Well, I finally got tired of eating whole chickens out of plastic capsules, and my wife convinced me to try one of those "we'll send you all the ingredients you need!" food services to see what's up. We figured at the very least we would get to try some new food, and as an added bonus, we'd get to keep the recipes. We started off with Sun Basket, and worked our way through Hello Fresh and Home Chef.
I called a timeout after my wife was juggling three of these services at the same time, and put an indefinite hold on Blue Apron because each one of these things is like that old Columbia House CD club you used to fall for when you were a kid. Forget to send one postcard back and suddenly you were being billed $37.50 for Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits. We almost had overlapping services and too much food at once, but we got it ironed out.
After about the third meal, I realized why my wife was so interested in these kits. Out of the last 15 recipes we've tried, she cooked the first two.
The rest: All me. Why?
I think it's because she immediately figured out that if there are instructions for building something (a recipe, for instance) I am physically and mentally incapable of simply standing by and letting someone else screw up the final result by not following them exactly. To put it another way, I never have parts left over when I build shit from IKEA. Yeah. I'm that guy.
I am now convinced that she half-assed the first meal or two accidentally-on-purpose so that I'd take over the cooking. It worked, too. She is totally using my OCD against me for her own nefarious purposes, namely, having me combine pre-measured ingredients in a specific order, apply heat, and notify her when it's magically turned itself into a meal.
As I'm sure you can imagine, there are both benefits and drawbacks to cooking like this. Let me detail a few of these for you.
1. Less time at the grocery store. Note that this is another benefit for my wife, because I rarely if ever shop for our food. She saves me that hassle, and I love her for it. if I were single, I would likely be subsisting on gas station chalupas and pre-made Cumberland Farm sandwiches due to my aversion to actually shopping for individual ingredients. I say "ingredients" because the chances I would buy said ingredients and combine them into something that was actually edible all on my own are slim to none. At best, I'd have some Banquet chicken and frozen mac and cheese in the freezer, and most of a leftover pizza in the fridge.
2. It just shows up on your doorstep! It's like food Christmas every week. Especially if you forget what meals you've chosen. The UPS guy will hate you because these bastards are heavy, but other than that you're good to go. Just tip him well at Christmas. Or, if you've got a sadistic streak, give him a gift certificate for one of these services so he has to carry his own box of food.
3. You get to try foods you've never tried before. For instance, I've discovered that I like Risotto. Before this, I never even knew what Risotto was, let alone how to make it. I thought it was some kind of cheese, like Ricotta. (It sounds like it should be an Italian sports car. The Alfa Romeo Risotto. Drive one today!)
4. You have some time to decide. If you're too tired to cook or just don't feel like it because you worked late or binge-watched Breaking Bad until 2 am, you can freeze the meat, and the rest of the stuff will keep for up to 5-7 days. But usually it doesn't take that long, since the clock is ticking on three complete meals that are basically ready to go. I mean, how lazy can you be? Eventually you will feel guilty that you are standing in front of the open fridge eating slices of pre-packaged provolone instead of cooking your fresh food. Since you paid a bunch of money for it, and you probably have three more meals on the way, you either need to cook it or let it rot. Eventually, you will give in and break out the pans.
5. The instructions are pretty easy, and you get to keep the recipes. This sounds more useful than it is, especially with Home Chef, because they provide their own spice packs and some dressings/marinades, so you have no idea what's actually in them. With Hello Fresh and Sun Basket, they tend to have you make that stuff from the base ingredients, so while it's more work up front, it's easier to repeat the recipe when you inevitably quit the service.
6. Cilantro. All the cilantro. You either love it or hate it. I happen to love it, and a lot of these recipes seem to call for it. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining. If there is cilantro and lime in the recipe, I'm on board. I am pretty sure I must be part Mexican. You could put cilantro, sour cream and cheese on a seven day old hot dog someone had kicked under the counter at the 7-11 and I would eat it and like it.
And now for the drawbacks, of which there are many.
1. The incredible amount of packing waste. Each box of three meals is insulated with something resembling carpet padding wrapped in plastic, and contains 4 ice packs, two above and two below all your perishables. The ice packs are made from some kind of slimy gel encased in plastic. The instructions say that you are supposed cut the bags, let the slime demons out, then recycle the plastic bags and the cardboard box. Unfortunately, our recycling bin states in huge letters "NO PLASTIC BAGS" so off they go into the land fill. And that's just the beginning. In each of your three meals, you'll have more plastic. One small plastic bottle for a bit of balsamic vinegar here, another for some cooking oil there; A few sprigs of cilantro is in a plastic snap container. Individual servings of sour cream, tiny bottles of ketchup and mayo. Little bags of cheese and rice. It gets pretty crazy.
2. Don't let anyone tell you different -- This shit is expensive. It has to be. Sometimes I dump the ingredients for a meal on the counter top and think, I just paid 20 bucks for 4 flour totillas, a couple of tiny chicken breasts, a cup of rice, a lime, a pepper and some spices. What is wrong with me? It just doesn't seem worth it. But I can truthfully say that I haven't had as much food waste due to spoilage/laziness. We no longer refer to the crisper drawer in the fridge as the rotter, so there's that.
3. You get to try foods you've never tried before. The attentive among you are thinking, "Wait, didn't he just list that as a benefit? Yes, yes I did. But I maintain that it is also a drawback. Let me tell you a story about the Cheyote. While it sounds like the name of a lost Indian tribe, or a terrifying abomination resulting from the unholy union of a cheetah and a coyote, it is not. It's actually an "edible" gourd from Mexico. It should be reclassified as an ornamental gourd because it looks like a mini nerf football with warts, and tastes like dirt. That didn't really surprise me though, because in the recipe it actually had a warning. And that warning read as follows:
WARNING: WEAR GLOVES WHILE CUTTING CHEYOTE AS THE SAP CAN CAUSE SKIN IRRITATION AND NUMBING OF HANDS.
I thought to myself, That's what I want in my mouth. Something that causes skin irritation and makes my hands stop working.
But into the frying pan it went. I am nothing if not an instruction follower. (I am pleased to inform you that I did not die from Cheyote poisoning. I will not be having it again, but feel free to give it a shot if you're ever in the mood for some crappy proto-vegetable that tastes like ass and make you feel like you slept on your hands all night.)
4. Skimpy portion size. I'm not a big guy, but literally every single one of these "meals for two" had what I consider to be a good-sized single serving, with a little bit left over for a snack the next day. If you are a 5'7" 150 pound man (or woman) you could probably eat most of it yourself. If, on the other hand you are a 6'2" 250 pound man (or woman) these meals will not fill you up. If you somehow manage to do the considerate thing and limit yourself to your share, I guarantee that you will be stalking around the kitchen at 2 am eating Count Chocula out of the box while the cat looks on in disgust.
5. You don't get to pick your own vegetables or fruits. They show up in a bag on your doorstep, sure, but so far I'm not very impressed with the overall quality. I think Sun Basket is best in this regard, and all their stuff is organic. They are also more expensive. As a general rule, however, nothing is quite as "farm fresh" as they all claim it to be. The tomatoes are hard, pink pellets, the greens can be a bit wilted and the fruit is sometimes bruised. They try to prevent damage in shipping, which is probably why none of the veggies are really ripe. I could have driven nails with the last two avocados I got from Hello Fresh. I couldn't even cut them in half. I also scored a rotten potato from Home Chef. They made it good by offering me a $5 coupon off my next order, which, come to think of it, is probably about what I paid for that potato.
6. Jalapenos. All the jalapenos. Now, I love a good hot pepper, but I can only eat so many of them before my stomach and intestines revolt. It seems like every recipe we've tried has either Jalepeno or Pablano peppers as a solid ingredient. The meals in general tend to be on the spicy side, so if you like bland, then most of these meals will not be for you.
I sit here in my comfortable leather chair writing this, having just finished making something that tasted like a Mexican Sloppy Joe. Let me sum up: A burger's worth of taco-seasoned ground beef and tomato sauce, a package of cilantro and one jalapeno diced up and mixed with olive oil and lime juice. Dump the meat over some rice and top with the cilantro/jalapeno mix, add some cheese and toasted tortilla strips. Simple, right? And it might even sound pretty good if you like hot, spicy food, which I do. However, there's a good chance I'll be finishing this blog post from my much-less-comfortable porcelain chair while I chug Pepto and eat Tums by the fist-full.
7. All of the fucking zesting. I confess: I've never zested before. I didn't really know what zesting was. I had no good way to zest, and there is a lot of zesting called for in these recipes. For all the poor saps out there reading this who are in my previously uninformed shoes, it's very simple. It's basically grinding the rind off something. (I know, that sounds dirty. Hey baby. How's about you and me grind the rind over at my place?) I now consider myself a zesting expert. Limes and Lemons mostly. I'm not a professional, by any means -- I've never zested for money -- but if you need a good zest, look no further; I'm your guy. I am also pretty sure I have zest-induced tendonitis in my elbow, so I may be forced into a sub-par zest with my other arm, but I'm sure you will still be satisfied.
As to which company is best, the jury is still out. None of it is really health food, and to be honest, I think it's a fad and none of these companies will be around in a couple of years. The meats are mediocre, the veggies and other ingredients are the same stuff you get at the market except less ripe, and everything seems destined to be cooked in some kind of oil, whether it be canola or olive. If they delivered a chef, a busboy and a dishwasher with your food, then they might have something. Although come to think of it, that already exists, just not for people who fly commercial and don't own a fleet of turbo-charged Risottos. I think you'd be better off just buying a cook book, picking three meals and then going to the grocery store with your list. Sure it takes longer, and it's a lot more work, but my wife won't mind.
I think my favorite so far was shaved steak with onions, mushrooms, and cheddar cheese on a pretzel roll. It was really good, but I essentially paid 20 bucks for two rolls, a package of Steak-Umms, a little onion, a couple of mushrooms and two slices of cheese. I ate it, but I resented it. It was expensive, and I could feel it clogging my arteries. I dropped a piece of steak on the floor, but I picked it up and added it back to my sandwich, because, hey, that was probably like a buck's worth of meat.
So I'll end this by saying (a) I'm still sitting in the comfy chair (to your vast relief, I'm sure, and to mine) and (b) I'm kind of enjoying the cooking part a little more than I thought I would. So if anyone has any recommendations for any companies they think might offer better food or more for your money, let me know in the comments.
Until next time, Bon Ape tits! (Is that right? I think it's right.)
My last job before I had my stroke was for an organic produce and natural grocery delivery service called the Bay Area Organic Express, and they were a sort of prototype for these new meal delivery companies that have sprung up lately.ReplyDelete
Same model, a little looser and less formal, one delivery a week, recipes designed to make the produce (and fruit) into meals, and an emphasis on expanding your culinary horizons with produce you've never tried.
They got bought by some Canadians who had a similar business called SPUD, and last I checked they were still around.
At the time, I, who spent ten years as a line cook, felt that they would have done better if they had put more emphasis on the recipes and meal planning, but they sort of went in the other direction when they changed over and emphasized custom orders instead of pre-planned meal kits.
Anyway, I had a stroke two weeks after we launched as a new company in 2008, so by now they may have picked up on the trend and gotten with the meal kit program.
Anyway, I find cooking to be a very satisfying activity, even aside from the whole getting fed aspect of it, and I have been wondering about these meal kit delivery services, so thank you for writing about them.
By the way, SPUD claims to be carbon neutral and deals with the excess packaging problem by making the box a plastic tub that gets returned and reused, and the cooling devices are returnable and reusable also, and some wrapped dry ice also.
But I certainly can't afford them now, and I believe them to be a west coast kind of company, so I can't really recommend them, but your post reminded me of them.
The produce was top-flight, however.
-Doug in Oakland
Interesting! Thanks for the info on SPUD, I'll do some research. Sorry to hear about your stroke, that sucks. I hope you made a full recovery. I do like the idea of the plastic returnable tub, but I'm sure that makes things even more expensive since now you have to deal with picking that up and shipping it back.Delete
So funny and accurate! We got Hello Fresh for a while last year when I was marathon training and I just was exhausted from trying to think of meal ideas... we do tend to eat more than actual "portion sizes" which is not a great habit but you are too right that the amount they sent was not quite enough for two grown adults, especially when I was running 8-10 miles daily! I think the more local services, like the one mentioned above, might be a better fit, but I don't think they're really available where you or I live.ReplyDelete
Yeah, I'm pretty sure you're right. I think the closest thing we have is Hannaford to go, and even then you get what some high school kid picks out for you.Delete
if you come to my house and re-put together my son's ikea dresser so that the drawers shut completely, i'll make you some real mexican food.ReplyDelete
I'm in! Texas, right?Delete
What're the odds I check this thing for the first time in a looooooong time, and find a new post. Speaking of this blog's periodicity, I think 9 or 10 months is about right in between posts, which is not a comment on the quality, but more our society as a whole.ReplyDelete
We are part of the hive mind. You can leave CWB, but it will never leave you.Delete
Plated. You can do 2 meals instead of committing to 3 and a decent variety of meals to choose from. Skip weeks as you want.ReplyDelete
P.S. My cousin just reminded me about this blog as it somehow slipped off my radar, so now i'm off to catch up with like a year's worth of reading. Maybe I should make dinner first...
Thanks! They were actually on my list but we were working our way down a review site's ranking.Delete
I love to cook but wouldn't if I didn't follow my formula;ReplyDelete
1) Find a dish that you like, say at a restaurant.
2) When you're ready for it again, Google up at least four versions of that recipe.
3) Carefully examine, scrutinize and combine the four recipes into one Superior version and name it after yourself; i.e. Johnny's Yucatan Chocolate Chicken Mole.
4) Go get your ingredients at the store and give it a go. Don't invite too many outsiders to try the first round.
5) Try it out and adjust the recipe from there until you've got something fantastic.
6) Be PROUD of your accomplishment. Congratulations, you're a Chef now!
Sounds like a lot of work. Can I just be invited to your house for dinner instead? :)Delete