By JUDY HEVRDEJS
YOU'VE GOT TO LOVE JIM CARPER'S ATtention to detail. And his honesty. The guy from the Chicago suburb of Glencoe insists that his molasses-cookie-and-applesauce concoction should be served in a footed bowl "so you can see the layers."
Then, citing a deep, abiding love for whipped cream in a can, the 48-year-old Carper admits that his recipe "really just gives me a cover to consume Reddi Wip."
Jim, you're not alone in your fondness for convenience foods. Velveeta, Cool Whip, pre-cooked kielbasa, Stove Top Stuffing Mix, crushed potato chips, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and more prompted prose that filled up our mailbox when we asked readers to dig through their recipes and memories to come up with favorite dishes built upon convenience foods.
Love 'em or hate 'em, convenience foods hold a special place in our culture, as much for the time they save as for the scientific wizardry that created them.
Web sites pay homage to them. Two just-released books sing their praises: "Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat" (Quirk, $14.95) by Carolyn Wyman, and "The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1,001 Things You Hate to Love" (Quirk, $14.95), a compendium that tucks Twinkies and Rice-A-Roni between entries for Abba and Pia Zadora.
Mary Britton of Matteson, Ill., has her own guilty pleasure: a chili, Fritos and Velveeta mix. Britton's e-mail to Q says: "We used to eat this in college. A bunch of us would get home from the club (ahem, I mean the library) and we'd make a batch of this. Then we would sit around and talk (ahem, I mean study). Eating this reminds me of good times and good friends."
Think French scribbler Marcel Proust had a lock on food memories with that little blond cookie named madeleine? Think again.
"Gaze upon the sea of neon-cheesed noodles, polka-dotted bobbing green peas, counterbalanced by dashes of tuna fish," wrote Darien, Ill.'s, Mare Chiaro of her recipe dubbed Mac X. "It is a beauty to behold.
"While separately each ingredient represented a desperate meal in itself, artfully blended together they were more than just a step away from casserole," the 43-year-old mom added. "This was a move toward self-sufficiency -- a sign that I would not perish out in the real world into which I had recently graduated.
"It was a major self-affirming move beyond 'chips and dip for dinner' and leagues into assuaging the mother-inspired 'take care of yourself' guilt. This dish represents my move to adulthood independence at its simplest."
Chiaro, who has yet to convince her family of the dish's delights, noted, "'Mac and cheese extraordinaire' remains a nostalgic reminder of the time I introduced my then-boyfriend to one facet of my developing culinary talents. He ended up marrying me in spite of my questionable tendency to eat vegetables straight from the can."
Fond memories aside, the one reason readers cited most often for using convenience foods?
It helped them shave a few minutes off prep time, delivering a big payoff: a family meal.
Vicki Egler remembers her mom making cinnamon rolls for the holidays (starting the dough the night before, waking early to shape and bake).
"When my children were small, I came up with a much quicker recipe," said Egler of Libertyville, Ill., who tucks Rolo chocolate-caramel candies inside refrigerator biscuits, rolls them in cinnamon sugar, layers them in a pan and drizzles with butter before baking.
"My husband [loyal and supportive guy!] actually likes my recipe better," added Egler, noting that "when my kids were in braces we substituted Hershey's Kisses for the Rolos because the caramel was on their list of forbidden foods."
Bonnie Garneau of Elmhurst, Ill., nominated her vegetable spaghetti -- frozen vegetables mixed with pasta and Newman's Italian salad dressing -- because "it really tastes good, is very quick and easy. It also only dirties one pot -- what more could you ask!"
That time-saving aspect of convenience foods dovetails with the important role the ritual of mealtimes have for families today.
"Mealtimes have become about so much more than just nutrition," said Angela R. Wiley, assistant professor and family life specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Mealtimes have become a time when families can share, kind of come together and relax after a long day (and) regroup in the home atmosphere.
"I think there is a lot of popular worry that family mealtimes are declining. But what we find, and some others in other research laboratories are finding, is that families are still eating together quite frequently," added Wiley.
In fact, the recent Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America by The NPD Group of researchers found that we ate out in restaurants a lot more in 1985 than we did last year -- 93 times per person versus 83 times in 2003.
Getting those meals on the table, though, means many are incorporating convenience foods -- from bagged salads to boxed dinners -- into meal prep.
For those families, "They feel like it's a compromise they can make and still have that time together with their family. ... We, as a society, associate labor -- the intensity of labor and time of preparation -- with love," Wiley added. "I think we're slowly coming out of that mythology. I'm not saying that convenience foods are necessarily always the healthiest of foods, but that's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is sort of time and labor."
Indeed, some convenience foods can make substantial contributions in -- choose one or two or all three -- calories, fat or sodium.
Lisa Shamrock of Naperville, Ill., recalled enjoying her mom's take on cheese-stuffed hot dogs wrapped in refrigerated crescent rolls: "I vaguely remember having them once or twice as a child, before my mom looked too closely at the labels."
Nutrition issues aside, family pressures often rule the day.
Take the case of Cindy Beberman. She has won her share of cooking prizes so admits to being "a little embarrassed to be contributing this pumpkin cream pie recipe."
"However, this recipe, which dates back to the '60s, will just not go away," wrote the 53-year-old from Orland Park, Ill. Maybe it's the presence of lots of instant pudding and pie filling or the tub of Cool Whip -- whatever. The pies have been part of her holiday dinners for more than 40 years.
"I've tried to upgrade everyone to more sophisticated pumpkin chiffon," but the family -- her husband, 12-year-old daughter and assorted relatives -- won't let her change.
"I pride myself on being this good baker, so I'm a little sheepish about showing up with this open-the-package recipe," she said.
Chicagoan Stacy Dixon, on the other hand, noted right off the bat that: "I am no gourmet cook, so experimenting in the kitchen is not one of my pastimes. ... But my experiments with prepared foods worked!"
Her experiment? It's something she stirred up after falling in love with a sausage-beans-spinach-and-pasta dish at a local eatery.
Although the recipe calls for four convenience foods, she noted, "You also should have handy another bottled item while preparing my 'let it sit pasta': a nice red wine.
"The ingredients need to sit for an hour to meld the flavors, so having a glass of wine is a excellent way to pass the time while one thoroughly reads Sunday's Q section."
JIM CARPER'S POOR MAN'S TRIFLE
"The cookie is like a flavorful pie crust, and the applesauce is the filling," according to Jim Carper.
1 Archway Old Fashioned Molasses cookie
2 tablespoons applesauce
2 to 3 tablespoons or more Reddi Wip
Place cookie in a footed glass dessert dish; top with applesauce. Squirt on whipped topping.
Editor's note: The proportions depend on your personal preference.
Yield: 1 serving
MAC AND CHEESE EXTRAORDINAIRE
"The trifecta of processed food cuisine has to be 'Mac X,' writes Mare Chiaro. "Even though it's been years since I've made this dish, I still crave it. Cans of peas call to me from the pantry as they sit next to boxes and boxes of my children's favorite dinner staple and the towering stacks of canned tuna stockpiled for the 19-year-old cat who deserves pampering in her old age."
1 package (7.25 ounces) Kraft Macaroni & amp; Cheese Dinner, prepared according to package directions
1 can (6 ounces) tuna, drained
1 can (15 ounces) sweet peas, drained
After staring at the boiling pasta for three minutes, cave in to appetite pressure; devour half the peas straight from the can with a spoon. (This is an essential step as the final dish cannot support a whole can of sweet peas; the flavor and texture balance of the dish would be thrown way off.)
Dump the two canned ingredients into the pot of completed Macaroni & amp; Cheese; mix until the peas just begin to burst, releasing their sweetness into the creamy concoction.
Yield: 1-4 servings, depending on appetite
XFor more reader recipes based on convenience foods, go to www.chicagotribune.com/junkfood.