From what I hear, the latchkey kid is a category nearing extinction. The term was first used in the 1930s to describe younger kids who wore keys around their necks to let themselves into their homes after school. Though there was a rise in latchkey kids during the pandemic due to reduced childcare options, these days, with more companies allowing remote or hybrid work, many kids are coming home to a parent working somewhere in the house. Maybe one of the parents might take a break from a Zoom call to put together a quick snack. Or maybe, like me, they’ll be convinced to host a spontaneous popcorn party for a gaggle of first-graders intent on dishing about recent playground drama. (Hint: Dill pickle seasoning is a must-have accoutrement to any popcorn party.) For some families, work and home life have become a bit fluid, resulting in more after-school surveillance for kids.
This wasn’t the case for me, as an immigrant kid growing up in coastal Florida in the mid-1990s. My mother and grandparents, who I lived with, worked full-time jobs and didn’t bother too much with daycare. I’d often stay at home alone until it was time to go to the bus stop, then let myself back into the house at the end of the day. They certainly had no reference point for anything like summer camp. In fact, they bemoaned the waste of time inherent in summer; why let kids sleep in when you could be preparing them for the hallowed halls of an Ivy League university in all those hours of leisure?
The summer I turned nine, I begged to be allowed to stay home alone, rather than going to my aunt’s house during the day, as I had in summers before. I insisted that I’d successfully proved that I wasn’t a pyromaniac or prone to dangerous activity of any sort. Once, when some neighbor kids knocked on the door to ask me to play, I ran away and hid in a closet. Was that not evidence of my prudence? I vowed to do nothing but lay on the couch, watch television, and read books—basically, to become the mini-version of a hermit, a goal to which I still aspire.
“What will you do for food?” my mom demanded.
I replied airily, “I can use the microwave! It’s just pressing buttons.”
Would that all hesitation be conquered so easily! Childcare dilemma thus solved, Mom readily agreed, stocking up our cabinets with fruit and snacks, and doling out cautionary words about excessive soda intake. She would buy one six-pack of Little Debbie oatmeal sandwiches and six silver juice sacks of Capri Sun, which meant that one day a week, I could double my portion like the snack libertine I was. For real nutrition, she and my grandmother set aside a portion of leftovers for my lunch, which I would heat up and serve alongside a scoop of rice from the burbling Tiger rice cooker on the counter.
The first morning of my summer independence, my mother gazed into my eyes, with the intense trepidation of a parent sending her child to war. “Don’t go near the knives. Don’t open the door for anyone. Remember—”
“Only use the microwave,” I finished.
My days alone had a pleasant, meandering rhythm to them. Like a doddering Victorian housekeeper, I liked to start my morning by tidying up after everyone. My family was—is—prone to hoarding, so I wasn’t allowed to throw away the stray Viet newspaper from the 1980s, but I could at least re-order the toppling stack and pluck the Juicy Fruit wrappers from the coffee table. I shined my grandfather’s reading glasses. I rearranged my mother’s makeup on her dresser drawer. Then I set to watching as much television as I could, in between consuming piles of Sweet Valley High novels. I watched Sailor Moon, Saved by the Bell, and even some QVC, when I wanted a change of pace. Doesn’t that cubic zirconia look just like a diamond? You betcha, Joan Rivers. My dream was to be one of those callers who got to speak on air, waxing poetic about the charms of made-for-television goods, but I was also forbidden from using the landline.
Sooner or later, though, I’d get pretty hungry. Most days, my mother left me a plate of something from last night’s dinner, covered in Saran wrap in the fridge. There were fried catfish cakes speckled with green onions, crispy shrimp in a caramel sauce, spare rib soup, and bánh mì sandwiches with a thin layer of yellow-yolk mayo. Now, thinking back on those lunches, I can’t believe my erstwhile luck. But back then, most food was utilitarian for me. I ate what I was served and rarely complained, but nor did I ever anticipate a meal (with the very important exception of McDonald’s drive through).
This all changed the moment I was introduced to the almighty TV dinner.
It was an inauspicious day when my mother told me to look in the freezer for my lunch. The freezer! A place for ice cubes and stock-piled fish caught by my family members along the Gulf. Certainly never a site for ice cream, popsicles, or any usual kid delights. But there, in between the mackerel filets, was a Marie Callender’s chicken pot pie. I had never eaten a chicken pot pie in my entire life, so I regarded it with curiosity tantamount to that of an anthropologist stumbling across a new cuisine. I was the Margaret Mead of microwave meals. The Anthony Bourdain of freezer excavation.
Minutes after I popped the chicken pot pie in the microwave, I swirled it around on the table, regarding it from all angles. Buttery crust with a perfectly crimped circumference. A creamy filling with chicken, carrots, and peas. I took a bite, flapping my hands in front of my mouth to cool the hot filling. By golly, that Marie knew what she was doing! I devoured the chicken pot pie, then topped it with two coveted Little Debbie cakes. What novelty—what utter bliss! Mom never explained why she bought me that frozen meal; her ways are mysterious and prescient.
After that meal, I knew the microwave had given me a glimpse of life on the other side, where kids ran through sprinklers, went camping on vacation, and probably wore matching pajamas with their siblings. I didn’t necessarily want the lives of my American-born peers. But I liked imagining them, each so different from mine. If you think about it, the microwave is a kind of portal. It transforms food from frozen hardness to something warm and resembling comfort. In some cases, it transports the eater. I had a newfound appreciation for the microwave that summer, and all it could deliver.
TV dinners had never, of course, been a common offering in our household. For one, they belonged to the category of processed food, which my family never objected to explicitly, but nevertheless felt (valid) suspicion towards. Secondly—and more importantly—they were expensive. A bonafide luxury item. To buy frozen meals for every member of our large, multigenerational family would have cleaned us out of our grocery budget for the week. So, even after all my cajoling, TV dinners remained a boon rather than a regular lunchtime option.
This didn’t stop me from yearning for the Banquet Salisbury steaks doused in dark gravy, the semi-soggy smiley fries from Michaelina’s, the cheese-heavy triangular pizzas from bright Kid Cuisine boxes. During the rare occasions when Mom indulged my frozen meal cravings, I would plan my week around my TV dinner. Should I watch it before or after an episode of USA High? During, of course! My family thought it was ridiculous, my outsized love for these cardboardy, flavorless meals, especially when I had access to a plethora of freshly made, restaurant-quality dishes. But my love of the frozen dinner was not practical. It was emotional. It was transcendental.
In retrospect, I know this is a very silly thing to be consumed over. Doubtless, many families in our neighborhood ate frozen dinners and never found anything particularly compelling about them. But back then, I was a sheltered creature of routine (see above note about the doddering Victorian housekeeper and the mini-hermit in the making). My family lived relatively secluded lives, fearful of new challenges in a country we’d never quite become accustomed to. We talked mostly to other Vietnamese immigrants. We shopped at the Asian markets. We ate what we knew.
So to have access to something as simple as an American TV dinner—even for all its weird textures and uninspiring construction—felt like stepping briefly into a new world, one where the tastes might be a little blander, yes, but would deliver something novel that I couldn’t get in my day-to-day life. Each week of the summer, I’d slide my meal into the microwave with a keen sense of independence. I was cooking for the first time in my life—or something like it. Taking a bite of my gloopy mashed potatoes or overcooked corn, I’d reflect that this was the closest I’d ever gotten to choosing something for myself.
After the summer was over, I went back to packing my lunch for school. Our cafeteria didn’t have a microwave for kids to use, so I returned to the standby sandwiches and leftovers. Sometimes, I stood in line for a hot lunch tray bearing chicken nuggets and those buttery, slightly sweet yeasted rolls that still keep me up at night. Microwave meals—and the microwave at large—fell from my daily routine.
But later, when I was in college, shopping for myself after moving off-campus and being shunted from my meal plan, I gravitated toward the freezer section. I peered through the fogged-up glass for a glimpse of the old summer comforts: Marie and Michaelina, and a new addition, Hungry-Man. I was newly independent—again—and though my days were no longer consumed with hours of television, though I now ventured outside occasionally and learned to answer a door without running away in abject fear, I still longed for a taste of that long-departed summer when the days stretched endlessly and delight could be as simple as sliding a cardboard box into a microwave.