"I'm here to eat," says Martha Stewart to a roomful of chefs in training. Well at least, one of us is in training. I look dubiously at my dish-in-progress and resolve to prevent the domestic maven from going anyway near it. For her own safety.
Martha, or at least one of her minions, has invited a bunch of journalists to come and cook in her blindingly white and stainless steel office kitchen to test the meal kits that her newest business partnership, Martha & Marley Spoon, is offering. There are about 10 of us and nine of us are women. I'm the oldest by about a decade. I'm also, I realize as we go along, the least competent.
As a modern family, the division of labor at our house goes like this. I do the shopping, most of the cleaning and nearly all the nagging. My spouse takes care of the cooking and most of the shouting. The teens cover the eating, the dishwasher unpacking, and the sullen declining of all other requests to help out.
This has worked for years. My husband is a great chef. (Have you ever noticed how husbands are great chefs and wives are great cooks? Just sayin'.) But recently, I've begun to yearn to be able to whip up a meal too. My mother made a delicious roast chicken and a wicked shepherd's pie. My aunt makes a gorgeous lamb roast with an oven that doesn't even have dials. I would like my kids to associate their mom with a great dish too. Or at least, something edible.
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Also, nobody ever says "My compliments to your cleaner! These forks are spotless." And I get it; cleaning is not skilled labor. A person's cleaning game plateaus really quickly. You don't get better and better at sweeping the floor. After a while, you just get faster. Cooks learn new techniques, develop a few signature dishes, collect cookbooks to learn from the masters, ferret out obscure ingredients. All cleaners get is a new mop, or a sponge with a pattern. Notice how many cooking shows there are on TV? And no cleaning shows. Nobody rose to the fame on their mad scrubbing skills.
In the great marital tradeoff, I chose the wrong path. So I decided to remedy the situation. A 70 year old with no policy experience just got elected President of the United States! Surely I can learn to sauté.
On the face of it, Stewart's recipes would seem to be a poor place to start learning how to cook. They always seem to need something exotic like cooking parchment or a mandoline or a hunk of Venezuelan chocolate. But with meal kits, the invitation promises, all the exotic ingredients are delivered to your door. You are merely required to add labor.
In response to the increasing number of dual income families who, despite their busy schedules want all the goodness of the home-cooked dinner, the meal kits market has blossomed recently. Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Plated, the early category leaders were soon joined by Home Chef, Purple Carrot and Peach Dish. Marley Spoon is a German company that hired away one of Martha Stewart Living's chefs, Jennifer Aaronson, who later suggested partnering with the American domestic doyenne. The Germans were, needless to say, glucklich about this arrangement.
Stewart says she tried all the competitors' dishes before deciding to partner with Marley Spoon. I believe her. This is a woman who, judging by her recipes, rarely chooses the path of least resistance. But the Marley Spoon folks insist that all the sourcing of ingredients usually performed by Stewart—or her shopping minion—has been done for you. "We're trying to make everyone's life easier," says Aaronson. Instead of buying big bottles of exotic ingredients, you merely need to let Martha and Marley Spoon send you all the freshly pitted cherries you need.
Stewart believes that meal kits are good for the environment, as well. "I get very depressed going to the supermarket these days," she says. She worries that a lot of the produce that is piled up so attractively will have to be thrown away, because it's hard for grocers to judge how much lettuce they will need in any given week. "My concern in any business is, what is the waste?"
My little group of cooks is making Green Pea Burgers. This is a class, not a contest. But the lone man in our group, whom I mentally label as Overskilled College Student (OCS), is really good. OCS, for example did not leave out one of the shallots, as I did. OCS's knifework produced finer slices of herbs than mine did. His mashing technique is superior. And despite my attempts to keep a low profile, Stewart notices my struggle. She quietly but firmly directs Aaronson to show me how to make patties. Mine are too ovoid. They need to be flatter but more rounded, which requires less squeezing between the palms (my technique) and more massaging with just the tips of the fingers (proper technique).
After we get the patties into the frying pan, I figure I'm safe. Stewart can't taste everyone's! She tries OCS's, of course, and then comes around the table to me. I panic and bodily throw myself in her path so she doesn't ingest anything that could scar her for life. Instead she asks me to taste them. (They're a tad mealy.) She tells me a story about her daughter, Alexis, who loves the meal kits, because she's always looking for something healthy to cook for her kids and their two nannies. In the Stewart family division of labor, I notice, even nannies don't cook.
After class is over and Stewart is off to her next appointment, cameraman in tow, I pack up my patties and take them home to present to my family as part of dinner. My offspring looks at me like I've offered her a hammer-and-liver salad. But my sweet husband gamely wolfs one down and declares it delicious before taking a big swig of water.
Great, so now I can cook! Martha & Marley Spoon offer a complete Thanksgiving meal (you have to order it by midnight, November 16). I guess that's my next assignment. I wonder if Stewart is busy that day.