By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
They expect to gross a million dollars in their first year, Grant says optimistically. The Seattle store reportedly generates around $75,000 a month. I tried to figure out how many customers that meant while I was scooping crumbled potato chips into a plastic bag for my "potato-crusted salmon" dish. Something like 350? If they're doing 32 sessions a month, that would mean 10.9 customers per session. It sounded reasonable. But maybe my numbers were off: I'd dumped four tablespoons of pepper into my black canister while I was doing the math, and the Newsweek photographer was glaring daggers at me because I was blocking his set-up. On to the next station.
During my Saturday session, I "made" a holiday pork roast, preslit for stuffing with apricots, cranberries, prunes, dried apples, mustard, and raisins. At first, I was so nervous that my hands were literally shaking, and I had to press my nose flat to the printed instructions because I'd forgotten my glasses. I ignored the advice to read through the whole recipe before starting. I confused parsley flakes with dried thyme. But eventually I got the hang of it, and I was pretty confident by the time I got to the Smashing Pumpkin Cheesecake. This dish contained ingredients I hope I'll never see again: liquid margarine, liquid egg substitute, low-fat sour cream, Sysco cooking spray, something called "cheesecake filling" (I have no idea), a very, very generous amount of sugar, and one or two spices I recognized, like cinnamon and nutmeg.
I also made the sirloin with mushrooms, where I found my only fresh vegetable of the day: a metal container of real, honest-to-God, raw diced mushrooms. (And come to think of it, I don't know if fungus really counts as a vegetable.) I made a chicken "Cordon Bleu" that would have Auguste Escoffier falling on his knife were the poor man alive to see it six rock-hard, frozen, skinless chicken breasts topped with minuscule rounds of Canadian bacon, a frightening phony white sauce, slices of Swiss cheese, and a dusting of canned parmesan. I made the chicken Mirabella, which Grant told me is one of her favorite dishes. This recipe, actually, was recognizable from the original Silver Palate cookbook green olives, capers, brown sugar, prunes, white "wine" adapted for the freezer-to-oven regimen. I took this one over to test on my parents and my girlfriend Amy. We poured it into a baking dish and cooked it for one hour; the four of us took turns basting it every 15 minutes as instructed.
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"Better than I expected," my mother pronounced as she scraped up the last drops of prune/sugar/olive sauce. "But I still think it's a dumb idea. If you want an easy dinner, just go to Costco and buy a tray of pork chops and make some tomato sauce. What's the big deal?" This from a woman who hasn't picked up a pot to do anything more complicated than boil an egg since 1964. That was the year she turned over the kitchen to my father. And he thought the chicken Mirabella was too sweet.
Amy, the only person I know who actually reads the directions on the back of a can before taking the plunge ("Open can. Pour soup into pot. Heat. Serve.") was a fan of the chicken Mirabella also. She thought it would be a good idea for me to stock up the freezer for her before I take my next trip out of town.
I think these folks are on to something. If I could just get past the liquid egg substitute, Dream Dinners could change my life. I mean really, with the time I spend half-drunk in my kitchen, roughly 50 percent of my waking life, plus my weekly bill at Whole Foods, plus the hours I spend eating in restaurants, couldn't I be doing something more constructive? I could volunteer. I could walk the dog. I could donate money to the bat conservancy or adopt a manatee. I could even get a real job.
On the Dream Dinners website, you learn that these easy meals come with a little extra baggage. Their statement of purpose reads, in part: "To glorify God." There's also a lot of stuff about gathering once again around the dinner table, bringing families together for home-cooked meals, and fostering a sense of community. The founders believe they're serving up a social, spiritual, and philosophical agenda along with the frozen Salisbury steak Parmesan and the "Happy Family Glazed Meatballs." And maybe they are. I think if they can save working mothers, who still do 80 percent of the housework, a few hours a week, they will have won a second feminist revolution. Dream Dinners has trademarked its slogan, "Life just got easier." For a lot of working women, that still sounds like a pipe dream.