So I've decided that the frozen food aisle at my local supermarket may be offering me more than it seems. Sure, it might be the place where I can satisfy those late night cravings for a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. It also gets me out of a tight spot on occasion, when I've got more guests on my hands than I thought and suddenly need more food. But never in a million years would I even think that as I race frantically down those aisles looking for frozen peas (or Chunky Monkey), that I'd actually be going back in time. That's right, going back in time. No, the refrigeration equipment is not alien technology, or some sort of government plot that can magically displace time and space. But oddly enough, the items that line the shelves of the frozen food aisle reflect the history of life through time.
Stumbling upon this finding was not intended. Really. I had not planned to write about TV dinners & dinosaurs in the same sentence. I was going to simply describe the frozen food aisle at Cala, a supermarket just down the street from where I live. But the longer I spent there the more it made sense: frozen food and "frozen time." I'm not pretending to be a historian, or even an archaeologist (although I took it on college), but since 1986 I have worked at the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum dedicated to the study of nature and the world around us, so hear me out...
For the past twelve years I have been going to work surrounded by lions, rhinos, dinosaurs and other assorted creatures both live and stuffed. Almost every weekend I pass one exhibit or another dealing with Nature, animals, or evolution. It is this last item, evolution, that I found reflected in the cases of the frozen food aisle. The museum spent years, and millions of dollars, to create a hall that would inform the public about life, and how it has progressed through the ages. It's filled with the latest high tech displays, painstakingly created replicas of dinosaurs, and prehistoric plants. The creation of this hall was a major undertaking, and has become a permanent exhibit at the back of the museum (which they had to expand just to fit the hall.) Now I feel sorry for the designers, they could have saved a lot of time and money by just putting in a frozen food aisle...
The frozen food section at Cala isn't too interesting. One plus is that even though the aisle is long, it is very well lit with rows of fluorescent lights hanging from overhead. The floor is an off-white, a color somewhere between Colgate and an old sock. It's relatively clean, except for a few spots of "mystery stickiness." The tall refrigerated cases are stainless steel with large glass doors that open outwards with a handle. The glass, like the floor, is somewhat clean, with hand prints visible in front of sale items and various small nose prints at waist level in front of the dessert section (the owners probably being small children looking to see if there are any Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers ice cream bars.) The food inside the cases is completely viewable, but condensation makes it difficult to look in right after someone has opened the door to the case.
As for people, the section was pretty quiet went I visited. There was a burly clerk with short, brown hair in a blue apron. He was wearing old, crusty green gloves, the kind you might find in a garden shop, cutting open boxes of frozen food with a small silver packing knife. He didn't seem to care that he was slashing open the front of each dinner at the top of every box he cut open. His motions seemed automatic, as he quickly shoved the frozen dinners, including the slashed ones, away in the tall cases.
Another visitor to the aisle was a small Asian gentleman dressed in gray pants and a dark pullover sweater. He didn't have a shopping cart or hand basket with him as he stood in front of the ice cream section trying to find the best bargain. He was constantly pulling out a pair of reading glasses, trying to decipher the microscopic price stickers. He wasn't going to leave the store without getting the best deal on a half gallon of ice cream.
It was from this point where I was standing, freezing next to the fruit bars and Push-Ups that I realized that the layout of the frozen food aisle was like a microcosm for evolution. The cases were filled with our past. The aisle, a corridor of time. I was there, goose bumps and all, at the beginning of our existence. The ice cream and frozen desserts transformed into an "Ice Age." A period with nothing yet formed, just primordial ooze, glacier-ice with chunks of chocolate, fruits & such. Man's (and Woman's) entrance was still millions of years into the future. The dinosaurs had yet to make an appearance. All there was, was ice.
A short step to the left, along time, and we see the first appearance of the "lower vegetables": frozen carrots, peas, corn, etc. This section represents the beginnings of life. Next to various boxes and bags of Green Giant and Springfield (a generic species of life) are the higher "life forms": mixed vegetables. We begin to see peas and carrots mixing now. Above them, the three veggie mixes: peas, carrots and corn. We also get a glimpse of the lima bean entering the fray, joining in with the "herds" of frozen vegetables. Moving higher up the shelf (or should I say "food chain"?) we find massive bags of vegetables reflecting a migration of sorts, a continental drift: bags for Oriental stir-frying, Italian garden strains, Greek bean salads, American garden variety, etc. The early stages of life in our self proclaimed exhibit hall are a virtual Eden, filled with vegetables of various color and taste.
The next Age (section of the aisle) we see the potato as king. This sluggish beast comes in a variety of shapes and sizes: ranging from the small Tater Tots and hash browns to the gargantuan Seasoned Texas Steak Fries. This slice of time is an era that is short lived (at least at Cala, where the potato section isn't too big.)
After the Potatic Period, we see the emergence of an entirely new form of life, with traits from the past eras, including portions of chopped vegetables and potato: the Pot Pie. A compact creature, it is the first "warm-blooded" frozen food. This may sound odd, but once heated at 350 degrees Farenheight for 35 to 40 minutes, the interior of the pot pie becomes a warm stew which separated it from the other, earlier types of life. The exterior of the pot pie seems to be armored in a flaky, pastry-like shell. The pot pie signaled a change in dining habits.
But in this section of our edible evolution, the pot pie was not alone. Land wasn't the only place teeming with new life forms, during the same era as the pot pie was a creature that flourished in the sea: the fish stick. This aquatic antiquity came in a number of sizes, reminiscent of the potato: the small, sleek Fish Nibble and the massive Breaded Fillet. To this day we can still find the descendants of the early fish sticks in our oceans, mostly of the "dolphin-safe" variety.
Roughly midway along our journey a new creature appeared, taking over as king, a relative of the pot pie: the monstrous TV Dinner. An imposing sight, the TV Dinner was a massive quantity of food (larger than anything we've seen before on our trip) wrapped in a plating that only great heat could get through. The TV Dinner was truly the ruler of the Swansonnic Age.
As this age drew to a close we see the appearance of a smaller, leaner beast: The Weight Watcher. It's reduced size (and increased cost) enabled it to take over the majority of the latter half of the frozen food aisle. Other types of reduced fat entrees also thrived: the Healthy Choice, the Lean Cuisine and the Budget Gourmet. These dishes are still with us today, gaining even more popularity. It seems the Weight Watcher will be with us for a long time.
For the future, well one could try to gaze deep into a gypsy's crystal ball, or build a time machine that would allow us to travel ahead in time and greet our future generations. Instead, one only needs to turn to the very last section of the frozen food aisle at Cala. It is here that we might be able to catch a glimpse of What Lies Ahead. Self cooking meals? An ATM machine that will take your order and have it delivered right to your home whenever you want? (I'll take swordfish next Monday at 5:30pm) At the end of the aisle we are only greeted with a mystery. Behind the last glass door with a flickering fluorescent tube, covered with smeared fingerprints and old torn price tags, we see a section ominously labeled in faded black marker: "Discount Items."