Monday, October 13, 2014


In a Jiffy

 Instant foods, how I loved them as a child. Popcorn oiled, salted and buttered, heated on the stovetop in its own pot and bowl. Pop open the foil and peel it back to reveal instant treat. Poptarts of cherry and chocolate, frosted or unfrosted, slipped out of the foil pocket and eat! TV dinners already prepared just to be heated and eaten in front of instant, prepackaged entertainment. Mac & cheese or o's of pasta in red sauce straight from the can. Anything instant, anything that smacked of gimmick!

 Instant oatmeal, a childhood favorite, tiny pearl white packets, so light and ethereal revealing earthily fragrant flakes. Dried and powdery, desiccated, some would call it, reminding one of deserts and bones and coconut flakes, yet dried and powdery though it was, packets of instant oatmeal promised warm, creamy bowls of comfort. Plain or apples and cinnamon or maple and brown sugar, a bowl of instant oatmeal once brought to life with boiling water would be topped with a pat of salted butter, a drizzle of cold milk, a dusting of brown sugar and a sprinkling of moist raisins.

 Instant, quick-cooking convenience foods. Fulfilling, satisfying an instant need.

 Instant mashed potatoes, purée mousline, in its familiar red and yellow box. My husband swears by them. Shocked me, it did. Instant mashed potatoes. Flocons de pommes de terre like frites-scented snowflakes. "Quand je fais de la purée Mousline, je suis sûre que tout le monde en reprend." When I make Mousline mashed potatoes, sings the jingle, I'm sure that everyone will ask for seconds! Well, everyone but the American wife.

 Instant intimacy. In the blink of an eye. I did fall in love with him the instant I saw him.

 Oh, the prejudice against instant foods yet we all keep them cloistered away in the darkest corners of our cupboards like a dirty little secret. For emergencies only, we proclaim if caught in our smug, self-righteous lie scoffing of anything instant, anything pre-packaged. Or for our kids. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Packets of soups and mixes for muffins. Instant ready-made risotto or cans of sausages and beans (cassoulet for the francophile). Brownies and cookies with the addition of one egg and a cup of milk. Oh, the innocence of instant food when we were kids, the excitement with each discovery of each something new. Do I? Don't I? Tell. Make. Eat. A carton or envelope of something eaten in front of the cheesiest chick flick or most melodramatic cop show, bowl nestled between our knees. Instant nostalgia. Oh yeah.

 Now instant meals are pasta thrown into a pot and rapidly drained, vegetables local and seasonal chopped and minced and quickly sautéed in extra virgin, tossed together and strewn with a layer of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or baguette picked up warm from the boulangerie, a platter of charcuterie and a bowl of fruit. À l'instant.

Instant Pick-Me-Up

 My father was the king of instant desserts. Box upon box of instant cake mix, classic vanilla and devil's food, lined up in the cupboard like well-behaved school children waiting their turn. Box upon box of instant pudding, vanilla and chocolate, pistachio and caramel, lined up in the cupboard not far behind. With the concentration of the engineer that he was, he would whip up batter, thick and voluptuous, one yellow, one dark. With attentive precision, he would pour each batter in alternating splotches of dark and light into great sheet pans and run a sharp blade through the two, back and forth, swirling one into the other. With deliberate, thoughtful care, he would pour steaming pudding in its still-liquid form over the baked marble cake, allowing it to soak into the sponge. Once cooled, he would pop open a can of ready-made instant frosting and spread across the top. Instant delight. 

 Pies in an instant, cherry, apple or pumpkin from a can piled into a ready-made pie crust kept handy in the freezer. Instant celebration.

Instant Gratification

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still. - Dorothea Lange

 A pocket instamatic, a gift from my parents, accompanied me on weekends away, vacations and all. Slip in the roll of film, snap on the back, point and shoot. How many images of smiling friends and their teenage antics did I capture, how many single instances in times? Yet not so instant. Travel home, drop off the roll of film at the drugstore counter and. Wait. Count the days. Collect the packet of photographs excitedly and shuffle through the stack one by one, try and recapture each moment. Drop the blurried shots and the fleshy fingers that skipped in front of the lens and how many left? Rolls and rolls of film, piles of snapshots flipped through over and over again: camp and school parades, holidays and family vacations and one exciting trip to Israel now fill envelopes and the sticky, yellowed pages of albums in glorious Technicolor dimming to yellow.

 A black Polaroid camera, a gift from my parents, accompanied me to Europe where we pointed and shot images of newborn sons. Instant gratification, indeed. Snap – thunk – kkksssshhhhh and out popped a fuzzy gray square of silence. Patience and anticipation and an image like magic burnished onto paper slowly revealed itself like an exotic striptease, baring its soul.

 What used to be a telephone, dial and instant connections to friends far and wide, has become a camera, replacing the others. Point and shoot, snatch at a memory, appropriate the moment, share in an instant with friends and strangers around the world in a moment. An instant. Instagram.

Instant Illumination

 A lifetime of watching my parents prepare instant coffee; a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar and into a mug, boiling water and stir. Leaving that fine layer of mocha-hued foam atop the bitter, steaming liquid the black of bitter chocolate. Milk and sugar made it palatable. Nose turned up at the smell, I prepared myself instant chocolate milk, a tablespoon or three of powdery something the scent of Necco wafers scooped from a box, ice cold milk poured into the tall glass and stirred, leaving pimples and clumps of dark, wet chocolate floating on the surface.

 All grown up and acclimated to the taste of coffee – no instant liking – and a jar of instant stood on my shelf. Ah, the fine taste of freshly brewed coffee picked up on the way to work, instant relief. Instant jolt of life.

 Only in Paris did I learn to make pots of coffee from ground beans. Three scoops into the filter, boiling water, once filled then twice, and wait as it takes its own sweet time drip drip drip. Heavens what was my surprise when, in the land of marvelous coffee, café au lait and espresso, did I learn that the French drink instant at home! Jars of Nescafé in even the most bourgeois of domiciles. Tiny porcelain demitasse set in front of me, a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar, boiling water and stirred with a tiny, elegant, designer teaspoon. Instant coffee, nonetheless.

 And I began buying boxes of instant chocolate powder for my very French sons.

  Share on Tumblr


  1. jamie, so much of what you have written reminds me of my childhood. chicken noodle soup was my vice. nesquick was a novelty that would arrive from the us. my aunt would bring it for us. and during my undergraduate years it was bachelor's cup of soups. i have to say though that for the last five years in particular i have not used anything that is instant (except bird's custard maybe). perhaps it is the luxury of being just a couple with no children... as always a beautiful post. x

  2. I found this post so easy to relate to. One of my favorite memories is of my brother watching my grandpa make homemade mashed potatoes. And what does he say...."where's the box." Instant was all I knew for years. And while I do pride myself on making things from scratch, sometimes throwing two eggs and some oil together with a boxed cake does the trick.

    Beautifully written

  3. I think everyone is able to identify with you here, Jamie. My parents were in a generation when the women went out to work and so it was just second nature to open a packet of something in the evening. I remember the wafts of a Vista curry now and again and a tin of cook 'n' sauce being thrown in to cooked liver. But Dad luckily never did the 'smash' thing much and realised quickly that his homemade thick chips were better. I think I possibly started to teach myself to cook when I tasted a Pot Noodle! And on my daughter's primitive camp weekend near Paris lately, we had to opt for packets of Japanese noodles and miso - she vowed she had the tastiest dried foods with her!

    It makes me laugh when you talk about the French family, though. At mother-in-law's, there's a vat of chicory in the mornings and yes, instant coffee (that's why we bought them a coffee machine!) Super read, as ever!