You’d think that with so many decades of cooking under my belt, my meal planning would consist of finding the easiest possible dishes to put on the dinner table. And that is generally the case, unless company is coming. Every once in a while I jump in and make a big pot of chili, or my husband’s beloved meatloaf, or I see a new recipe I just have to try. But broiled trout, steamed asparagus, and a baked potato require practically no preparation.
But within the last couple of years something new has appeared on the horizon, meal kits, dinner in a box, which is delivered to your front door ready to be opened, its contents examined like the trinkets in a Christmas stocking.
Little bottles of flavorings and little plastic bags of veggies and herbs arrive along with step-by-step illustrated directions for the dish you’ve selected – meat, fish, chicken, vegetarian or gluten-free.
The first meal kit service that penetrated my consciousness was Blue Apron, which has by now become the No. 1 ready-to-cook meal company in this country, grossing $2 billion dollars a year, and growing. By now you’ve probably received a Blue Apron coupon in the mail or seen a commercial on television.
Since the founding of Blue Apron, a good many other meal kit services have jumped into the fray, among them Hello Fresh, Terra’s Kitchen, Home Chef, Fresh Diet, Green Chef, and a pricey line from the New York Times, “brought to you by Chef’d.” The competition is fierce and the prices wide-ranging, from less than $10 a meal for Blue Apron to more than $20 a person for the New York Times’ Chilean sea bass. And these entrepreneurs are knocking each other over trying to get your business.
As I became "curiouser and curiouser" I read comparisons of several such services online. Most of the meals are delivered in cardboard and plastic packaging, which is to be discarded after use. But a couple of them pack the foods in reusable plastic containers. The box they’re delivered in is picked up at your home and returned to the fulfillment center.
Never content to be left out of the latest trend, the Giant Eagle, specifically the Market District, has thrown its hat into the ring with a meal kit called “Fresh in 30” of which I’ve tried two. More on them later.
One afternoon, as I was thinking about Blue Apron, luck smiled upon me. A neighbor had forgotten to turn off the tap of Blue Apron orders, and oops! – her doorbell rang with two more meals in a box. Not able to keep up -- like Lucy on the assembly line -- she sent the extra ones to our house.
One was Crispy Catfish with Kale-Farro Salad & Warm Grape Relish. The second a Five-Spice Chicken with Vermicelli, Mushrooms, and Baby Fennel. I was surprised by the catfish because the other services I examined offered only salmon and tilapia, which are evidently the most popular, although tilapia is a fish we never buy. We we find it tasteless and uninteresting.
We enjoyed both meals and although I’m fairly experienced in the kitchen, there was one ingredient that I had never cooked, farro, a chewy wheat grain that is gaining in popularity, and two others, kale and collard greens that I would not have thought to use the way they were in these recipes.
I assume that the target market for meal kits is millennials, young people who are interested in fresh and, if possible, organic ingredients. They want to know that what they’re consuming doesn’t contain a long list of preservatives. For that reason alone, meal kits are a good thing.
But there’s a big difference between bringing home a frozen or refrigerated entrée from Trader Joe’s or your super market to pop into the oven or microwave, and launching into assembling the contents of a meal kit when you get off a crowded bus at 5:30 in the evening.
Compared to Heat 'n Eat, meal kits are work. They require a good bit of preparation before you start cooking. For the catfish recipe I did the following mid-afternoon, before my siesta:
- · Washed, spun and “scissored “the kale
- · Chopped three tablespoons of whole almonds
- · De-leaved three rosemary stalks
- · Washed and seeded four ounces of Thomcord grapes
- · Minced two cloves of garlic
- · Measured out 2 tablespoons of flour
...and put them all aside in little Rubbermaid containers. At cooking time those items along with a 2-tablespoon packet of butter, the catfish, and a small bag of farro were mise en place, lined up like tiny soldiers ready to be turned into dinner. I would not have been happy about doing all of that busy work starting 6 p.m.
I had already made salad, so the only other quandary was at what stage to serve it. I determined that I could go to a certain point with the dinner entrée, stop, serve salad, resume cooking.
I have to say, it was a delicious dinner and as we ate it I decided that it was worth the effort it took to put it together. My husband seemed to appreciate having something entirely different from anything I had cooked for him in thirty-three years. However, he wasn’t crazy about the second meal, the Five Spice Chicken, which was a little too exotic for his elderly, Western Pennsylvania palate.
He did remark, “You have a lot to clean up over there, don’t you?” And it was true. There were quite a few pots and utensils scattered around the counter area.
The advantage of meal kits is that they supply you with exactly what you need for a each recipe so you don’t have to buy entire bottles of flavorings you might never use again. There is very little waste and a wide range of choices that provide the opportunity to try foods and combinations that might never occur to you. Plus, my husband and I are both small eaters, and some of the meals would be enough for us for two nights.
There are critics who feel that meal kits are the "Paint by Numbers" of the culinary world. But how much more creative is it to purchase ingredients and follow a recipe? The meal kit simply cuts down on time spent tracking down ingredients and wasting unused spices and produce.
Blue Apron was begun by three Harvard business school grads who had a pile of venture capital but weren’t sure what to do with it after a less-than-successful try with a crowdfunding platform for research scientists called Petridish.
When one of them was attempting to buy the ingredients for Argentinean-style steaks he suddenly thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone delivered you the ingredients in the right amounts?” He soon learned about a highly successful meal kit company in Sweden called Linas Matkasse and the rest, as they say, is history.
Would I try Blue Apron again? Absolutely. It was fun, the recipes were unique, there was no waste – and my husband liked it. What more could I wish for?
NEXT: Fresh in 30
I’m not a cheapskate by a long shot, but if you saw some of our sheets and towels you might think I should pay a visit to Goodwill -- as a customer.
But I, along with my spouse, have been a little self-indulgent over the years, visiting foreign countries by land and by sea, dining in upscale restaurants, and occasionally purchasing a pricey garment or pair of shoes that could well have been spent on something more sensible.
But I am the queen of rationalization and can come up with a convincing justification for every dime I spend no matter how guilty I may feel at the moment of purchase. But even I have a cutoff point. And it’s somewhere just south of laying down $275 for a serving of meat.
In case you’ve been off sunning yourself at your oceanside villa for the last few weeks, you might not be aware that a small, local dining establishment has put on its menu a beefsteak that goes for $275 a pop. I find that idea slightly off-putting, but I know there are a few folks out there, wealthy and not so wealthy, who are rushing to reserve one of these fancy viandes so they can be the first on their block to announce that they've sampled this delicacy – if an 18-ounce slab of beef can be considered a delicacy.
I enjoy fine dining, but in my opinion a $275 steak crosses the line from fine dining to wretched excess. I can't imagine what would prompt me to pay $275 for a steak when I know that the high end Department of Agriculture figure for feeding a family of four for a week is $289.
The steak in question is Kobe beef, from Japan, which I learned about more than forty years ago on the first of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s many trips to the Land of the Rising Sun. We all thought it was a real howler and probably not true. Beef that was outrageously expensive because the cattle were treated to daily massages and fed beer? That was hard to believe even in Japan, where there was so much that was new and exotic to us. And who would have thought that this "diamond-crusted" beef would eventually find its way onto a Pittsburgh menu? Upon hearing that Kobe beef could be made available in Pittsburgh, even the local chef was skeptical asking, “Are you serious? These things really exist?”
Yes, they do, and and it turns out that more are being sold than had been expected -- three to six a week instead of the predicted six over the entire summer.
And it's a sure bet, now that the bar has been raised, other area establishments will feel compelled to come up with offerings that are even more “luxurious,” although they'll have to think hard to one-up a $275 steak.
We’ve been hearing about the citizens of Venezuela who are starving as their economy descends into chaos. They stand in line for up to eight hours a day hoping there might still be food or basic supplies remaining at the end of their wait. Skyrocketing inflation, corruption and smuggling have put adequate food out of reach of most citizens.
I wonder if those dining on $275 steak give a thought to the Venezuelans or the millions of others, worldwide, who go to bed hungry. If such a thought does cross their minds perhaps they believe that the hungry deserve their fate.
It's unlikely that anyone reading this is planning to spring for a $275 steak. My readers have more compassionate ways of distributing their money. So if you're feeling generous, how about sending a few dollars, by check or online at
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank
1 N. Linden Street
Duquesne, PA 15110
or online at
You can even send a monthly contribution for whatever amount you choose, perhaps what some are spending on a Kobe steak.
Then go out and treat yourself to a nice, normal steak and drink a toast to the many blessings in your life.
For as long as I can remember, listening to the spoken voice has been a source of great pleasure to me. Since as an only child I had no siblings to do battle with, a small radio was among my closest companions. I listened in bed, even late at night when I was supposed to be asleep, and my enjoyment of the sound of voices has only increased over the years. And now there is not only radio but a cornucopia of podcasts by way of apps such as Stitcher and Podbay, everything from the revolutionary, idea-sharing TED Talks to Old Time Radio, any of which I can download on my iPad or smartphone.
When listening to a voice I’m not distracted by the speaker’s looks, or gestures, or whatever might be going on in the background. I sometimes even close my eyes when “watching” a television interview.
We spend a good bit of time discussing the way people look, or we have strong opinions about how they sound – if they’re singing. But unless there’s something distinctive or irritating about a spoken voice, we don’t give its quality much thought. We listen to what’s being said and hope to derive its meaning without distractions.
But voice qualtiy is critical because it sets the tone for how we will perceive a topic and, to advertisers, what we will buy and what movies we’ll see.
We wouldn’t recognize most of the professional narrators and voiceover artists we hear every day if we passed them on the street. Would you recognize Don LaFontaine? Probably not, but you’ve heard his voice not only in commercials but also many, many times in movie trailers – he has recorded 5000 of them – which often begin ominously with the words, “In a world...”
The legendary Alexander Scourby, although primarily an actor, possessed a distinguished voice that was instantly identifiable during the mid to late decades of the last century. He narrated a multitude of television documentaries, and his extraordinary output included more than four-hundred audio books. In Christian circles he was well known for his recordings of the entire King James and the Revised Standard versions of the Bible. In the audiobook industry, his is still considered “the greatest voice ever recorded.”
Although you might not recognize the name of actor Will Lyman, his voice is well-known as the narrator, since 1984, of the PBS series “Frontline”. And his polished voiceovers have been heard on countless documentaries for the National Geographic, History, Discovery and Learning channels.
Peter Coyote is well known as an actor. But his skills as a narrator are as formidable as his skills as an actor and won him an Emmy for his narration for the Ken Burns PBS series “The Roosevelts.”
How often have we been astonished when we finally see the face of someone whose voice we’ve been listening to, perhaps for years? We’ve formed a mental picture and are disappointed when we discover that the person looks nothing like he sounds. We might even be inclined to agree with the quip, "He has a face made for radio".
Despite having had a busy musical career, I often wanted to try new things. So back in the 70s I took a voice and speech class at the Pittsburgh Playhouse drama school. The teacher who, it so happened, was not a native-born American, decided that my diction wasn’t quite up to snuff. I sensed that he heard, or thought he heard a certain “ethnicity” in my speech, which in those days was considered a defect.
Wouldn’t he be surprised, in the 21st century, to learn that two of the highest paid and most recognized voices in media today are African Americans – James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman – whose voices undoubtedly betray their “ethnicity.” And it is amazing to me, a child of the “Good Old Days,” how many commercial voiceovers are done by African Americans. Obviously the advertising executives, whose only allegiance is to the bottom line, have discovered that these voices “sell soap.”
It’s not for no reason that Morgan Freeman was chosen to narrate the profile of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Convention. And regardless of what you might think of Hillary, you have to agree that Freeman’s voiceover was highly effective.
Many of the individuals performing narrations are well-known actors – James Spader, Oprah Winfrey, Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver. But most are known only by their voices.
And it’s encouraging to realize that age doesn’t have to silence the venerable voices in our midst. Johnny Gilbert, at age 92, continues to introduce Jeopardy!, a task he has performed since 1984. Don Pardo, born in 1918, was the announcer for Saturday Night Live for thirty-nine years until his death in 2014.
If you’re a fan of audiobooks but don’t want to fork out beaucoup bucks for Audio.com or some similar "pay to play" service, check out Librivox.org, where volunteers read hundreds of books. The quality of the volunteers' voices is hit or miss. But one that I particularly enjoy is John Greenman who specializes in the works of Mark Twain. I can’t imagine wanting to listen to anybody else reading Innocents Abroad, Twain's matchless account of his world travels.
Another excellent source of free audiobooks is the Carnegie Library via Overdrive.com. Because most of the books are read by the authors, we are not always guaranteed a pleasing voice. I recently listened to a portion of Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving, from which I had hoped to get some pointers as I age. He was eighty-nine when he wrote the book, and although I adore Dick Van Dyke, I couldn’t quite handle the geezer-ish voice placed upon him by the passage of time. It was Dick Van Dyke, yet it wasn’t Dick Van Dyke.
(Incidentally, if you go to the library site, unless you don't mind waiting for your selection, be sure to click “Available Now” to access the list of books available immediately.)
Lucky is the person whose voice is pleasing to others. I’ve always felt that I had an acceptably pleasant voice and have heard myself in many interviews and not been horrified. But I can’t tell you how many times, when on the phone with a customer service rep, I’ve been called “Sir.” I used to thunder, I’m a Madam not a Sir!” But I’ve gotten so used to it I no longer even bother.
And besides, I’m sure in her long career, the smoky-voiced Kathleen Turner has more than once been addressed as “Sir” on the phone.
I must be a masochist. First thing in the morning I fetch the Post-Gazette, scan the front page, and then turn to the op-ed pages to check on the day’s opinion pieces, some local, some national, to get their take on the latest batch of upsetting events happening in our world. On Tuesdays and Fridays I immediately turn to Page 2 to see what Tony Norman has to say. (For those of you who do not deign to read the Post Gazette, Tony Norman is, in my opinion, the publication’s most interesting columnist, whose trenchant and often wry observances frequently make it from my desktop to desktops around the land.)
After I’ve perused the Post-Gazette I download the New York Times to find out what their platoon of columnists has to say about the latest shocks to our collective system.
Terrorism – It’s becoming a du jour kind of thing – bombing du jour, mass shooting du jour. It’s reached the point that we turn on the morning news, listen to a report of the latest bombing, turn over, and go back to sleep.
We’re in a quandary, to say the very least, as we scurry about plugging up one leak in the damn while four more burst forth elsewhere. More dogs, more security, more searches – aiming to defeat an enemy who relishes watching us dance on hot coals.
Determination to stay alive is the strongest urge man possesses. But when our enemy has managed to rid himself of that primal urge, how are we to fight back?
The Campaign – Nothing is happening right now that gives me hope. We have a choice between two painfully flawed candidates. Many months ago I asked my husband, “Don’t the Democrats have anybody else to run for president?”
Evidently they didn’t, and we’re seeing the results now. I’m not a Hillary hater, but it seems to me that someone with less baggage and more charm might have come to the fore. Hillary is brittle and unspontaneous. Nothing about her makes me think, “I like that woman.” My husband says, "She's competent." I say, "Competent is boring."
And I'm now questioning her competence having just heard the FBI report on her email activity, which was described as “extremely careless.” That doesn’t exactly bespeak competence.
I’m sorry, but I don’t give two hoots about whether we have a woman president just so we can say we do. I would like for us to have an excellent president.
My choice, ill-informed as it may be, would have been Joe Biden. He’s a sympathetic figure, an affable, back-slapping kind of guy who, notwithstanding a tendency to utter an occasional verbal boo-boo, is liked, and he knows plenty about domestic and foreign policy and as much as Hillary does about the presidency. He has been the best vice president a president could possibly want.
What can I say about Trump that hasn’t already been said? It’s obvious that his success is based primarily on his ability to give voice to the rage of millions of disaffected white people – the ones whose idea of cultural activity is tailgating and target shooting – who will never get over having an uppity Nee-gro in the Oval Office.
The Republican Party has only itself to blame for this unlikely turn of events. They've spent the last eight years doing everrything they could think of to undermine Obama while the gods were about to pull the rug from under them. Whoops!
Brexit - Obama can’t be directly blamed for the rage of the Leavers. But he is blamed for initiating or continuing events that have led to the mass migration of “undesirables” into the European Union and Britain. The Brexit vote will result, for many years to come, in as yet unimagined, unintended consequences. But the Leave gang, along with their squeamish, right-leaning counterparts in France, Hungary and other European countries are having a hard time accepting what they see happening and feel helpless to prevent.
These developments have given permission to a certain contingent of (mostly) young males to torment those they see as “the other.” A Mexican-American man who has been living in England for eighteen years is accosted by a group of thugs shouting at him to “Go back to Africa!” Africa? The hooligans are not only mean and xenophobic, they’re also stupid if they can’t tell the difference between a Latino and an African. All they see is brownish skin.
Cultural upheaval – There are changes happening that those of us who have been around for a while find mind boggling. I often wonder how my father, who died in 1980, would react to the 21st century culture wars. He would think he was being hoodwinked, that these new “norms” of society couldn’t possibly be true.
Weather – We watch footage of floods and tornadoes and fires that rob people of their homes and a lifetime of possessions. I’m not a climate scientist and haven’t the slightest idea if global warming is responsible. But whatever the cause, the degree of devastation makes me wonder how these people go on without losing their minds.
Assorted shootings, beatings, stabbings – In locales urban and rural, people who have been driven insane by drugs or circumstances are doing away with one another. A mother shoots to death her two teenage daughters to avenge a dispute with her husband while another mother slashes the throats of her four children, all under the age of five. Two policeman shoot to death a black man who is being held on the ground more confused than threatening. The policemen's bodycams have unaccountably gone missing before the shooting occurs.
We learn about these horrors while watching the 6 o’clock news – one disaster after another, one ghastly example of man’s inhumanity to man, while we sip our Chardonnay and dine on grilled salmon. Why do we do it?
We are retirees, and the news is an important component of our lives. It doesn’t require anything of us other than our attention, and it doesn't make our feet hurt. When we socialize, we can’t talk about our jobs. But we can talk about the news.
And there's a tendency in humans to engage in schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person's misfortune. We might not be feeling pleasure, but we are experiencing the only thing that is keeping us halfway sane: The belief that what we’re seeing is not going to happen to us.
I love The Week - the magazine, that is. For many decades I’ve been a subscriber to news magazines. In fact when I was around eighteen my father the newspaper editor noticed me reading Time and was obviously relieved that his slightly scatterbrained daughter had finally developed an interest in what might be going on outside of East Liberty.
Eventually, along with Time, Newsweek began arriving in our mailbox. Very much like Time, it filled in the gaps, those stories perhaps not covered in Time, and it provided a slightly different slant on what I already knew.
Although I thought I was pretty hip to be reading Time and Newsweek, I became aware as the years went by that smart, sophisticated people, or those who imagine themselves to be so, read The New Yorker or The Atlantic or any of a number of other magazines geared more to the intellectual than to middle of the road readers like me.
Having been gifted, in recent years, with a subscription to The New Yorker, I would zip through each issue, from back to front – which, for reasons best figured out by a shrink, is the way I read most magazines – and occasionally hunker down to read an article about a subject that genuinely interested me. But my beef with The New Yorker is that the articles are too darned long. If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book. I know people who have actually stopped reading books in order to have time to read The New Yorker. Seems a trifle backwards to me.
A couple of years ago my husband and I became aware of the news magazine The Week. At first it seemed a little flimsy. The articles are short, too short, surely, to contain much information. But the publishers assume that we already have a decent grip on what’s going on in the world. Their mission is to present assorted perspectives from publications around the country and the world, and from the left and the right, which I find refreshingly balanced.
In addition to news and opinion pieces, The Week always includes a two-page article about varied topics such as “Surviving Solitary Confinement” to “Where WWII Bombs Still Lie in Wait” to “English Is Not Normal.” (“It’s a wonder English ever caught on because it’s weirder than just about every other tongue.”) Not all of these articles interest me, but the people at The Week have gauged their readers’ interests.
Another feature, which initially gave me pause, is the pictorial “Best Properties on the Market,” houses around the country with unusual characteristics such as, “Homes with Columns” or “Houses in West Coast Wine Country.” “Homes for the Literary-minded” includes a six-bedroom stone house with large library located in Sewickley PA. Most of the homes are in the seven figure category, but there’s always a “Steal of the Week” that one of us might be able to afford. Scanning the photos I initially think, Is this news? Maybe not, but I have never found myself bypassing those pages.
A selection of cartoons culled from various U. S. newspapers nearly always includes one by the Post-Gazette’s Rob Rogers. That gives me a thrill, and I’m sure it gives Rob a thrill, too. Imagine being so well-regarded nationally.
Book, art, film and television reviews and recommendations are in the mix as well as travel, health and science, technology and business. All news magazines include such reviews, you say. Yes, they do, but somehow not in as appealing and concise a way as The Week does.
I download the magazine into my iPad, each Thursday evening, two days before the print edition arrives in the mail. And it’s a struggle not to talk about articles I’ve just read to my Luddite husband, a hard copy man for sure, which he won’t be reading for a few days.
The iPad version can be handily read in portrait or landscape format, unlike Time, which seems stubbornly to be locked into the portrait format.
In my back-to-front perusal it’s fun finally to arrive at the world and U. S. news where maps snap into view, each with a pushpin protruding from the relevant country highlighted in red.
And of course there’s a sprinkling of light fare – “Only in America,” “Good Week/Bad Week” and, in case you’ve given up completely a few nuggets titled “It Wasn’t All Bad,” anecdotes that give us hope.
In case you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this it’s simply because we don’t know anyone else who subscribes to The Week, but we think many of you might enjoy it. If you are a subscriber, I’d be interested to know that. And if you’re not, give it a whirl.
Meanwhile, happy reading, whatever your periodical of choice happens to be.
I don’t get Brownie points, free subscriptions, or anything else for writing the foregoing. In case you’re interested, take yourself to http://theweek.com.