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We each retrieve a tray table and assemble it in front of our respective chair or segment of sofa. Then we sit and wait and watch the screen until the TV dinners are heated to piping. They’re inedible otherwise; it’s part of their expedient charm. When they arrive, our eyes briefly depart to scan the pockets of steaming choice. Carrots, diced and double processed, edges soft and translucent, are tasteless, like the pale reanimated French beans in the compartment beside them. In the many months (years?) of frozen transport and storage did they ever shout across to each other, devising escape plans or reflecting on the tragedy of their situation? No. Because they’re vegetables, or at least they were at some point.

The beef. The beef is where the flavour is at.

Bite-sized morsels of processed cow drowning in salty glutinous sauce, best accompanied by the creamy mash that (I learned years later, on a plane) is made from a powder. The fork dips in, transfers half a portion of carrots into the mash. Then beef chunks into the mix and a big helping of all three into the mouth. Too hot but too good not to chew, quickly, mouth open and steam escaping. A methodical rotation of beef-potato-carrot, beef-potato-beans, until the foil bottom of each pocket peers up through the smeared juices.

The television throbs throughout the meal, a second anodyne interface. Food-tele-food, tele-food-tele. When the TV dinners are finished the programming continues, atoning for a dull sense of loss. Smacking lips, dead eyes. A family of faces bleached by the RGB spectrum, stomachs digesting in unison. It is a shared ritual, performed silently, absently. Semi-immersed in truncated, florid dramas projected from the box, we do not interact with each other. Like the food compartments we remain neatly individuated, each adrift in our own digestion-viewing fixation. Action or agency of any kind jeopardises the effect, reverses the flow. Sedate and heavy lidded we sink deeper into a collective fug, performing a chemically-induced séance as our intestines grapple with non-food elements.

The screen flashes as commercials intercede and dominate for seemingly endless periods of time. What were we watching again? I think I’ve said it out loud but the words haven’t passed though the barrier, the interface of faces. Oh yeah, it’s some American made-for-TV film about a guy who lives on a ranch and has a daughter but not a wife. Dogs. Horses. Stetsons. Vacuous script and amateur delivery effectively deaden any potential for intellectual or emotional engagement.

I miss my TV dinner - it made the programming bearable.

Two thin layers of sensory experience, when stacked up, give the momentary illusion of richness. The remains of the cold trays waft, suddenly repulsive, and adverts start up again. Something in our collective semi-consciousness stirs, and my stepmother gets up to clear away our dinner trays. I mumble thank you through lips that feel swollen. I dread the thought of rousing, even to fold and return my tray table. It remains a testament to the ritual: a lectern of lethargy. I lean back into the adverts. I suck my teeth. 

Lara Eggleton

Lara Eggleton is an art writer and historian based in Leeds, and author of the blog folly matters. She likes to think about art across time and cultural spaces, through writing and collaborative projects such as Medieval helpdesk. Lara is Managing Editor at Corridor8 and contributing writer for Art Monthly, The Double Negative, a-n, DoggerlandAxisweb and this is tomorrow. She is a visiting lecturer in Islamic Art and Orientalism at the University of Manchester and a tutor at Open College of the Arts.