Watch out – danger lurks around every corner…

Every time I convince myself that the average American is capable of safely walking and chewing gum at the same time, I encounter a carefully worded consumer warning that makes it abundantly clear that we’re actually a nation of pop-eyed idiots.

I was reminded of this dismal state of affairs just last week as I was preparing one of those delightful, ready-made casserole dishes one finds in the frozen food section of the supermarket (or on the side of the freeway if a ready-made frozen casserole truck has overturned).

The directions for preparing this mealtime masterpiece seemed deceptively simple: Dump contents of colorful ready-made casserole bag into a baking dish. Cover and cook in a preheated, 450-degree oven for 20 minutes.

Admittedly, some of you may want to attend a three-week course at the Culinary Institute of America before attempting this feat, but the average frozen food connoisseur should be able handle the preparation without a whole lot of effort.

Like most right-thinking companies of the 21st century, though, the manufacturers of this meal-in-a-bag wanted to make sure nobody got hurt while following the simple instructions. So they warned today’s semi-conscious consumers that the casserole would be hot after sitting in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes. And it shouldn’t be removed from the oven barehanded. And finally that, because it is hot, the casserole will most likely emit some steam when the lid is lifted. And steam is, like, hot…

The warning might as well have said “Don’t immediately plunge your face into the peas and carrots and chicken parts.”

What’s happened to us, America? There was a time when most of us knew that objects left in a 450-degree environment for more than a few seconds would be significantly hotter than, say, an overexcited dachshund.

No more.

Now we need carefully worded warnings to tell us that careless opening of a champagne bottle could put somebody’s eye out and that we need to be extra careful when firing high velocity rifle ammunition because – surprise, surprise! – some bullets can travel long distances if they don’t encounter a solid object first.

One of my favorite product warnings was on the back of political campaign button from a few years ago. In no uncertain terms, a tiny label on the back of the button cautioned “Warning! Contains functional sharp point.”

Uh-huh.

And remember, if you put that little metal button in a 450-degree oven, it’ll get really hot.

Do you sometimes hear a high pitched whirring sound? It’s most likely being made by our rugged pioneer ancestors spinning in their graves.

You know, the ones who somehow managed to traverse thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness without a single toaster oven, fighting blizzards, epidemics and the occasional skunk, and still lived long enough to invent the zipper and canned asparagus?

Somehow I kinda doubt that great-grandpa Hiram’s trusty skinning knife was engraved with “Caution! Contains functional sharp point.”

Originally published March 18, 2001

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