In 1949, on the topic of bachelor gastronomy (food guys cook to impress girls), M.F.K. Fisher wrote that “more often than not it will be some kind of chicken, elaborately disguised with everything from Australian pine-nuts to herbs grown by the the landlady’s daughter.” In 2007, I planned to make a birthday dinner for my girlfriend of one month. But I only had access to a college dining hall and a Safeway, so I prepared chicken encrusted with Corn Flakes. I’m still making it for her years later, proving that covering chicken with something will get a guy at least a few points.
I thought my chances would be improved by the homey, nostalgic connotations of the dish. With little kitchen skill but lofty romantic aspirations, I asked my mother for a recipe that would seem kind of fancy yet not snobby, and simple enough that I couldn’t screw it up. A bag of slivered almonds exploded across the kitchen as I assembled the side salad, and the homemade strawberry pie burned on top and didn’t cook through the center, but the chicken survived and was delicious.
This April I made the chicken for the fourth time, and besides the pleasure of finally executing the event with skill and confidence, it was satisfying to make a meal for the sake of tradition. Since that inaugural chicken dinner, I’ve lived in two states, three countries, four houses, graduated from college, and started living in a new city. “Home” is a mobile concept these days, so to have an annual dinner that all began with a modern passing down of a family recipe (instructions given over cell phone, scribbled on printer paper) is a rare thing.
So imagine my dismay at the end of this year’s meal when, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, I noticed a familiar dish on the back of the Corn Flakes box: Double-Coated Chicken with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes®. All across the country dinner was being served, and my “special” meal was the main course.
For the sake of enjoying the dinner, I had set aside my usual concerns about nutrition. We all deserve our chicken drizzled with copious amounts of butter once in a while. But I was not ready to concede that a personally meaningful meal was tied in with a Kellogg’s serving suggestion. Knowing the proven romantic value of a tarted-up piece of chicken, if one starts with a birthday dinner Brought to You by Kellogg’s, pretty soon it’ll be date-night Double Downs and McGangBangs on anniversaries. It felt like I had unwittingly played into Kellogg’s hand. Even as an educated consumer who understands the pitfalls of consuming industrially-produced, high fructose corn syrup-drenched, sodium-rich, refined carbohydrate corn products, I had established an emotional bond with a meal centering around the cereal. Echoes of Don Draper’s “It’s Toasted” speech played in my head. Happiness is a recipe on a box that screams, with reassurance: “whatever you’re eating is okay.”
The pressures of conscientious eating seriously challenged my ability to reflect on the meal without feeling guilt. Now that critiques of the modern food chain, meat and grain production and delivery systems, and nutritional guidelines have been popularized, practically any meal, if carefully considered, can make me feel like a transgressor. A commenter on a blog article about the overfishing of bluefin tuna put it best: “I’ve been trying to eat vegetarian + fish for the last six months, and tuna has been a staple that I rely on for protein. Now I feel like a jerk.”
A common solution to this dilemma is to take food production into your own hands, or at least into the hands of a trusted local farmer. But is this an option for every meal? How would Corn Flake chicken fare as an artisan, locally-sourced dish? If this video is any indication, by the time I’m done making my own Corn Flakes my only girlfriend will be the laundry press. As for the chicken, while I am comfortable relinquishing trust to the vendors at the local farmer’s market, a recent story in my city’s weekly alternative paper exposes the lax approach to organic certification by a major local dealer in (ostensibly) non-industrially-produced meats. Even the DIY-local-organic nexus of food issues can fall short of the ideal.
There may be hope in the forgiving rules of Mark Bittman’s “Sane Eating” approach, from his book Food Matters, which instructs us to, among other things, “eat far fewer refined carbohydrates [as] they are all treats, not off limits but to be eaten only occasionally (and with gusto).” Similarly, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules allow us to “treat treats as treats” — that is, we may eat red-flagged food items as long as we treat them as “special occasion foods,” so that “the sense of occasion [is] restored.”
Expanding this approach to all kinds of problematic food is alright in a nutritional sense — a little indulgence once in a while won’t kill you. But the more we learn about the issues behind food, the harder it is to eat an indulgent meal (or even a simple meal) without considering the forces that conspired to put food on your plate. So how can we navigate the distance between the intensely personal experience of eating and the highly impersonal nature of the food we eat? How can we deal when the ingredients on our plates don’t live up to the same romantic notions we concoct in the act of cooking?
We just have to make ourselves forget. For the sake of enjoying some meals, we must allow ourselves to succumb to selective amnesia. Even with all the times our eating choices adhere to the ethical, laudable, and reasonable rules espoused by the likes of Bittman and Pollan, there will inevitably be lapses. Just as the bachelor “elaborately disguises” his chicken with ingredients from a planter bed, a spice rack, or a box, so we must dress up our notions of the meaning of a meal, rerouting cold knowledge into pleasant feelings so that the food goes down easy.