Eating Outside the Box

Ah, independence. You’re living on your own, making a mark on the world, and you’ve got a modest amount of free time to spend however you please. Go where you want to go, eat what you want to eat! Or more accurately, eat what you can afford to buy. The truth is, whether it’s Top Ramen, Rice-A-Roni, or any of Campbell’s myriad Chunky soups, the quickest and dirtiest path to a full stomach is only a few micro waves away. Sadly, that’s why too many men settle for edible garbage.

Make no mistake: a full stomach is not the same as a satisfied stomach; no, a happy stomach is one content with the knowledge that it’s been given a heart-healthy helping of home-cooked goodness, a repast so robust that it affirms your fledgling faith in humanity itself whilst warming the cockles of your cardiovascular constitution!

If hyperbole were edible, I would feast like a king. Alas, I’m writing on a largely-empty stomach. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and two cups of coffee makes for a paltry supper. Sure, that kitsch keeps my colon kicking, but the same could be said of eating small children. Yikes. What a terrible thing to say… or is it?

How many times have you heard the expression, “You are what you eat”? And how many times, growing up, did someone say, “You’re a growing boy or girl” (hopefully without the “or” part)? Well, by that lovely logic, it only stands to reason that our elders were calling us cannibals. Seriously.

Additionally, I was frequently said to possess “a hollow leg,” where I magically stockpiled vast quantities of food that my tiny tummy couldn’t possibly have processed, me being the ravenous, hormone-riddled pre-pubescent teenager that I was. Oh, and I also kept food in my “hollow head,” apparently.

My, what a preamble. You can tell that I haven’t blogged in a while. Blogging has taken a back seat to a number of other creative endeavors, many of which are not my own but rather work related. Since March, I’ve been working at ImpactVA in the capacity of Art Director, which is one of several fancy titles we doled out to ourselves. I don’t mean to suggest that my title is superfluous, and I persistently work at being worthy of it, but as I was the only “art” guy employed at the time of my dubbing, the title may have been overly generous.

In the kitchen, however, “Art Director” is surprisingly appropriate. No, I don’t make art upon a culinary canvas, and no, I’m not a master chef like Gordon Ramsay. But where eating is concerned, I’ve become dissatisfied with the status quo. So much so that I resort to eating canned soup, frozen vegetables, and microwavable meals only when my budget dictates. Those said foodstuffs are only good for one thing—stemming the tide of starvation, and they barely succeed.

The same is true of carbonated beverages. They’re sweet and tasty but contain nothing of benefit. You’ll likely be thirstier after than before. In college, I gave up soda (or “pop,” as we West Coasters call it) because I always felt worse after drinking it. Most people do, yet I’ve scarcely seen anyone order a value meal at any fast-food restaurant without getting a Coke or Pepsi. It’s built into the meal by default!

I suppose we all have our vices. Mine is coffee. Mostly I drink it to suppress my appetite but also to inspire myself; a warm mug of java puts me in a “literary” mood faster than a finger snap. Food has always been a big part of my life—I’d die without it—but now I have to make a lot of healthy decisions. No longer can I breezily scarf down whatever scrumptious spread my mother has made, content in knowing that its contents are balanced, artful, and delicious; for one, my mother’s spreads are served in Renton, south of my present lodgings by an hour and a half in traffic, and two, I am now the sole custodian of what occupies my colon. Ergo, if I eat garbage, I feel like a trash receptacle; if I consume a square meal, I feel balanced and content.

Having no health insurance is a motivating factor for me, but I’m not really talking about keeping the food pyramid balanced. By my own admission, my diet is far too starchy to be healthy. The week before last, I sautéed baby carrots with onions and potatoes, added spaghetti sauce, and poured it over a bed of pasta shells. More recently, I diced up frozen chicken breasts (after thawing them, of course) with potatoes and onions and cooked up a pot of rice (carrots would have made the mix if I’d had any left). That’s like eating a starch cake with starch frosting and two scoops of whipped starch. Yum!

So no, I’m not a champion of healthy cooking. That may come in time (along with diabetes). Instead, I’m a champion of elbow grease and experimentation! Point case: I bought a bag of Russet potatoes shortly after moving into my current place, my intent being to mash ‘em up and enjoy a canned can of sauerkraut (which tasted awful; get your sauerkraut in a jar if possible). Having no potato masher, I used a wooden spoon. Eureka! They were lumpy, and I didn’t have a peeler, but the end result was tasty, creamy, and immensely satisfying. Why? Because I had made my own meal! I was a man. Rargh!

I felt like a cave dweller who had discovered fire. About a week ago, after making an amazing chicken, carrot, onion, and potato goulash (aka starch with a dash of protein), I declared, “No more eating out of boxes for me!”

The sentiment was genuine, if not practical. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to make something. But that incredible sense of accomplishment from having cooked real food? It’s inspiring. Empowering! No longer must I be a slave to Campbell’s. A microwave has no power over me. I can cook. I can cook real food! Sure, it’s simple. Sure, it’s starchy. But by golly, I can determine my own fate. And this is only the beginning.

Presently, I’m limited only by the paltry contents of my pantry. I need to buy some vegetables and a few new spices (you can only add garlic salt to so many meals), but my food future is bright indeed.

Men, if you’re reading this… there’s nothing manly about microwaving a bowl of Chunky soup. You don’t have to settle for quick and easy. For one, you’re likely consuming more than double your suggested daily dose of sodium, but two, it doesn’t taste half as good as fresh, seasoned beef or chicken. Learn to cook rice. Pasta is good in a pinch, but don’t have it every day (or at least pair it with a vegetable other than a potato). Moreover, your hard-earned cash goes farther when buying real meat and produce. Eggs are ridiculously easy to prepare and cost very little. Yogurt can be an excellent source of disgusting-but-valuable bacteria, and many yogurts include fruit (or my favorite: fruit beneath the yogurt that you stir together).

Hopefully these words will not fall on deaf ears. Or blind eyes, as they case may be. You may think your ramen is tops, but a little old-fashioned stove-top cooking can top any ramen any day. Give it a try. Make something tasty that doesn’t come from a box. Make something that you can turn into leftovers for lunch. Be a real man and make real food!

I dare you.

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