Trader Joe's

It's like India in my freezer - and in this case, that's actually a good thing!

I don’t make any bones about the fact that I am, by and large, a disgusting lazy bachelor, but I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I eat relatively few frozen dinners compared to my disgusting, lazy contemporaries. This isn’t to say that the non-frozen meals I’m eating are especially fancy – go through my garbage and you’ll find a lot of extra large containers of Ralph’s brand peanut butter that have been all but licked clean – but at least I have some influence over those meals’ preparation, even if all I’m doing is spreading peanut butter onto bread and perhaps drizzling Sriracha on top of that if I’m feeling particularly fancy. (Seriously, try it.)

Even though I’m lazy and a sucker for convenience, because of my upbringing I’ve always been wary of frozen dinners. My mother is at least twice as good a cook as Gordon Ramsay (and three times as profane in the kitchen) so there were never Hungry Man TV dinners in our freezer. Whenever a news report about the obesity epidemic came on NPR she would blame it on the popularity of preservative-laden, salty, prepackaged frozen foods.

As a result, I’ve always distrusted preservatives, which is why I never really went in for frozen dinners. Mind you, I can’t actually name any preservatives (other than salt), nor can I articulate specifically why they’re bad – to me they’re just an invisible monster that lives in food and must be avoided at all costs because Mom said so a few times in the late 1990s.

What makes this stupid is that while my mother prepared all of our food more or less from scratch, my diet is still jam packed with preservatives – it just so happens that these aren’t the ones I was conditioned to hate as a kid. Diet Coke, cheap pasta, store-brand peanut butter… I’m scared to look at the lists of ingredients in these staples, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m just slowly embalming myself.

Last month, though, my roommates and I threw a party, and being as we’re all grown ups now I decided the party merited some classy grown up appetizers. This put me in a bind – I either had to spontaneously become a good enough chef to cobble together classy grown up appetizers from scratch or compromise all of my values and buy frozen classy grown up appetizers at the supermarket.

I decided almost immediately to compromise all of my values, as I often do when it’s between my values and doing something I don’t particularly want to do. On my way out the door I decided to at least buy my classy grown up appetizers at Trader Joe’s, both because they would probably have fewer preservatives than the ones at Ralph’s and also because Trader Joe’s happens to be two blocks away from Baja Fresh.*

*I’m always thinking two meals ahead.

While I had eaten plenty of food from Trader Joe’s – most of the ingredients in Mom’s incredible food came from there – I had never actually been to one before last month. I just knew it as a mysterious place from whence all natural hippie food came. When I was a kid I thought Trader Joe was just some guy my Mom knew who really liked quinoa. 

Shopping at Trader Joe’s for the first time was really no major shock, though. Being from Oregon I’ve seen my fair share of organic supermarkets; what really blew my mind was that most of the food at Trader Joe’s was so cheap that even I, with my 1960s era expectations of what things should cost*, was impressed.

*I pretty much feel like everything should cost $5 or less. This is probably why I struggled with economics in college.

An employee with Predator-style dreadlocks helped me find the frozen food aisle and the classy grown up appetizers I was looking for. Before I could leave, though, my eyes fell on the frozen dinner selection, and my life – and eating habits – changed forever.

Trader Joe’s sells frozen all natural microwaveable Indian meals for less than $4.

Let me repeat that: Trader Joe’s sells frozen all natural microwaveable Indian meals for less than $4. Checkmate, pessimists! Here, finally, we have a food that satisfies all my requirements for what food ought to be: Quick to prepare, convenient, relatively healthy, free of nefarious preservatives, and Indian. I have finally found my bachelor chow

Knowing that these products exist has gone a long way to simplify my shopping routine – now I just drive to Trader Joe’s every Sunday, grab seven or eight frozen Indian dinners, and proceed straight to checkout. The one complication is that it’s kind of difficult to look the cashier in the eye while buying a tall stack of frozen dinners and nothing else, but I’ve gotten pretty good at lying to save face.

“Ha ha, I bet this looks pretty sad, doesn’t it! This is actually my second time coming here today; when I was in earlier I bought a bunch of heirloom tomatoes and kale and a wheel of asiago cheese and some fresh salmon, but when I got home and my girlfriend found out I forgot these Indian dinners she loves she made me come right back out here to get them. Women, right? Can’t live with ‘em- Ah, you know the rest. Good times!”

Now that between one third and two thirds of my daily meals are all natural microwaveable curry, my peanut butter and discount pasta intake has declined sharply. I’m eating more food with real food in it and far fewer preservatives, even if that means I’ve now become the microwavable dinner-eating slob I swore I’d never become.

I guess compromising on all your values can be a good thing, so long the values you’re compromising are ill-informed and don’t really matter that much to begin with.

Truman Capps is going to look back at the archives and tally up how many blog updates he’s written about grocery shopping.