Putting on the Blue Apron…Skeptically
The strange magic kicked in while I was standing over a recipe card with instructions (and photographs) for every stage of a miso butter chicken with kale and carrots, starting with the tremendously obvious directive to wash the fresh produce.
It was Week Two of my Blue Apron experiment, and I felt infantilized. Which, contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, was glorious.
I’d signed up for Blue Apron (three meals for two at $59 a week) at the urging of a newly divorced former roommate who in turn had the service pressed on her by a friend. “Meg is an amazing cook,” my friend told me. “And this is what she feeds her family two nights a week.”
Every time a Blue Apron free trial offer had arrived in my mailbox, I’d recycled it immediately. My approach was basic Yankee: This is what rich people do. Or people who do not know how to do for themselves. Even were I so inclined, I make my living writing about Maine’s local food and sustainability movement. Could I justify the carbon footprint of every online meal kit order, or look my local farmer friends in the eye after feeding on kale from another state that had arrived via FedEx?
But my friend had given me a free pass: This Meg person was not some slattern. She was just tired and overwhelmed. I too am tired and overwhelmed.
I had gotten my 13-year-old son on board by telling him that I was desperate, without elaborating. I did not say that circling the Hannaford aisles, buying the same things, week after week, was making me long to have him off to college so that I could eat whatever I wanted for dinner, whether that was a salad or yogurt or vodka gimlets. I did not say that I find him, a skeptical regular at the restaurant of my motherhood, tedious and truculent often enough that I would like to put a closed sign in the window and sneak out for a bowl of pho with no other company than a good book.
Just for a month I said. Maybe two.
I was nearly as skeptical as he. I collected the packaging from the first dinner in a bowl, photographed it and put it on Instagram with a disapproving caption. Wasteful! (Later I learned that Blue Apron will recycle the waste, if you package it up.) That whole week I balked at the precise directions. No, I wasn’t going to wipe out and dry the pan between cooking the kale and cooking the meat.
Then I noticed how much easier the meticulous instructions make that after-dinner clean up. And how Blue Apron had some great ideas for kale (adding two diced dates made me want to eat the whole bag). Moreover, there might be packaging waste, but the amounts of food were so carefully calculated that there was little if any food waste—a bigger environmental problem than packaging. Blue Apron meals (which all come with calorie counts) reinforce smart portion control and provide smaller amounts of higher-quality proteins healthy for us and the planet. In this way, Blue Apron, though not “local,” was not so out of sync with the ideals of the sustainability movement I cover.
In the third week, tossing capers and golden raisins into a tomato sauce for a meatball dish that turned out to be truly restaurant quality, it occurred to me that if I hadn’t already known how to cook, I’d be learning a lot. The next night I handed the recipe card to my son and told him to start prepping dinner.
As a teaching tool, Blue Apron has me beat. I’m so used to doing it all, efficiently, swiftly and yes, resentfully, that I never slow down enough to explain it to my son. With Blue Apron, suddenly we were making shiitake mushroom burgers together. And they were delicious, if not exactly teen-approved Five Guys.
This is not to say there weren’t duds. Pork and cabbage tacos left us both cold. The Southern Italian cod stew ingredients sat in the fridge, lapped by the arrival of next week’s box and ultimately tossed into the garbage, to my guilty chagrin. I thought of a friend’s comment on one of my Instagram shots of a Blue Apron box. She and her family had loved it. For four months. “There will come a time when you tire of catfish!” she wrote. Indeed.
At mid-life, the ego takes near constant hits. The wait for your brilliant career to really take off is over. The urge to perform, if you had it to start out with, wanes. For women particularly, this is the I-don’t-give-a-f*** stage of life. Dinner parties were always performances for me, in which I prepared a cabaret of flavors, sipped prosecco while I sautéed, pirouetted out to the guests with meals that reliably earned me praise and ego strokes. These parties used to feel like a necessity, now I manage them annually, and usually, there is one planned dish that never gets made. But the same limits imposed by mid-life exhaustion offered something as well; clarity as to the deeply-ingrained misconception that I was being given marks for difficulty, execution, and dedication by the rest of the world.
Blue Apron is part of me grading myself—and others—on a more generous curve. Instead of viewing a meal kit as giving up, I consider it a way to ease some stress in my life. It, like everything else, is imperfect. But the liberation from multiple trips to the supermarket in any given week has been heavenly, and the expense of the meals evens out because I’m not making those “I might need” kind of purchases at the supermarket. My son is being forced to try new things via Blue Apron with the wonderful unintended consequence that he is suddenly effusive about “my” cooking.
We won’t continue the Blue Apron subscription much longer, but there are things I will take away from it, including buying less (two potatoes, not six) and planning more. And I know that in hard times, I can always make everything easier by going back to that weekly box of meals. Blue Apron took my hand and babied me through preparing dinner, a thing I already knew how to do. Its real value to me was in offering a helping hand, and showing me that, far from a weakness, accepting it sometimes made for a better dinner. My middle-aged self is willing to concede that one basic directive I could use more of is asking for help, in dinner and in life.