The Eight Steps

(Fiercely redoubling my efforts to be trivial. Ithangyou.)

So last night I heated up a frozen sausage lasagna for dinner*. It was perfectly deelish, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the instructions on the back of the cardboard container thingy. See, the instructions had eight steps. To be sure, the final instruction amounted to, ‘divide up the lasagna with cutlery of your choice, place in mouth, chew, swallow and digest’ (‘What?! You mean I don’t pour it into my shoes and squelch around all day? What kind of cockamamie set-up is this?’), but that’s neither here nor there. There were eight steps, and the manufacturers clearly believed that this level of complexity of both preparation, and description of preparation, was entirely necessary. F’rinstance, I didn’t merely have to wrap the container in foil; I had to wrap it in foil shaped like a tent. This was part cooking, part origami.

I’m really a child of Marks & Spencer, so this took me aback a bit. Until I’m convinced otherwise from personal experience, I’ll consider the good people of M&S to be the world leaders in food preparation for the reasonably affluent but pathologically lazy middle classes. No way would they consider an eight-step preparation algorithm for frozen lasagna to be acceptable. Three would be fine. Four, tops. Any bright young thing who came to them with an eight-step frozen dish would be given, ahem, the cold shoulder.

Douglas Adams once wrote a character who’d been sent mad – the particular nature of his madness being having come to the conclusion that the whole of the rest of the world was mad – by having bought some toothpicks which had instructions on them. This might not be too much of an exaggeration for satirical effect. The eighth step in the frozen lasagna algorithm was, verbatim: ‘cut, and serve’. Perhaps this is just me, but I kinda assume that when I’ve cooked food I won’t simply pour it down the garbage disposal, and that in order to put the food into my mouth, to facilitate ingestion into my body, I might need to divide it somehow into smaller pieces. My mouth just isn’t that big, yanno?

The eightness of the algorithm is probably also a consequence of the relative rarity of basically good quality pre-prepared food in the US that’s intended to be heated/cooked at home – the niche in Britain that M&S pretty much invented, then widened and perfected. If you’re a lazy eater in the US, there’s almost certainly a good basic diner not too far away that’ll fill you up for a few dollars. Not so in Britain, where eating out is still a relative luxury for most people. So the lazy-food market has been honed and polished by M&S (and others) until it gleams. Complex meals off the shelf. Whole dinner parties in cardboard and plastic, the preparation streamlined almost to the point of ’50s futuristic kitchen utopianism. And a good deal of pride in the culinary prestidigitation which pulls a basically home-cooked meal from little boxes, after waving over them the magic-word instructions which amount to: ‘Heat and eat, already. You know how this works. Go on, shoo.’

*Memo to the world: It’s not lasagna if it don’t got no meat.


  • When I was in jr. high school, we had to take “home economics” classes, consisting of Childcare, Sewing, and Cooking. In Cooking, we were given a recipe for frozen orange juice. When some of us complained that we really didn’t need a recipe and could probably even follow the instructions on the can itself, we were told that not everyone could do that and that we all needed the recipe. (In Childcare, we learned that after giving a doll a bath, if you snapped its head off to empty the water out, you could send the teacher into fits. Her instructions had not specifically said =not= to do that.)

  • I thought of you the other day when I saw directions for putting the lid on a cup of take-out coffee. The laminated card was hanging up near the coffee lids and had 2 steps with accompanying diagrams. Each step had printed cautions that went along with it. Oh, this was on a college campus, so maybe that explains it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *