There was a time when everyone knew what cooking meant. You chopped food into smaller pieces, mixed them together, added seasoning and heated the whole thing up. Then things got confusing. Was dropping frozen peas in a pot cooking? Was combining Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, Bumble Bee tuna and Ritz crackers cooking? Heating a Hungry Man?
Right now I have no idea if I'm cooking. I'm standing at a Dream Dinners location in Burbank, Calif., next to a lot of moms. Following a posted recipe, we're scooping cubes of frozen, dry-looking chicken into a Ziploc bag, adding measuring cups full of chopped frozen vegetables, liquid smoke, minced garlic and barbecue sauce. We're making a week's worth of these meals, putting Ziploc bags of meat and Ziploc bags of vegetables and Ziploc bags of seasonings inside bigger Ziploc bags to protect the smaller Ziploc bags. I deeply suspect that the meals at Dream Dinners were invented by a major shareholder of the corporation that owns Ziploc.
The idea for applying Henry Ford assembly-line techniques to home cooking began in 1995, when Dream Dinners co-founder Stephanie Allen's catering business in Snohomish, Wash., became so busy, she didn't have time to cook for her own family. So she and a friend started getting together one Saturday a month to prepare a bunch of meals, shoving them in the freezer and later heating them up one night at a time. After seven years of giving tips to other moms who heard about the system, Allen sent an e-mail inviting friends to her catering kitchen. "I told them that we'll make this a girls' night out once a month," she said. "I'll bring the wine and the music, and [we'll] get a chore done."
Now there are 278 Dream Dinners locations and some 60 other meal-assembly kitchen chains serving about 350,000 customers a month, each of whom typically packs an ice chest of 12 meals in little more than an hour. In fact, there are so many of these places that a website, mealassembly.net helps you find the one closest to your home, whether that's in Seattle, Sydney, Singapore or Saskatoon. The industry got so crowded last year that some stores are closing, and many--like Super Suppers--are selling premade frozen meals, at no extra charge; some are even starting to deliver. Others are going upscale: Colorado's Organic Dish, which focuses on local ingredients, has entrées such as Halibut en Papillote.
I got meals at Super Suppers, Dream Dinners and Let's Eat!, the latter a well-reviewed East Coast chain that uses fresh herbs and serves complimentary mimosas. And I was surprised that while these meals tasted nothing like anything I'd ever make or order at a restaurant, they were mostly pretty good. I'd have Dream Dinners' rich Steak Gorgonzola again, or that big, gloppy, messy, delicious dish of prunes, olives and capers they call Chicken Mirabella.
The other nice thing was the price. I learned that you can clip as many coupons as you want, but you can never make a dinner as cheaply as these kitchens can. I got nine entrées, each of which is supposed to serve three, and two desserts from Dream Dinners for $146.87--under $5 a serving. I also learned that my wife and I eat about two servings each.
Strangely, though, the assembly-line system didn't actually save me time, compared with cooking dinner myself. The entrées don't come with sides, just suggestions for them, so I found myself chopping bacon, shallots and garlic for Brussels sprouts while stirring the pulled pork--a dish that usually takes me five minutes to prep from scratch and comes out much better.
But the appeal of the meal-assembly approach isn't that it saves you time; it's that it saves you having to think. That's what the moms at Dream Dinners liked: they didn't have to worry about what was for dinner when they came home from work. Some of them confessed they didn't tell their families that they didn't "make" dinner, because, maybe, kind of, they sort of did. Unlike the old frozen dinner, designed to be consumed with multitasking efficiency while watching television, the new one--with its dirty pots and table setting--is trying to freeze something else: our family life. And maybe, kind of, sort of, that's what cooking is about.