Dinner Theater

Meal kits, like Blue Apron, have always stood for the family lives of our fantasies

When my parents divorced in 1987, my dad was suddenly in charge of planning and preparing meals for a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old every other week. On his own for the first time in a newly rented house, his pantry had a stage-set quality — you would open the flimsy kitchen cabinet doors to reveal empty cupboards, or perhaps a startled-looking package of Salada tea or peanut butter cookies. His spice rack held one economy-sized jar of orange seasoning salt, which I loved. It went on everything, but his signature meal was a singularly greasy and salty roast chicken, with salty, greasy rice, and canned peas. At our mum’s we each had a reusable lunch bag, but at our dad’s we had new paper bags every day with our names written on in thick black marker; inside were peanut butter sandwiches with slices — actual slices — of butter, thick enough to leave tooth-marks in.

In 2012 — some 25 years too late to help my dad — meal-kit delivery hit the North American market. A Swedish company, Linas Matkasse, had been operating since 2008, but Blue Apron and Plated brought the concept to the United States: a box of groceries delivered to your house with exactly the right quantity of each ingredient, including spices, to make a single meal — recipe card included. Blue Apron’s meals change week to week, but at time of writing their offerings include: fennel-spiced steaks with garlic roasted potatoes and green bean salad; summer vegetable paella with saffron and pickled pepper aioli; katus-style eggplant with stir-fried green beans and sweet peppers. It’s dinner-time as the perfect family would do it, with ingredients promised to be “fresher than the supermarket,” with a range and sophistication to which your ex-wife could only vainly aspire.

The box opens out as a kind of introduction to the basics of idealized family life: this is what dinner is; this is what home is. “Green Beans,” it says on the green beans

The box opens out as a kind of introduction to the basics of idealized family life: this is what dinner is; this is what home is. Each ingredient is individually wrapped and Saussureanly labelled. “Green Beans,” it says on the green beans. “Saffron,” it says on the saffron. The consumer is presumed to be in a state of primal confusion, an amnesiac being coaxed through the performance of some semblance of a former life. Here is your husband, don’t you remember? Your children, whom you love. This is your front doorbell ringing, this is a box sent by a friend, this is the katus-style eggplant you’re about to prepare and eat in this set of rooms that makes up the emotional center of your life.

In its evocation of a family dinner table with no past and no future — having no leftovers is one of the key advertising promises of these services — meal-kit delivery services promise that, with the help of e-commerce, traditional family life can continue undisturbed even as the underlying structures that produced the family as we know it are undergoing extreme disruption. If becoming an adult is learning to parent yourself, meal-kit delivery imagines that parent at sea in the overwhelming churn of an unmoored and unrecognizable life.

The meal kit brings to mind another culinary innovation spurred by an era-defining new technology: the TV dinner. In 1953, the poultry company C.A. Swanson & Sons rolled out a frozen meal in a compartmentalized aluminum tray that could be used both to cook the food and as a plate. The story goes that the company had grossly overestimated how many Thanksgiving turkeys they would sell, and were left with 260 tons of leftovers. The 40,000 extra frozen turkeys were said to have been sent on a road-trip across America; the refrigeration in their railroad cars only kicked in when the train was in motion, so, like Sandra Bullock in Speed, they had to travel or perish. Taking their inspiration from in-flight airplane meals, the company deployed an assembly line of women who, with the help of spatulas and ice-cream scoops, shoveled vats of sweet potatoes, peas, cornbread stuffing with gravy, and turkey slices onto compartmentalized trays which were frozen and shipped to grocery stores with the label “Television Dinner.”

The television connoted all that was modern and sophisticated, and the original box was designed to look like a TV, with wood veneer and round dials. The effect was futuristic, daring, a family dinner for the space age. While the wandering turkeys story may be apocryphal (Swanson more likely lifted the idea from existing frozen dinner brands, like Jack Fisher’s FridgiDinner or the shamefully named One-Eyed Eskimo), the success of the technological branding was real: By 1956, American consumers were buying 13 million TV dinners a year.

The TV dinner sent mixed messages from the start. It was a status symbol, indicating that the lady of the house lived in an up-to-date home with all the mod cons (home freezers came on the market in the 1940s), and that her time was far too valuable to waste in preparing complicated meals from scratch. They promised to unchain women from the stove, and some early advertisements showed women swanning out of the house in fur stoles as their children finished up their convenient meals — no dishes or pots and pans to clean. But while 1950s North America was entranced with new technologies, it was also heavily invested in a return to traditional gender roles after the upheaval of WWII. Other advertisements stressed the freedom that frozen dinners offered husbands — they could arrive home later than usual or with unexpected dinner guests and still be assured of a smiling wife whose plans revolved around his whims.

A meal could now exist perfectly frozen in time in an immaculate kitchen, a set of identical crystallized moments packed three deep in a hidden chamber

Uncoupling family dinner from the hours of labor involved in planning or preparing a meal allowed for a Cubist collapsing of the past, present, and future; in the 1960s, Swanson added compartments for soup and hot desserts like apple crumble, creating a three-course meal that happened all at once in the rectangular room-space of the metal tray. A meal could now exist perfectly frozen in time in an immaculate kitchen, a set of identical crystallized moments packed three deep in a hidden chamber. And when dinnertime came, the family could eat it while marveling at the stream of lights and colors that flowed into their living rooms at the push of a button. Eating while bathed in the constant newness and nowness of television — much of its programming starring glossier versions of the nuclear families who watched while consuming their TV dinners — parents could see themselves as pioneers in a better, faster, more dazzling way of life.

The meal-kit delivery is a TV dinner deconstructed. Where frozen dinners erase the labor of cooking, meal kits endow this labor with value while erasing the work of planning and shopping. The past decade or so has seen cooking shows achieving prime-time popularity. Meals are posited as showcases for the kind of craftsmanship that elevates labor into art — cooks are virtuoso performers whose creations demand applause. Meal kits zero in on a telegenic fragment of the drudgery involved in running a household, framing the work of planning weekly menus and lugging grocery bags as a choice rather than a necessity. The company assumes the role of housekeeper, taking care of the unglamorous work of planning and shopping, but stepping discreetly aside at the last minute to allow the consumer to slide into the most visible aspect of the homemaker role — thus sidestepping the guilt some parents feel at working long hours and having limited time to spend with their children. Staging the Rockwell moment is proof not just of affluence but of affect, a half-forgotten ritual that we can reclaim if a benevolent company reminds us of the steps.

Similarly, as the rise in women’s participation in paid labor outside the home has recently clashed with raised cultural expectations of highly involved parenting, working parents of today confront raised cultural expectations of healthy, ethical eating. Meal-kit delivery services often talk up their farm-to-table ethos, many of them partnering with local farmers to anticipate seasonal recipes that will make the best use of the freshest produce. For consumers who see the contents of their cupboards as signs of their virtue and proof of their empathy, the promise of eliminating food waste is tantalizing — a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that 21 percent of wasted food (which means the waste of all the water and fuel that went into its cultivation) is the fault of consumers who let ingredients rot in their fridges. But as they currently exist, the final stages of meal-kit delivery services are fantastically, baroquely wasteful, with kits arriving swaddled in enough packaging to give even the most environmentally fatalistic consumer pause. Most arrive in cardboard boxes housing a brood of plastic bags to keep ingredients separate, with one or more gel ice-packs to keep them fresh. The irony ends up highlighting the ethical problems of which these services are meant to exonerate consumers.

The recurrent question of what to have for dinner is exhausting because hiding in its shadow is an even more unshakeable and troubling question: How and why do we keep on living?

The promise of a family meal contains its own irony. In 2017, 28 percent of U.S. households consist of just one person, and a 2014 study by the Hartman Group, a food-and-beverage industry analyst, found that 46 percent of the time, adults are eating alone. The portioning in most meal-kit delivery services strikes some consumers as single-shaming: Every meal comes with at least two portions enclosed. In fact, while meal-kit delivery companies claim to be focused on reuniting busy people with their families, the shared meals they provide are ready-made to share online. Companies like Chef’s Plate that offer a limited weekly repertoire of recipes have the effect of encouraging consumers to post photos and commentary on the same meals; it’s as if you are eating with all the other Chef’s Plate customers on Instagram. The dinner table is now itself a television or radio, a machine that assembles encoded signals into life-like programs, as well as a signal tower, capable of broadcasting that content to other receiving machines.

I think of Blue Apron (or Chef’s Plate, or HelloFresh, or any of the many meal-kit delivery services now flooding the market) as a podcast dinner. Partly because so many meal-kit companies are advertised on popular podcasts as sponsors; and since meal kits are currently marketed to an affluent audience of young professionals, there’s a good chance they are also prepared and eaten to the accompaniment of a podcast in the background. But also, meal kits share with podcasting a self-consciously handcrafted tone. The meta-episodes of podcasts like Gimlet’s Startup are open-concept kitchens that put the making process on display, emphasizing an immediacy and emotional availability that encourages listeners to see professional radio personalities as real people. Meal kits offer restaurant-quality food with homespun quirk, suggesting that an honest hour of slicing and stirring could make you see yourself as a real person too.

The box the meal-kit arrives in becomes a self-care package, transforming the meal-as-burden into the meal-as-event, and promising to turn the customer into a more authentic version of themselves, the person you would be if you weren’t so busy. Where TV dinners were marketed with the tagline, “The next best thing to her cooking,” the best podcast dinners are better — more elaborate, more gastronomically knowing and better traveled — than your cooking. At the same time, their techno-optimism suggests elegant algorithmic solutions to the human vagaries of choice and formlessness; this single carrot is to be fitted into the carrot-shaped space of this unique meal, where it will be sealed into an interlocking pattern with the single red pepper, the single onion, and the single packet of fresh dill. No waste; no confusion; no existential dread of the day-in, day-out question of what to have for dinner.

A much retweeted quip from comedy writer Rob Fee reads, “Relationships are just two people constantly asking each other where they want to go eat, until one of them dies.” The same is true of asking each other what they want to cook. My boyfriend and I both enjoy cooking, but often I feel like I never want to hear the words “dinner,” “groceries,” or the phrase “what do you want?” cross my lips ever again. The recurrent question of what to have for dinner is exhausting because hiding in its shadow is an even more unshakeable and troubling question: How and why do we keep on living?

The existential dread of dinner-time is real because the very purpose of food is existential. Meal-kit companies promise to do the thinking for us, presenting us with carefully curated dinner-theater experiences starring ourselves. But the artificiality of the enterprise can seem infantilizing, duping the home cook into thinking they are doing it all by themselves. What is the point of shrimp and langoustine ravioli with peppers and spinach? Or sweet-potato chaat with cool yogurt and sprouted mung beans? What is the point of any of this? By creating a family-in-a-box, carefully packaged to make us feel worthy, virtuous, and even loved, these services may be perversely highlighting the absurdity of the systems we have created. All the corporate infrastructure that has gone into the box that arrives at the door, all the anxious nostalgia for a previous way of life that most of us wouldn’t choose to return to. The reference point for meal-kit meals is not home-cooking, but restaurant-cooking, the kind meant to impress, and which generally carries neither good nor bad memories.

A friend once said to me that she wished there were a kit for a kitchen with what she called “that anthropology professor vibe.” Copper pots hanging from a wooden beam across the ceiling; Rapunzel tendrils of long-established plants climbing across the walls; shelves stocked with Le Creuset tureens and dotted with knick-knacks acquired on storied trips; classical music playing. I’ve been in kitchens like this. They tended to belong to people whose job security was unlike anything my generation will ever know. At a time when the cost of housing has placed home-ownership out of reach for most people living in major cities, and working overtime in precarious freelance positions has become a widespread form of labor, it’s no wonder some consumers are ready for a template, something that could teach us how to build a reassuring vision of home in an unfamiliar and quickly changing world. The meal-kit assumes that you have nothing and know nothing, an act of generational profiling which happens to match how many of us see ourselves.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.