Chicken Pies & Banquet Bags

In 1965, when I was ten and my brother seven, our mom and dad got divorced, our mom getting custody of my brother and I, and my dad allowed the standard visitations of the non-custodial parent. Our mom continued to make us meals (particularly lunch and dinner, we fixed our own cold cereal for breakfast) for a couple more years, but after that she went through a difficult period of depression and health issues and I recall, more and more, that I had to make my own meals.

Being 1965, this is way before the day of such specialty stores as “Trader Joe’s” that offer a wide variety of previously prepared and packaged meals for one or two. Basically we had whatever was available at a standard grocery store of the day, in our case either the locally owned “Food & Drug” or the bigger chain “A & P”. So during this very difficult period for her, when she spent much of the time in her bedroom, in her forays to the store she started bringing home a lot of these prepared foods, rather than the uncooked chicken, pork chops, or potatoes that used to be featured in her grocery list.

The spectrum of prepared foods at the standard grocery store in the late 1960s was far from the cornucopia of prepackaged “world meals” you can find in today’s Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or the like, or even today’s mainline supermarkets. For dinner, there was of course the now iconic “TV Dinners”, the offerings like Spaghetti-Os, chili con carne, and all those marginally Italian canned classics from Chef Boyardee. For lunch, Wonder Bread (I wonder if it’s really bread…*g*), the also iconic “white bread” platform for peanut butter, bologna, ham or salami and a slice of packaged Kraft “American Cheese Food”, whatever the hell that was.

But two of my favorites that emerged were chicken pies (mainly put forward at my stores by Swanson and Banquet) and frozen plastic air-sealed bags containing a single portion of a particular meat and sauce combo, which I recall being on the cutting edge of the culinary craft of prepared foods for that time. The ones we bought were mostly marketed by Banquet, and I recall we came to refer to them as “Banquet Bags”. You pulled the frozen bag out of the cardboard container (with the very appetizing picture on one side and the lengthy list of food and chemicals it contained on the other) and plopped into a small saucepan of boiling water for five minutes or so.

Three of my favorites that I can remember were…

* “Chicken ala King” – Four small hexahedron’s of white-meat chicken (possibly the antecedent of the later Mc Nugget) in a white sauce, best served with the hexahedron’s placed in a rectangular pattern between two pieces of bread with the rest of the white sauce poured over the top.

* “Salisbury Steak” – An oval ground beef type patty with a clear but thickened brown sauce that I recall usually enjoying with some powdered mash potatoes to shape with a small crater to contain the gravy.

* “Roast Beef and Gravy” – Three or four thin rubbery slices of beef (presumably) in an opaque (unlike the Salisbury Steak) brown gravy.

The details seem humorous in retrospect and are not really important, but it is funny how I do remember the particulars of these very mundane items. Somehow I think they are personal icons of my growing ability to fend for myself. By the age of twelve or thirteen I could go to the store and buy the “Banquet Bags”, chicken pies and fish sticks I liked, and then cook them, serve them and eat them whenever I felt like eating. Every meal I purchased, prepared or ate by myself was one more task my mom was relieved of, and one more indicator of my growing agency.

It would still be another eight years before I would get a cook job at the Cottage Inn and be taught some short-order cooking basics, which I could apply to meal preparation at home as well. But by age 13, with my Wonder bread, banquet bags and processed cheese-food, I could cobble together ersatz but reasonably tasty collations for meals. Health-wise of course, I would later learn how little really good nutrition there was in this sort of prepackaged food, and how much fat and salt contributed to its tastiness. That is a wholly different and important discussion, but not my point here.

My point is that a kid can develop agency, that oh so important capability, under the radar and completing the most mundane of daily tasks.

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