the time for that? I'm unemployed and I don't have the time (or patience...or means) to spend fretting about how what I choose to eat will affect every other living organism on the PLANET EARTH!
                                                                                (I can hear the Pollans and Apples of the world collectively groaning and rolling their eyes heavenward..."As a citizen of this Planet, it is your responsibility, nay, your DUTY to MAKE the time to shop as if everyone's live's depended on it, because yadda, yadda etc."
                                                                                I, like you, try to buy organic when I can, shop at my local farmers once a week, and do almost all my cooking from scratch (Albeit, with a little "cheating", too...)You are not the crazy one. You're just not a complete zealot or uber-food-nazi. Vive la difference!

                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                1. re: adamshoe

                                                                                  I've been unemployed for 2 years. My savings are gone. I don't shop at Whole Foods. We eat no fish, no meat over $3.00/lb (a few exceptions). I buy beef shanks (shin bones), oxtails, gizzards and chicken feet at the Vietnamese supermarket. Seven-bone chuck roasts and fowls at the supermarket. Whole pork loins, outside rounds, pork butts at BJ's. What I don't buy is boxes of stuff like Mac'NCheese, Hamburger Helper, cans of Chefboyrdee, etcetc... I do buy cans of tomatoes - no longer the San Marzanos, but US romas, boxes of Prince pasta, etc. It's back to the supermarket for veggies - the farmer markets and trucks with bags of corn are gone for the year. It's surprising what you can do with the basics - onions, carrots, garlic, celery and some spices.

                                                                                  So we all draw lines in the sand somewhere. Global warming is a big issue, too, but I can't afford a hybrid or to install solar panels on the house (which I won't have for much longer).

                                                                                  What I do is to make a lot of stocks - out of which come delicious noodle soups, matzohball soups, borschts. Then I do a lot of braising with cheap meats - pot roasts, pibils, briskets etcetc. Japanese dishes with lots of rice, cheap meat kare's.

                                                                                  It's not just because I have the time that I don't use Kraft Mac'NCheese - I never did. I think that my kids and I deserve better food than that.

                                                                                  I was just watching an Iron Chef America of Cat Cora v Art Smith - some southern cuisine. She made something that was based on her memory of growing up with grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato, and it brought to mind the conversation I had with Elsiedee above. The idea of this level of comfort food is to bring those memories back, but provide a dish that goes well beyond the simplicity of the original. Ditto the ratatouille in Ratatouille - the confit byaldi from Keller is an incredible version of plain old, throw it together ratatouille. I know, I've made it a few times now, and the piperade makes the dish something special - along with the thinly sliced, laminated preparation.

                                                                                  Why are you here?

                                                                                  Why do you want to be on a food site?

                                                                                  Are you convinced that telling each other that Kraft Mac'NCheese is a perfectly acceptable form of food and great for your kids is what you really want to be doing?

                                                                                  If I'm the crazy one, I'm the crazy one - I'll be moving on sooner or later, as this trend continues. But if i go. I'll be hurting myself more than anyone else because I'll miss the great information available here. The number of people that know so much more than I do about all kinds of food that are willing to share their knowledge with me is just incredible.

                                                                                  MMRuth says that I missed the point of this thread altogether - it's cheating - hence it's about the occasional opening up a box of something. But that's not what you and others are saying at all. You're saying that one should be perfectly happy with this level of food. If that's true, why do you need to be on a site that's about learning about food? What are you learning? What are you teaching your kids?

                                                                                  1. re: applehome

                                                                                    I don't see anyone advocating the wonderful-ness of the Blue Box over the real thing. Of course The Silver Palate's mac n' cheese (w/ penne, gruyere and one other scrummy cheese that I'm forgetting) kicks Kraft's ass any day, but sometimes, if you're home from school with a fever, Kraft hit's that sweet spot. By no means do I think it's "cheating" to use canned tomatoes in my otherwise completely from scratch marinara sauce (oops...except for the tinned anchovy fillets) or to throw a couple of handfuls of frozen peas into my otherwise made from scratch beef stew. Or to occasionally use "Better than Bouillon" in a recipe where only a small amount of broth is called for and I'd rather not use my precious home-made stock.
                                                                                    To answer the "why am I here?" question...gee, mankind has pondered that since time immemorial. Oh, why am I HERE? On chow? I dunno, for intelligent discourse, to hear about great new restaurants-taquerias-hashhouses, to get opinions about cookware and appliances, to share and try other CH'ers recipes and tips, to get tips on how to tip even. No one's saying you're crazy; jeez, if you can cook like that with such a limited food budget, then "God luv ya" (said with a Palin accent; insert wink here...). I just feel like there's room for the incidental lapse of sanity and once in awhile eating something trashy just for the fun of it. Or, using spicy V-8 in your soup if that's what floats your boat. (Maybe they're using the low sodium version....the real deal is a salt-bomb!!) Just my two cents. (now officially worth .005 of a cent as of the recent financial mess....) Adam