On Blue Apron, and the Pitfalls of Convenience.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up in a food family. Most of my childhood memories revolve around food in some way. In our household, good cooking was analogous to history and family and love: a living testament to our collective memory. Strangely, for a typical American family, my dad was the truly gifted cook in our house. Don’t get me wrong; my mom can definitely cook. She just doesn’t have the same passion and excitement for culinary adventure as my father does. It was my dad, his brothers, and his mother who really taught me the importance of food. How to roast a chicken, make a pie crust, painstakingly assemble the layers of flavor in an all-day stew. Through long held family recipes and weekend forays into new and exciting cuisines (coq au vin, anyone?) I was taught the foundational aspects of cooking. From knife skills to complementary flavors, cooking wasn’t merely a necessity in our household, but a past time, one that we carried through traditional holiday meals and lazy football Sundays alike.

Understandably, then, I was one of those lucky kids who had a home-cooked meal on the table pretty much every night. In addition to being gifted with culinarily skilled parents, I also grew up in an upper-middle-class household, which means my parents had the time and the means to cook for us on a regular basis. Of course, middle and working-class and low-income families often don’t have that luxury: in no way do I begrudge them the trappings of culinary convenience. If it’s a fight to put food on the table, who cares when or how it’s done.

Food is family.
That time we made steak tartare at home. Because of course we did.

Recently though, companies have started marketing high-end culinary convenience products not to the low and middle-income households that need them most, but to upper-middle-class and wealthy households. Don’t want to think about cooking? You don’t have to. Just click on the ubiquitous Facebook ads for the most famous of these meal kit proprietors, Blue Apron.

If you haven’t heard of Blue Apron, the concept is pretty simple. The company delivers a certain amount of pre-prepared meal kits to your door. These kits include a recipe card with step-by-step directions for ingredient preparation and cooking, as well as the already proportioned components necessary to complete your recipe. There’s no grocery shopping, measuring, or budgeting required.

As you might imagine, I myself never really though about trying Blue Apron. I acknowledge that my easy dismissal of the service is, in itself, a privilege. I’m a single, childless adult living in easy proximity to 3 different grocery stores. I also know how to cook. Still, I didn’t really understand the popularity of the Blue Apron phenomenon. That’s where one of the families I babysit for comes in.

This family — a mother, father, and pre-teen child — are big Blue Apron fans. They have the service delivered fairly regularly to their downtown apartment, since both parents travel often for work, and like not to think about the grocery shopping. Additionally, the also both profess to be pretty mediocre cooks. So, the other day, when I was looking after their twelve-year-old, the mom asked me to cook one of their Blue Apron kits for dinner. I admit, I wasn’t too enthused. Still, mostly as a self-imposed experiment, I decided to use the kit and follow its directions to the letter. If the kits are designed for the novice cook, it would be a breeze, right?

Well, not so much.

Copyright 2017 Blue Apron.
What Blue Apron assures its users their weeknight burgers will look like. Sure, maybe if we all had a food stylist at our beck and call. Copyright 2017 Blue Apron.

First things first, before I even started cooking, I got really stuck on the packaging. There’s just so much of it! The recipe I was given was for Burgers and Red Cabbage Slaw with Sriracha Mayo and Roasted Sweet Potato. Each and every component — from the tablespoon of miso paste for the slaw dressing, to the burger buns, and single scallion stalk — was individually packaged. That means that, for one single meal, there were over 10 plastic bags, bottles and lids. Each of those packaged ingredients was in turn dumped into a brown paper sack, which was itself delivered inside of a cardboard box. I continuously cringed as I stuffed bag after bag into the trash during the preparation process.

Secondly, those vaunted directions designed for the clueless cook? They were kind of ridiculously bad. To start things off, they want the cook to core a cabbage, and thinly slice the leaves. Okay, cool. In which direction? If I’m a novice cook, do I even know which part of cabbage is the core, and how much of it I have to remove? The very first step didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

Next, they want you to peel and mince a finger of ginger. Cool. Great. If I don’t know how to cook, do I know what it means to mince something, or how to do it? Probably not. Regardless, Blue Apron certainly thinks I do. Even though I doubted a lot of folks would know what it meant, I went ahead and minced the ginger anyway.

After that, the recipe instructs you to slice the scallion (after discarding the root, one thing that was actually well noted!) and then cut a sweet potato into 1/2-inch wedges. That precise measurement filled me with visions of amateur cooks breaking out the ruler to measure sweet potato slices. Not exactly a confidence-inducing activity.

Once all the slicing and dicing is done, the recipe walks you through assembling the slaw. Except, it actually doesn’t. If I was in charge of Blue Apron, I would want to give people the building blocks to cook on their own eventually. Of course, that wouldn’t be so good for their bottom line. So instead of teaching folks how to properly put together a dressing, Blue Apron instructs its users to dump all the dressing components — including an actual paste — into a bowl with the vegetables and vigorously mix. As someone who’s assembled a lot of salads in my day, let me tell you that unless you properly emulsify a dressing, no amount of vigorous tossing will evenly distribute miso paste, no matter what Blue Apron tells you.

At that point, after futilely attempting to smear miso paste across cabbage leaves, the recipe tells you to toss the sweet potato wedges with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and toss them into your oven while the rest of the meal comes together. Besides the ridiculously high temperature — 475 for 1/2-inch wedges: hope you enjoy your veggies charred! — this instruction was pretty straightforward. I think even the most clueless cook could handle it.

After that though, came the burgers. Look, I love a good homemade burger. For years I exclusively ate the luscious, medium-rare, fatty, juicy burgers my dad made on our grill at home. If I learned anything looking over my mom’s shoulder (she was the designated patty maker in our household), it’s that you can’t overwork the meat. Blue Apron apparently disagrees, as they encourage their users to physically mix salt and pepper into the ground beef before forming it into patties. My question is, why? It’s 100% easier, faster, and better tasting to make the patties and season them once formed. Besides dirtying an extra bowl, I’m not sure what mixing the salt and pepper into the meat does to help.

Many steps into this recipe, and you’re finally read to cook your burger. That process was described pretty well: 3-4 minutes per side in a medium-high pan for medium rare. Fair enough. Next though, they tell you to wipe out the pan and toast your burger buns. That I didn’t get.

Look, Blue Apron can only have it one way — are they for novice cooks, or aren’t they? If you don’t know your way around a kitchen, I highly doubt you know how to wipe out a hot pan in a safe and efficient manner. Nor do you probably care about dry-toasting your burger buns. I found these directions both frustrating and unnecessary, not to mention potentially unsafe for the culinary newbie.

Finally at the end of the recipe, I was told mix together mayo and Sriracha (two separate plastic containers? Really? Dear God, why?) smear it on my now toasted buns, top it with my burger patty, and a little bit of the red cabbage slaw. Once that was done, I was instructed to remove the sweet potato wedges from the oven and plate them with a little garnish of scallion tops. And voila, Blue Apron meal achieved!

By this point in the process, I was hot, flustered, and surrounded by more dish ware than I usually use for 3 meals. I found so much of this process wasteful, annoying, and wildly unnecessary when it comes to preparing a quick, healthy, easy meal.

Look, if you genuinely don’t enjoy cooking, live in a suburban or a rural area, and have lots of disposable income? Have at it — Blue Apron away. If you live in an urban area though? Please, for the love of God, help us all save the environment and just have your groceries delivered. Use the power of the internet — where video demonstrations, recipes, and pre-made grocery lists abound — to help you serve your family nutritious, tasty meals. After using a Blue Apron recipe myself, and following the directions to a T, I can tell you with absolute certainty that this service will not make you a better cook. It also won’t make your life much more convenient — all told, it still took about 40 minutes from box to table.

More than anything, though, I just can’t get around how wasteful Blue Apron is. There is no reason that those of us lucky enough to have discretionary income to spend on food can’t be a little more mindful of our waste. Grab a reusable bag and go shopping after work. If you don’t have time for that, take advantage of services like Instacart, which will at least minimize the excess packaging if your groceries are delivered. And if you want to learn how to cook? Take a class. It will give you the building blocks for culinary success that could make Blue Apron a thing of the past.

52/100 — While nice to have recipe components delivered straight to your door, Blue Apron is a wasteful, convoluted meal-kit system unnecessary for the savvy urban dweller. There are many better solutions to the week-night meal slump. 

–S

Day 34: February 4, 2017

 

 

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