Remember meal kits?
There were about 347 companies offering them a few years ago. All the rage. The pitch was simple: Why shop for groceries the old-fashioned way when we can deliver an enormous crate to your house that has 62 pounds of ice and one cucumber?
The appeal was threefold:
1. You did actual professional chef-related chopping. You learned how to julienne, dice, slice and bind up a gash with a paper towel until you could find the bandages, which didn’t stick because your hand was too wet from the blood. “Man, that’s just not stopping, is it? Should I call someone? No, not the hospital, I mean, like, Domino’s?”
2. You could bond with your children as you made meals and they’d learn lots of things, like how to dice, slice, julienne and come to terms with the fact that the loss of your pinkie finger really doesn’t affect your manual dexterity. (If the kids were young, you could tell them it grows back.)
3. You got all kinds of different meals to spice up your boring routine. My experience showed they fell in the following groups:
• Chicken from Another Country. What’s for dinner? “Madagascar Yardbird!” Sounds exotic; what is it? “Chicken with special spices, served on a bed of herbed rice. Sorry, I bought this from a podcast, it’s served on a Casper Mattress of herbed rice.”
• Yeah, It’s a Hamburger. But you’re going to spend half an hour making a garnish in a small bowl, feeling like a pharmacist making the world’s smallest salad.
• Xachuxan Shredded Beef Envelopas. They made up an odd word with X’s in it so you don’t think you’re making burritos. Which you are, but did we mention you make the salsa from scratch by chopping until your wrist burns?
I signed up for several meal services, trying to decide which one worked for us. They all seemed the same, to be honest. Doorbell rings, you check the stoop: “Hey, did someone order a bank safe on Amazon?” You remove the slabs of ice, put everything away in the fridge, note that the cucumber is mushy and send an e-mail to the company. Subject line: mushy cucumber. Reply: Here’s $10 off your next order, which will have a tomato so hard you can use it as a baseball.
Once the meal kits lost their allure, things went bad for the providers quickly. End result: Blue Apron, once valued at $2 billion, was reported last week to be worth $57 million. (Not that $57 million is chump change, but do the math — that’s nearly $1.95 billion that rotted away faster than a mushy cucumber.)
All the meals were good, and even better, they looked fantastic. We couldn’t resist taking a picture with the phone, of course, which no one thinks is ridiculous anymore. I can imagine my mom putting supper on the table, and my dad running off to get his camera, popping in a flashbulb, setting the exposure and focus.
“Can’t wait until I get that back from the developers for the slide show,” he would have bragged. “I’ll put up the screen in the front yard at night and display a series of meals.”
“Dad, just wait for them to invent Instagram.”
Meanwhile my mom would be fuming because the food’s getting cold, and she knows microwaves are 20 years away.
Anyway. Our family’s Meal Kit Stage of Bourgeoise Indulgence lasted two months. At first, it seemed entirely reasonable to pay $60 a week so all we needed at the grocery store was the cilantro, but then I realized I had enough cilantro to last several lifetimes.
Periodically I’d get a letter from one of the companies: “We miss you!” I wanted to reply: “I’m sure it’s just ripping you up. You have my picture on the nightstand and dry your tears every night. Look, we had a good run, and I learned lots. I think of you now and then when I’m dicing a radish.”
These days, grocery stores are carrying their own versions of meal kits, and they’re great. For one thing, they don’t come with an entire glacier. But now it’s come full circle: I saw a meal kit in the grocery store made by one of the big home-delivery outfits. All of the joys of just-enough cilantro without the ice or the subscription you forgot to cancel when you went on vacation and came home to find a soggy cube of expired flesh on the stoop.
This is like Amazon opening a bookstore inside a bookstore. Also, the “books” are just sacks of words with tiny containers of extra articles and common nouns, so you don’t have a lot left over after you’ve made your own story.