Story Time: The Processed Food Products I had to Learn How To Make

Kitchen counter with a microwave, sauce with tomatoes, a plate with greens and bottle of spices and olive oil

by: Giselle General

As someone born in relatively more modern times, even if I grew up in a rural place before coming to Canada, I’m not completely ignorant of processed food products. The fact that my family had a convenience store gave me greater access to them. So I already know how to prepare and cook frozen hotdogs and meats, and how to differentiate preparing instant noodles from a package using a pot water, and instant cup noodles by pouring water that is already boiling.

However, upon arriving to Canada, certain products are so new to me that I had to learn the hard way how to prepare them. I fondly look back at these cooking mishaps with humor now, but it was either mortifying or frustrating during that time. Here are some of these (now adorably funny) mishaps.

Microwavable Meals

“Did the package just say that this is frozen creamy linguini chicken pasta? So the pasta is not raw? How does this work”? Microwavable meals were a lifesaver for me and my cousin when I first arrived in Canada. My older cousin is really busy with going to college and working, that preparing meals is something that is not feasible all the time. Besides, these frozen meals are pretty cheap. I eventually learned that it is very important to follow the instructions to a T. When it says, lift only one corner of the container, you have to do so. When it says to let it stand for one minute after the timer goes off, you have to do that, otherwise your hands are not going to like feeling burnt.

Here are where the mishaps happened. When I was already living in Edmonton, a few times I decided to bring a microwavable meal to school, find a clean microwave on campus so that I have a slightly more decent meal for cheap. One time, I forgot to bring utensils so my plan went sideways. The other time, I forgot that this is a frozen meal, so on locations where the temperature is above zero, like my own backpack, it starts to melt and makes a wet sticky mess on your bag!

Close up of an oven's handle and buttons.

When I started dating my then boyfriend, now husband, I also discovered an even more unusual type of microwavable meal called “rice steamers”. There are extra steps such as layering the plastic bowl-like contraptions and lifting half of the plastic seal. Each plastic bowl is a different part of the meal, one is rice or noodles, then the other would have the vegetables or meat and the sauce. After taking it off the microwave, you combine all the different food items together and there’s the meal, ready to go!

Frozen Pizza

Frozen pizzas were a mystery for me the first few times too, haha! One time, I tried to help with making dinner at my then-boyfriend’s place. I though I understood all the instructions, set the timer, removed the plastic film and whatnot. But I forgot to remove the cardboard box to transfer it onto a pizza pan, so the bottom was weirdly soggy and damp. The other time, after I learned that keeping the box on isn’t what you are supposed to do, I placed the frozen pizza right on the oven rack. The pizza was cooked well this time, though I did struggle with taking it out of the oven to cut it into pieces. I felt really silly for sure!

There wasn’t an explicit instruction in the box that talks about that – I bet it’s because it’s assumed that people already know that frozen pizzas are to be placed in a metal baking pan. But now, I know better and I’m a pro at making frozen pizzas when in a pinch for a good meal!

Canned Tomato Soup

The only “instant soup” (not instant noodles) that I was familiar with at the time is the cream of mushroom soup. Empty the can, with this almost jelly-like blob that held the shape of the can, add another can of liquid, either milk or water, stir the blob so it combines with the other liquid, and warm it up. But the first time I dealt with tomato soup, it’s a bit of a mystery to me.

Tomato soup with green garnish on a white bowl.

My then-boyfriend and I were making a simple dinner at his condo and we wanted soup, and he wanted tomato soup. It was confusing because upon opening the can, it was a thick liquid, but not as solidified as the cream of mushroom soup. I added the water, combined it and heated it up. For some reason I thought it’s taking such a long time to simmer, but I waited and waited anyways. Once it looked reasonably warmed through, I put it in a bowl to serve. He ate it without a fuss.

It wasn’t until years later, that he admitted that I burned the soup very very badly! That’s why there was a tough brown layer of soup at the bottom of the pot. I can only imagine how horrible it tasted, oh no! But he didn’t say anything at the time. I guess that’s what happens when you are still in the honeymoon phase of your relationship. Now it’s been a running joke between me and my husband when we cook and prepare meals together!

My Financial Costs to Volunteering

The time and energy that it takes to volunteer in a meaningful way is something I anticipated and embraced. I mean, that’s the whole point. To receive little or no financial compensation for doing something that is interesting and helpful to the community at large. It gives opportunities to meet different types of people, learn information and perspectives that are not always available within one’s home or work environment, and have a fun time making a project or goal a reality.

However, there are two items that I didn’t quite expect, which turned into actual additional expenses. These are travel and food costs.

Overall, I’d say I have a decent grasp of my finances, where the dollars go, how much, and under which category. As I grow older and have reached a level of stability in my life, I’ve managed to aim a certain quality of life that I’m satisfied with, hit savings targets and enjoyed the process, and find ways to be savvy with expenses. That being said, as my list of volunteer activities grew, there are times that spending a bit more to travel around places or to have a quick bite is inevitable.

As a non-driver, public transit user, who attends meetings and activities outside of “regular” transit hours, the cost of ride hailing services do add up. I’d say 90% of my taxi, Tappcar and Uber trips are related to a volunteer or community service activity. Whenever possible, when heading to the location I try to take transit, and then only take a cab going back. However, traveling from downtown Edmonton where I work, to the very far edge of Edmonton farther west from Anthony Henday, it’s just not feasible. It’s a hefty car ride as well. Such trips would likely be $40 one way. I’ve done this a few times, and given my duties in this particular volunteer board, it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

Since I started using his budgeting software and system a while back, I do have the tools to answer this questions with actual numbers.

For another board I volunteer for, the main office is on the south side across the river, around the Scona area. When the weather is good and I can leave the office from downtown 45 minutes ahead of time, taking a bus and walking for 20 minutes (if the weather is good and the sidewalks are not slippery) is feasible. Otherwise, it’s a $20 cab ride to get to the meeting. And then, since the meeting ends pretty late, no way can I take transit going home. Fellow board members had kindly offered a ride sometimes, for which I’m grateful for. However, when that is not an option, that’s another $20 minimum for another trip. One volunteer meeting, $40 expense, but I get a nice dinner, so there’s upsides and downsides for sure.

For one board I am a member of, our sub-committee meetings usually take place in restaurants. Typically it would be a bar in downtown Edmonton. Sometimes there would be two of these meetings in a month, and that’s where the expense can add up.

I was worried about this when my husband helped me put things in perspective by asking a simple question. “Is it within the budget?” Regardless of what prompted the expense, there is comfort in knowing that the expense is anticipated and that I do have the resources to allocate money for it. Since I started using his budgeting software and system a while back, I do have the tools to answer this questions with actual numbers.

I’ve managed to find a workaround to make sure this doesn’t break the bank too much. As far as eating out is concerned, I have given up on my “solo restaurant dates” that I’d have once a month. So, that’s one less restaurant meal I spend on. Whenever there is a meeting in a bar, depending on how hungry I am, I started ordering appetizers half of the time, instead of choosing an entree right away. A board member started teasing me and say “looks like you have a thing for poutine!” when he noticed that for several meetings in a row, I’d get the same thing: iced tea and a poutine.

Regarding travel costs, it looks like I spent $1,500 on cab rides last year and $1,100 in 2018. That jump is definitely directly correlated to the additional activities I’ve been attending. But I have zero car expenses because I don’t drive. This expense is the additional one I have on top of my bus pass. Thinking about how much people spend on their cars, helped me put this in perspective.

I realize that having to spend a few dollars in addition to sharing one’s time and energy while unpaid is too much for some. But I hope that for some who have a bit of financial flexibility, that it would manageable to give just a little bit more. And seriously, the conversations I have outside the actual meetings, when at the restaurant chatting while waiting for everyone else, or during the carpools after a long board meeting, they are just as meaningful as the actual volunteer activity we just had.

Love Language Reflections: On Food

By: Giselle General

The Generals, my father’s side, in my mind is the side of the family that rules when it comes to food.My father was responsible for that reputation. My limited childhood memories of him consists of him planning our meals and delegating our yaya (nanny) with specific instructions on what cut of meat, what vegetables to buy, as well as step-by-step cooking instructions. He would write them in neat block letters using the scrap paper he brought home from his office and hang it up on the fridge. On weekends whenever he has the time, he would make pancakes using a specific store-bought mix, but my young self watched in wonder as he would make sugar syrup from scratch. He would show me in the little pot the sugar and water combination while cautiously warning me that it is very, very hot. Now thinking about it, that makes sense since he works as the supervisor for the Safety Department in the mining town we lived in. It’s one of the small and loving memories of him that I’ll always cherish.

And then there’s his mother, my grandma, who also serves incredible food when we come to visit. My family lives almost an 8 hour ride from Metro Manila, where my father’s side lives. Whenever we visit for about a week and a half shortly after Christmas up to New Year’s Day, we get treated with grandma’s most popular and incredibly tasty foods. Almondigas (asian noodle soup with pork meatballs), embutido (steamed meatloaf rolled like logs), macaroni pasta, beef mushroom, carbonara and more. I learned that making party trays of these dishes is her main way of making a livelihood. If I remember correctly, for the payment she gets for the party tray, she is able to cook enough to fulfill the order and make extra for at least two meals for a fairly large family.

After my father, mother and sister passed away, my brother and I continued the tradition of this annual visit to Manila, and when we do arrive, we embrace the warm feelings from having these foods again. Grandma would always say whenever she serves a dish, something like “oh this one, your Papa loves it when I make this” or “I remember when you were kids, your Ate (big sister) keeps on saying this is her favourite.”

Now, I have been trying to replicate some of these recipes. Some more easy than others because the products that you buy here are a bit different. Instant Cream of Mushoom Soup is an example. In Canada you buy it in cans, while in the Philippines, it is in powder form. I messaged a cousin on Facebook for the recipe and made it one night when we hosted my partner’s family in our condo.

During our very recent trip to the Philippines in December 2018, as always my partner and I had to be deliberate on which restaurant we go to for meals, given his food allergies and sensitivities. A go-to place for us is this all-day breakfast place called Pancake House which we discovered and really enjoyed during our last visit in 2013 as well. This time around, we had a chance to go there with my uncle, the only living brother of my father. He said more than once that that restaurant is one of the two places grandma really likes to go.

My grandma passed away a few years ago, and I’m pleased to hear that my relatives try to make some of these dishes themselves. It becomes a positive point of conversation among them, and it is starting to be part of my life too despite living literally on the opposite side of the world. I guess it’s just fitting that during the upcoming long weekend I will try to make the Almondigas soup while it’s super cold as heck here in Edmonton. Memories, habits, personalities are transmitted and memorialized in food, a really meaningful and powerful love language.