Once upon a time, meals were simple. You (and I) bought something, cooked it, and ate. If there were leftovers, we ate them the next day, or they languished in back of the fridge until they bloomed into unrecognizable clumps of once-food. The End.
Things are different now. Not only are there multiple gourmet grocers that will deliver anything from powdered lemongrass to Ethiopian coffee to your doorstep at almost any time of day, but there are dozens of meal-planning apps, subscription cooking kits, and food & drink magazines offering a dizzying array of options for the person in charge of domestic feeding. Preparing and eating food is supposedly a source of experiential pleasure, and home-cooked meals are generally better for you than restaurant meals or — God forbid! — fast food. But the sheer volume of advice and options is enough to make anyone order a pizza and call it a night.
But those of us who cook at home more often than not, the real razzle-dazzle of the mealmaker movement is the gadgets. There’s the slow cooker — grandma of the Instant Pot, poor cousin of the Le Creuset. There’s the sous vide device, with an attendant app that basically boils your food in a bag while you pretend you’re French or otherwise gifted in les artes culinaire. And then there is the vacuum sealer. I trace all my kitchen issues back to it, the way one does to their parents or a bad experience with a dentist that one time in 1977.
Technically, a vacuum sealer sucks air out of special, overpriced bags full of food, and then seals the bag, making food last almost forever (okay, six months) in the freezer and come out tasting freshly-made. It also made me into someone who acted like she was cooking for an army all the time. Who doesn’t want meatballs in the freezer? Or chicken cutlets? Enchiladas? Arroz con pollo? Jambalaya! Lasagne! I gushed hysterically to everyone about it. My friends bought vacuum sealers. It was my thing.
And it worked, for years. We always had something in the freezer I could pull out in a snap for a weeknight dinner. I doubled every recipe, and then some. Slowly, the freezer filled with meals. Then, like a dream right before the alarm goes off, my relationship with the vacuum sealer began to turn dark. Its signature grating buzz made my husband wince. The recesses of the freezer became an unstable Jenga tower of portioned foods, then an impassable mountain of irregularly-sized, rock-hard plastic packages. They slid out, sometimes en masse, every time I opened the freezer. They fell on me. They hurt me. Still, I kept sealing. Beef Bourguignon. Chicken noodle soup. Three-bean chili. Vegetable stock. Finally, one dark November day, I made four quarts of turkey stock, maniacally sealed them like I was forging the One Ring in the depths of Mordor, and opened the freezer.
It was full. There was literally not one inch of space in there. Nor would the fridge accommodate these bulging bags of poultry jus. Flummoxed, I sat in the kitchen, contemplating my fate, surrounded by sagging bags of someday-soup. My husband came through and stopped short, puzzled.
“What’s going on?” he asked, and I burst into tears.
Faced with my apocalypse-ready stockpile of food, I realized I had been so busy sealing and making and sealing and freezing and sealing and thinking about sealing that all the fun had been sucked right out of the process. I’d spent years making huge vats of food, thinking I was saving time for later when in reality, I was losing time I already had. Time to hang out with my kids, or teach myself to knit, or read, or simply sit down and eat a slice of homemade pumpkin bread that didn’t first need to be defrosted.
Why did I let this time-saving tool take over my life? Maybe it was a reaction to my mother’s persistent fear of scarcity. A Depression-era child, she never felt confident that there would be enough — for our family, for leftovers, for an extra, surprise guest. Not everything can be chalked up to inherited trauma, but maybe the deer-in-headlights look on her face all those times I asked if a little friend could stay for dinner stuck with me, morphing into a compulsion to over provide for everyone, all the time.
Or maybe my inherent lack of a silly gene manifested as a willingness to do anything to avoid playing pretend with my very small children, even if it meant hours in the kitchen doing meal prep and planning for a family of twenty I did not and will not ever have.
Perhaps I was just taken with the technology, sucked in by the promise of devices to take care of everything we once took care of in entirely analog ways. Who doesn’t want a secret weapon in the never-ending strategy game, Cooking for a Family (not to be confused with the hyper-local, never-ending strategy NYC game known as Find a Monday Spot for Alternate Parking, which I am definitely never winning and for which there is, to date, no app).
The thing I realized, staring at my packed freezer, is that nourishing my family is not, in reality, a high-stakes battle. There’s no need to brandish my ladle like I’m hoping to be knighted by Ina Garten, though I do not mean that Her Majesty My Royal Highness Ina should ignore me if she’s ever choosing to knight mere mortals such as myself.
Whatever the underlying cause of my loss of sanity, I’m glad I’ve come out the other side. I actually made dinner for four last night from a recipe I’ve never tried before. It was tasty. We ate all of it. And I was happy.