Food & Drink: They're taking in the garbage

I HOPE to be forgiven for reverting to the United States so soon after the fourth of July, but life has a way of imitating the law courts - no sooner does one reach a decision than extra evidence is proffered. I argued then that Americans do not eat, they graze. The new evidence I now offer comes from my local alternative newspaper, which ran a lengthy feature on 'star' cooks and the meals they managed to produce from convenience stores.

In many parts of Britain, such convenience stores are undergoing a transformation. There are now many shops stocked like small, superior markets with specially selected 'convenience' goods.

Their business is in foods such as fresh pasta and interesting breads, rather than the tins of beans that the traditional corner shop supplied.

Such stores cannot compete on price with the supermarkets, but they make up for it in convenience - primarily by being more numerous and more local, and by having longer opening hours, thus preventing the dread that filled every food-lovers' heart at the imminence of a long weekend.

The small supermarkets that they threaten are reacting by staying open round-the-clock, as many do in America. Perhaps that will eventually leave the convenience store to survive as a place where you can buy a plug, loo paper, some frozen food and sticky buns on their sell-by date.

But it would not occur to us - I think - to do what the young lady on my local alternative paper did: to pretend that one can make a decent meal out of third-rate ingredients.

For your delectation, I offer you a few examples of what was puffed in that paper.

The lady's first chef was shown at home with his goodies: 'It's so weird cooking here,' he tells her. 'I never cook here (he owns three restaurants, in which I have sworn not to eat), except to cook popcorn or heat up chipped beef.'

His entree? Bacon, cheese and fruit quesadillas with mixed-fruit chilli relish . . . and fried bananas on the side.

Next, the two ladies of Venus Seafood in the Rough. Their shopping list? A box of frozen fried- chicken pieces, an onion soup mix, marmalade, onions, frozen broccoli, bananas, shortening and Bisquick (instant dough mix). The marmalade coated the frozen chicken, and the writer of this bad idea thought the banana fritters were just great: the slices dipped in milk and Bisquick.

Next, the boss of the Green Street Grill (another crossed off my list). Appetiser: chopped sardines on iceberg lettuce with chopped onion and a squeeze of lemon.

Main course? To a pan ('I never use recipes. Cooking is like feeling - you feel as you go. It's like painting') with adobo seasoning, 'he added macaroni-and-cheese mix'; and to a second pan he threw in 'red pepper, pork and beans'.

He must be doing something right because his girlfriend 'likes my cooking, as long as I don't cook like this'. The writer thought the sauteed fruit and lettuce 'one of the best side dishes I've ever had'.

Off the writer then trotted to the kitchen of the man who owns the Tuscan Grill. Pasta con sardines. Why not? Spinach in bacon fat and balsamic vinegar. Why not?

What I particularly liked was the description of this chef's kitchen technique: 'All the while he'd been soft-boiling an egg; he peeled the egg (not an easy feat), scooped it out and added it to the spinach.' Hey, man, wow]

'Five great chefs, four great meals,' writes Sally Nirenberg Sampson: to whom I offer my condolences. Her moral: 'If you know what you're doing and are willing to be creative, you can make anything taste good.'

I am not a snob. It does happen that one must buy food and make a meal from a convenience store. But even the most benighted stock butter, garlic, herbs and, usually, some frozen meat and vegetables. Therefore it can be done. But not by indiscriminate mixing of packaged ingredients.

I will bet the original frozen fried chicken tasted better before it was marmaladed. And if you wanted to do Poulet du Kentucky Fried a l'orange, wouldn't you first prise off the frozen batter and put the marmalade within?

My moral is: garbage in, garbage out. Happily, as you read this, I am already in France, where the couple who run my local convenience store will, as you, too, can find, have better makings for a meal and are surrounded by some who know how to cook.

An article like Ms Sampson's in Midi Libre might actually say something worthwhile about la cuisine solitaire, or cuisine facile.

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