One of my dear friends recently bought new state-of-the art kitchen appliances. She is a great entertainer and I couldn't wait to be invited for a home-cooked meal. Sure enough, I got an invitation for homemade boeuf bourguignon, better known to me as beef stew.

When I arrived, the table was beautifully set, including gorgeous place mats and matching napkin rings. It was a delightful and nostalgic sight - nostalgic because I gave up that practice years ago when I was unable to satisfactorily clean the mats after food was spilled on them.

Through the glint of the gleaming new stainless steel appliances, I noticed a black ceramic pot on top of her counter.

"What's that?" I asked.

"That's what cooked your dinner," she replied, adding, "I just love how uncomplicated it is. The controls are incredibly simple: 'On and off' and 'high and low.' Isn't that great?"

Astounded, I saw that right before my eyes my friend had turned from Julia Child to Betty Crockpot!

Sitting across the table, we engaged in conversation while savoring the tender beef and fresh vegetables. Warm rolls and a side of pickled beets made my heart sing. As I enjoyed this pleasurable meal, I reflected on how much change has occurred in the way we feed ourselves.

Years ago, when I was married and living in South Pasadena, Calif., having people over for dinner provided weekend entertainment. Early Saturday morning, I'd shop for the ingredients to create my own marinara sauce. Later, I'd boil the noodles needed for my legendary lasagna. I carefully assembled each layer of noodles, sauce and cheese.

Included with this dish was garlic bread, full-bodied red wine and luscious desserts. Making sure the dinner table had sparkling wine glasses, polished silver cutlery and delicate bone china thrilled me. Nothing gave me more pleasure than to have my guests drink a toast to the chef and compliment me on my great meal.

That was then.

Recently I hosted a dinner party. I went to my local supermarket, bought about three pounds of cold cuts, some potato salad, coleslaw, rolls and a pie. I didn't prepare one item. All I did was splurge on some parsley to make the platters look festive. The topper was that all this was served on paper plates with plastic cutlery.

And so it goes. Those wonderful dinner parties where guests stayed until 2 in the morning discussing politics, films, great books and personal travel experiences have disappeared from my life.

Another dramatic change is that all sorts of foods, formerly seasonal, are now available year-round. Modern freezing techniques and rapid shipping provide blueberries and strawberries in the dead of winter. Fish are "farmed" and turkey, once revered as the main course at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables, is no more exotic than a pork chop.

Although I appreciate being able to find whatever food I crave, there was magic to the way special foods appeared at different times of the year.

Growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, my brother and I had dinner at home every night. My mom wasn't the world's greatest cook but she tried her best. There was often a traditional entrée from the cuisine developed by a hodgepodge of immigrants and first-generation families. Love was put into those dishes.

Once in a while, when Mom craved a break, she would give my brother a quarter and let us go to the local deli. For 25 cents, we each had a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut, shared an order of French fries and each had a cream soda. That was a big deal for us.

Many years later in our adulthood, my brother was driving me to JFK airport. On a whim, he said, "C'mon, let's have a hot dog like we used to." Racing off the Belt Parkway, he made a dash to the closest known deli where he ordered the same food we ate as kids.

"Delicious, isn't it?" he said. With my mouth full, I answered with a smile and a nod. Laughing, he continued, "Yeah, but this cost me almost six bucks." That was many years ago. Probably costs $20 today.

Today, fast food is the name of the game. McDonald's, Taco Bell and the like literally dot the globe. If you care for a little more fine dining, you can choose from the coffee shop/diner type chains located on every street and highway. More expensive restaurants tend to be trendy and pricey but quality of food takes a back burner to ambiance.

Does anyone eat at home anymore? Even supermarkets have an endless variety of prepared-food choices. Many feature tables and chairs so there is no need to go home to eat. Driving around I often see people eating in their cars. Dinner is no longer the event of the day.

I've succumbed. Rarely do I plan a meal for myself, especially one that requires turning on an appliance. My nutrition is derived from grazing through my kitchen.

Oh well, I wonder what Betty Crockpot is cooking today!

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