Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Heavy Weight of Hamburger Helper

I am of a generation born without Hamburger Helper.

What does Hamburger Helper mean to you?  Think back.  Betty Crocker convenience food in a box with an appetizing picture on the front?  Frugality, stretching your pound of hamburger with macaroni and a bunch of artificial ingredients and unpronounceable chemicals?  Humble, homey comfort food?  A quick meal for busy moms which, while decidedly mediocre, was at least inoffensive enough for children to eat?

Would it surprise you to know that I never ate Hamburger Helper as a child?  Ever?  Not because it wasn’t available – I was born in 1962, and Hamburger Helper first showed its face on grocery store shelves in 1970.  I spent more than a decade at home during the Hamburger Helper years.

When I was a child, my maternal grandmother lived with us, and because my mom could (and did) burn water, Grandma was in charge of the kitchen, and Grandma had very firm philosophies about food.  One was that “boughten” foods (which encompassed eating out, frozen foods, canned foods, pretty much anything but raw ingredients) were undesirable from a number of standpoints, including cost, flavor, and nutrition.  Don’t get the idea that Grandma was a health food cook, but she was definitely what they’d call nowadays a slow food cook.  Cakes, pies, brownies and cookies were prepared from recipes, not mixes.  Oatmeal was the old-fashioned slow-cooking kind.  Biscuits didn’t come out of a refrigerator tube or a box.  When Grandma made macaroni and cheese, she boiled elbow macaroni and made a cheese sauce – from grated, not powdered, cheese.  She wouldn’t touch margerine, by the way, or Velveeta.  “Plastic food,” she called them.

Grandma, who was solely responsible for teaching me how to cook, wouldn’t touch Hamburger Helper with somebody else’s ten-foot pole.  She’d curl her lip in contempt when we walked past such things at the grocery store.  Betty Crocker symbolized everything Grandma despised in “boughten food” – shortcutting, inferior flavor and suspicious ingredients – and it would certainly never show its face in her kitchen.

Grandma did, however, make her own version of Hamburger Helper, with elbow macaroni, her homemade rich tomato sauce, ground beef, cheese and spices.  We called it “mac-a-ghetti.”

The picture on the front of the Hamburger Helper box looked so much like Grandma’s mac-a-ghetti that years later, when I was on my own and living in an apartment on a shoestring budget and without Grandma’s wonderful home-canned tomato sauce, I tried it.  It was, in a word, disgusting.  It didn’t taste like anything – tomatoes, cheese, spices, anything.  It was just kind of there.  I was so disappointed.  It was the Pop Tarts, all over again.

I never cared for cooked fruit, so when Grandma made pies, she’d use the leftover pie crust to make for me what she jokingly called “pop tarts.”  She’d roll the crust out in a circle, put some of her homemade jam in the middle, fold it over into a semicircle and pinch it closed, then bake it.  I adored these “pop tarts.”  The first time I tasted a Kellogg’s Pop Tart, I was just plain offended.  Where was that wonderful buttery, flaky crust?  Where was the filling?  Why in the world would anybody eat these flavorless, sawdusty things, much less pay money for them?

After my initial experiment, I avoided Hamburger Helper.  Just a few years ago, however, after being introduced to Atkins by some dear friends, I gave Hamburger Helper another thought.  One of my friends had decidedly upscale tastes, and once for a get-together I’d made a delicious meat sauce with ground chuck, wine, tomatoes, fresh garlic, onions, fresh herbs, and Dreamfields elbow macaroni, and as a joke, I called it “Hamburger Helper.”  It was delicious, my friend got the joke (and had several helpings), and Hamburger Helper became an inside joke in our home.

Tonight for dinner I made Hamburger Helper – with fresh ground chuck, tomatoes, fresh garlic, lightly caramelized onions sauteed in the beef fat, herbs and spices, and a splash of Pinot Noir; now, however, the hubby and I rarely eat Dreamfields, so I used House Brand Tofu Shirataki’s macaroni shape and simmered the macaroni right in the sauce for three hours.  It wasn’t fast food, or fake food, or even especially cheap food, but it was delicious.

Yes, there’s a point to this whole trip down memory lane.  If there were any good memories to be had from a plate of Hamburger Helper (and there weren’t), I’d have had them tonight, but I’d have had them with a plate of completely delicious and nutritious low-carb food.  No, it’s not exactly the same as a plate of Hamburger Helper, thank goodness!  It’s much, much better.  I enjoyed cooking it and we sure enjoyed eating it, and we’ll smirk at each other when we heat up the leftovers and enjoy the joke.

Up yours, Betty Crocker!

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