Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dinner Fatigue

I read an article recently in the Times about decision fatigue that shed some light on my nightly dinner dilemma.  

You see, Dr. Sweety and I up until now have relied on take out meals for--I wouldn't say most of our meals, but perhaps greater than half many weeks.  When I was working there came a time around 5:00 when I was home from work, we'd done our daily spills, and one of us asked the inevitable question--what do you want for dinner?

"I asked you first," Dr. Sweety would sometimes say when I responded "What do you want?"

We'd throw out a few suggestions of things we could cook, but inevitably, we were missing some key ingredient for a cooked meal like good bread for croutons or paninis, ground beef, or our vegetables had turned into green goo at the bottom of the crisper drawer.  (I sometimes felt my vegetable buying at the store was a matter of extreme optimism, a belief like Gatsby's green light that this week I'd reach out and grasp the zucchini or stir fry those green onions.  But more often then not I ended up tossing them into an overstuffed garbage bag of half-empty styrofoam cartons of chicken strips, penne drowned in a red bath, and now-limp fries).  So cooking was oftentimes out if we hadn't planned ahead.  And don't get me wrong, we did make a point of trying to plan some meals ahead, but through one thing or another plans always seemed to get scrapped.  So the inevitable question was more like, "What take out should we have for dinner?"  

Which brings us to decision fatigue.  Perhaps we were so worn down by a day of making choices--teachers and parents have to make a lot of decisions each day when managing a class or interacting with a baby--that our willpower to decide to cook was worn down and we took the easier path.  This exhaustion of the will was manifested too when we tried to decide which takeout to get.

It wasn't that we lacked choices like we did in New Mexico.  There, we could get pizza from Pizza Hut, burritos from one or two cafes, ho-hum Chinese food, but not much else.  In Delmar we had all manner of take out options, only we still spent many evenings so tired it was hard to choose which one we wanted.  Nothing seemed terribly exciting or mouth-watering.  Inevitably we'd complete the circle from pizza to Greek food, to Japanese, to pasta, to burgers, sometimes going with Chinese, sometimes not, and then back to the inevitable pizza, wood fired or New York style--with some of our own meals thrown in for good measure.  Were restaurant dinners better or worse than TV dinners?  Maybe we were just poor planners and could have benefitted from a slow cooker or more one-pot recipes.  Whatever our problem was, we found it hard to kick.  

Last summer we even pledged to cook every night (well, we would allow for the occasional pizza or Chinese takeout meal), eat all organic food, and use those vegetables when they were fresh from the farmer's market.  But through one circumstance and another we didn't make it.  Blame it on the baby, we said.  Blame it on my job search.  If we go with Kingsolver's argument, perhaps we were caught in food culture that says anything goes.  She writes, "Here in the U.S. we seem puzzled by those who refrain from gluttony in the presence of a glut."  Kinsolver bemoans Americans' lack of identity in our food, comparing us with Italians who eat Italian food, Japanese who eat Japanese food ingrained with links to locally available items.  She wonders, "Will North Americans ever have a food culture of our own?  Can we find or make up a set of rituals, recipes, ethics, and buying habits that will let us love our food and eat it too?" I want to believe we do have a food culture in America--or many food cultures considering the diverse regions of our country.  I was a little surprised since having lived in Tucson for many years, Kingsolver doesn't give more credit to regions like the Southwest where chilis, frybread, tortillas, and beans and rice, and sopapillas, to name just a few of the best items are integral to daily life.  But perhaps having it all is also a facet of American food culture--one that gets blown out of proportion at palaces of gluttony such as the Cheesecake Factory, but an element of what we as Americans have come to expect day to day as well.

Talking with Dr. Sweety the other night about our dinner dilemma, she brought up another possibility.  

"It wasn't decision fatigue," she said.  "It was just fatigue fatigue."  And that was true too, and possibly the biggest obstacle many of us face in embracing a nobler, local, more truly American culture of eating.

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