Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Low Prep Time Family Meals

One of the things that we do in order to socialize a chimpanzee in an ape language experiment is that we have regular family meals together. We used to do that while all of us were seated at the big dining table, the children and the adults, the humans and the chimp. But back then I had interns who watched Bow while I cooked, and we were able to engage in elaborate rituals, such as games to see who would finish their vegetables first. We don't do it quite that way anymore, because Bow is confined to the pens, both the little ones are now teens, and there are no interns to watch Bow while I cook.

Other families used to have regular family meals together that now do not, too. I hear there is a national crisis.


Eating together has become a luxury of the high bourgeoisie that is unavailbe to lesser burghers, according to the above linked article from The Atlantic. 

In America, it seems snobbish to take time to eat good food with one’s family. The Norman Rockwell portrait of the family around the dinner table now seems less middle-class and more haute bourgeois, as many families can’t afford to have one parent stay home from work, spending his or her day cleaning and cooking a roast and side of potatoes for the spouse and kids. Most parents don’t have time to cook, many don’t even know how, and the idea that one should spend extra money and time picking up produce at the supermarket rather than grabbing a bucket of Chinese take-out can seem unfeasible, unnecessary, and slightly pretentious. It’s understandable to want to save time and money. It’s the same reason that small shops go out of business once Walmart moves into town; but in this case it is not the shop owner who suffers, it is the consumer of unhealthy and rushed meals.
I never gave up on the family meals, even when we had to move into the pens. At first, I relied greatly on baked chicken, of the Cornish hen variety, because there was virtually no prep time. Sweet potatoes and the hen went into the oven at three and were served promptly at five. It was homemade, it required no actual prep work, and it meant we had our home-cooked meal.

But certain very vocal members of the household complained about the monotony of the thing, so I had to branch out. One of my current standby meals is the pork and onion and potato in a skillet dish. I manage it with very low prep time, because the oil heats while I chop the onion. Then the onion fries while I chop the potatoes. Then the potatoes and onions are cooking while I chop the pork chops into smaller bits.  Then I add lemon juice, so that the final part of the cooking includes a bit of steaming.

I learned about adding water to food frying in a skillet to create a steam effect from my college friend Revathi a long time ago. This use of the lemon juice is about the same, only it adds flavor, too.

Because the  vegetables take longer to cook, I let them cook first, and I spend absolutely no time on preparing something when something else is not cooking. Therefore, to my way of thinking, there is no prep time involved with this dish. There is just the time that it takes to cook. And because everything is chopped into smaller morsels, it cooks faster. So the whole thing takes about fifteen minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients to serve two at lunch: One large onion, two small potatoes and two breakfast pork chops, lemon juice.

Directions: Heat oil while chopping onion. Chop potatoes while frying onion bits. Add potato slices to fry mix, while chopping pork chops. Add chopped pork to the mix and keep frying. Add lemon juice and keep cooking till pork bits look done. (About fifteen minutes.)

The result is a meal that Bow gets to watch me make from the interior of the pens, and that he is glad to eat in my company, in a ceremony of communal living. It is part of the way that he has been socialized that meals are a time of togetherness. I don't want Bow to ever end up in a place where food is simply thrown at him and he is expected to eat it like an animal. That's not how Bow was brought up, and whatever happens to him in life, I want him to remember our family dinners and to keep up the tradition with his own family, once he starts one.

 This is ultimately the hope of every parent: that something will stick, not because of anything we have said, but because of the example that we have shown them and the fellowship that we have shared.