Mini Object Lesson: Blue Apron and the Thing About Dinner

Up in Michigan for the holidays, high winter winds knocked out the electricity for a couple days. A family friend offered her “Blue Apron” meals to my parents. I’d never heard of it: Blue Apron is a gourmet dinner subscription service that sources local ingredients, then packs and delivers dry-ice cooled meals ready to cook. All you have to do is follow the directions.

They prepared the meal at a nearby cottage that still had power and brought the food over in pots and pans. Next thing I knew, we were wolfing down decadent platters of tail-cut salmon fillets topped with dollops of a spritely horseradish sauce. There were garlic mashed potatoes and grilled brussels sprouts. I opened a Bordeaux, and we supped by candle light. The power would not come on for several more hours. It was Christmas.

Over the next two weeks, we tried two more Blue Apron meals: a chicken dish (the details escape me), and orange glazed meatballs with brown rice and bok choy. My mother, who is a plenty good cook on her own, followed the instructions, opening little plastic cups and curiously sized baggies of accessories and pouring them into mixing bowls and pans in the specified order. The whole experience was shameful; we all turned our eyes downward as the modular meals came together. There was something slightly embarrassing about snapping together these prearranged, picture-perfect meals.

Because, we like to cook. When we visit family in Michigan, we have access to an extensive vegetable garden and get a weekly share through a nearby farm. Homemade basil and parsley pestos adorn our evening table; my father massages freshly picked kale with olive oil and sea salt, until it melts in the mouth. At home, we frequent the local farmers markets. Living in New Orleans means learning the unique ingredients, flavors, and combinations that define the cuisine (and culture) of this city. It means introducing our small children to the tastes and technics of New Orleans eating—crawfish, okra, red beans, and more.

But here’s the thing about dinner: it’s often a disaster! The children bicker; someone’s in a bad mood  and just doesn’t want to talk about it; the petite tender goes a minute too long and gets chewy; a bowl of penne gets thrown onto the floor from a highchair; you can already tell the wine is going to give you a headache. Usually dinner is a scramble, and sometimes it’s a debacle.

Blue Apron does something funny to dinner: it turns it into a predictably good thing to make and consume. It seems to come out just right, every time. This is profoundly weird, if you think about it: the idea that every meal should be perfect. What life is this? Blue Apron is just a few steps away from Willy Wonka’s three-course meal stick of gum—and you may recall how that turned out for Violet Beauregarde.

Blue Apron is worth trying, especially if it gets you actually cooking and experimenting with new vegetables, herbs, and spices on your own. But do not be fooled, or lulled into complacency: Dinner isn’t perfect—it’s not supposed to be. It’s a thing, like any other, fraught with difficulties, nuances, spills, and surprises.

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