Food Snob Chronicles – Why these food products have improved through the years

I’m talking neither about mushrooms nor bleu cheese. And never mind that you were an adult before you found bliss in the crunch of a Vidalia onion or from the buttery texture of a rich Lula avocado. My aim here is to show why old fashioned isn’t always a good thing in the world of food and beverage.

TV Dinners
For all of you in the 20-35 demographic, I’m referring to frozen meals that require a couple of minutes in the microwave. — While the box art still exaggerates the heck out of the actual contents, most meals found in your grocer’s freezer taste better than they did 25 years ago. Truth is, even most of the cheaper meals include meat and veggies that are recognizable, unlike the old days. Most manufacturers have also managed to add herbs and spices to the once Chef Boyardee-clone Italian style meals.

Hey kids! Remember this? You get bonus points for recalling those pull-tabs and remembering the scary warning.

Hey kids! Remember this? You get bonus points for recalling those pull tabs and the scary warning.

Do you remember?  The earliest TV dinners — turkey, meatloaf, salisbury steak or fried chicken — were created in the 1950s and took about 45 minutes to cook in a standard oven. The metal trays began to be replaced with plastic ones in the early 1980s, when microwave ovens were hitting the culinary scene.

Diet drinks
Walking through a grocery store recently, I spotted a small display of Tab. When I told my 15-year-old daughter that Tab was the original diet soda, she asked whether it tasted good. I suppose to the micro percentage of the population that prefers cola-flavored saccharin, Tab is still king. But I’d much rather quaff something sweetened with Splenda or Stevia.

OK. Salt is salt. The actual flavor hasn’t improved since I became an adult. But the selection certainly has. At a low-end grocery store this past week I saw several varieties of salt on the spice aisle — Himalayan, Fleur de Sel, coarse sea salt, fine sea salt and everything in between. It wasn’t that long ago that the choice in most markets was either iodized or plain.

I always wanted to like grapefruit as a kid. The red varieties are, after all, the most visibly striking of the commonly available citrus varieties. But — my goodness — eating most grapefruit in those days was like trying to swallow cough syrup.

I might’ve grown to like grapefruit on its own but thanks to citrus breeders like my old friend Donald Thompson, we now have the Rio Red variety. Not only is it gorgeous to look at, it needs nary a spoonful of sugar. It’s the perfect balance of sweet and bitter. And its kid-friendly too.

Did you know? The Rio Red Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) was developed in Weslaco, Texas. Budwood from the new variety eventually found its way to Florida, where it was propagated and named the Ruby Red. Interestingly, Florida agriculture laws prohibit the import of any outside citrus articles, including root stock and budwood.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I was inspired to recreate one of my favorite childhood weeknight meals after reading the January, 2014 issue of Southern Living. The newer (hardly just Southern) version is much more refined than the ground beef-laden stuff that I gobbled down as a kid, yet it’s just as comforting. And filling.

I happen to keep fresh spinach on hand and add it to just about everything. If you have none in your crisper, go without it. Or, consider replacing it with another green — or broccoli florets, fresh sugar snap peas or artichokes. Just add them to the skillet a little earlier to allow for cooking. No shrimp? No problem. You can use chopped pieces of (white meat) chicken, so long as you mix them in a couple of minutes before end of the stove-top preparation.

Lemon Orzo Shrimp Skillet

Lemon Shrimp Orzo. Perfect for a weeknight. Tastes like a weekend.

Lemon Orzo Shrimp Skillet. Perfect for a weeknight. Tastes like a weekend.

2 cups – Orzo
2 – Garlic cloves, minced
4 TB – Butter
2 cups – Fresh spinach, chopped
3½ cups – Vegetable or chicken stock
Zest and juice from 1 Lemon

1 lb – Large (21-30 ct) Shrimp, peeled and deveined
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a large ovenproof skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and orzo; cook, stirring regularly, until garlic is fragrant and orzo starts to turn light brown. Add stock, lemon juice and zest; cook until orzo is al dente and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. (Add water or additional stock, if necessary.)

Stir chopped spinach into orzo mixture, then top with shrimp. Season shrimp as desired — with salt and pepper, or with lemon pepper (as seen in photo). Place skillet in oven on a middle rack and back until shrimp are pink, about 7-9 minutes. Remember that shrimp will continue cooking for a couple of minutes when you pull the skillet from the oven, so avoid overcooking.

Serves 4.


  1. That looks fantastic, Adam. Mrs. G loves orzo and we both like shrimp. I was wondering what to cook for dinner, you might have just solved that for us.

    Speaking of old sodas….do you remember Jolt Cola? Something like 4x the caffeine? That might have been the original energy drink.

    • adamjholland says:

      Thanks, Jason. I do remember Jolt. In addition to the extra helping of caffeine, it had twice (maybe more) the sugar of conventional sodas. An endocrinologist’s nightmare indeed.

  2. I could eat that whole skillet all by myself. I love shrimp anyhow, but you’ve turned it into a comfort food dish. It looks amazing. As far as the old stuff, I remember tv dinners … the old ones. Especially salisbury steak. The thought makes me shudder.

    • adamjholland says:

      Salisbury steaks of the frozen or school cafeteria variety are … bad. I’m playing around with salisbury steak recipes and plan to introduce my finished product here soon. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince you to at least try it. (Also, I’m hoping to get Dudette’s seal of approval.)

  3. I so enjoy your Thursday essays. How hysterical that the original TV dinners took as long as a regular dinner to prepare. Though, I suppose, you could use those 45 minutes to watch the Ed Sullivan show instead of fussing over a casserole.

    I remember the microwave “chicken potpies” my mom would leave in the freezer for us to eat for after-school snacks. There was hardly any chicken. Barely any vegetables. Mainly a thick, soupy broth.

    • adamjholland says:

      There’s something about those 50-cent pot pies that still appeals to me. They don’t taste good, so I don’t know why. It’s probably the speech from John Bender (Judd Nelson) in The Breakfast Club when he was trashing his abusive father. Who knows though? It could just be that I’m impressed that those paper pie pans somehow manage to produce a flaky crust.

  4. I love shrimp and I love orzo. What’s not to like about this meal? And YES, frozen dinners have improved remarkably over the years. Not that I’m admitting that I eat them on occasion, am I? ;)

    • adamjholland says:

      Thanks, Kathryn! Right now in my freezer: 3- Herdez Mexican Bowls; 2- Marie Callender’s pot pies; and goodness knows how many Michelina’s Pizza Snacks.

  5. First things first…that lemon orzo looks like the bomb dot com!
    Second, there was only one person in my life who consumed Tab…my beloved Godmother, Shirley. IIm guessing that she met a saccharine filled death a few years ago

  6. And remember, you had to keep the dessert covered in those old TV dinners? I’d love to have one of those old trays as a photography prop for my blog. I can’t remember if I liked Tab. I think I used to be a die hard regular Coke person. And for some reason I devoured gallons of Fresca. These days it’s club soda for me. Can’t stand the taste of our soda pops now. Go Broncos.

    • adamjholland says:

      I’ve always been a regular Coke person too. Once in a while, I might go way out on a limb and grab a Big Red (don’t know why). Have you checked eBay for the old TV dinner tray?

  7. Well, Adam, I’m older than you and remember every thing you discussed. Tab tastes like rusty well water. Always has always will. Fresca is no better.

    I sort of missed the point with TV dinners. Oh, we ate them. My mother worked out of the home and didn’t like cooking. could cook a meal, from start to finish, in the time it took to reheat your fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green china berries

  8. I’m pleased to inform that this recipe is featured on our blog . Just take a look at it

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