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Five years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he did a Mother’s Day project at school that involved answering a series of questions about me. Some of them were designed to be funny, like guessing my age and height, and others were meant to elicit sweetness—stuff like “What’s the nicest thing your mom does for you?” The standout moment of the exercise came when he was asked what food I made best. His response? That I was good at toasting bagels and preparing instant oatmeal. The sting lay in its accuracy—add “dumping a can of soup into a pot” and that would have pretty much summed up my culinary abilities at the time.

I never really learned how to cook. My mom is handy enough in the kitchen, but when I was growing up, she was a single parent who not only worked full time but was also finishing an undergraduate degree in night school. Most of our weeknight meals were frozen or canned or used some kind of shortcut, like Shake ‘n Bake chicken. On evenings when I was left in charge, the best my younger sisters could hope for was chicken noodle soup from a powdered mix, fried hot dogs, or canned ravioli. As I got older, I learned how to make the basics: scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and various types of pasta (as long as the sauce came out of a jar). But preparing an entire meal from scratch always felt like too much work. When I had my own kid, time was at a premium and I practically stopped cooking altogether.

All of that started to change a few months into the pandemic. At first, my life looked like a deflated version of its former self: shapeless and only vaguely recognizable. That spring, my then nine-year-old son and I moved out of our downtown Toronto home to live with my mother in suburban Kingston, Ontario. I found the collapse of our daily routines particularly jarring. The activities that normally took me from wake-up to bedtime were suddenly gone—scaffolding that had seemed so reliably solid until it wasn’t. I was at a loss over how to structure my days.

A few weeks into the first lockdown, my mother suggested we try a meal kit service. I figured that it would be a good way for me to contribute to the household and that I couldn’t mess it up too badly as long as I stuck to the instructions. What I didn’t expect was that meal preparation would become the highlight of my day.

From the moment I opened that day’s bag and arranged its contents on my cutting board, I slipped into forty minutes of not thinking about the pandemic. Everything was so neat, so organized, and with such a clear projected outcome. It was a brief period when I could create some kind of order in the middle of all the upheaval, and before long, I became something entirely new—not just a person who cooked but someone who enjoyed it.

I wasn’t the only one trying to fill empty pandemic hours in the kitchen. Last spring, a sharp increase in home baking paired with a backed-up supply chain led to a flour shortage in North America. My social media feeds were suddenly filled with pictures of elaborate homemade meals and baked goods. People didn’t just seem obsessed with cooking—they were obsessed with cooking from scratch. Part of that likely stemmed from the fact that so many of us now had enough time to skip the shortcuts, but it also seemed linked to a wider trend of craving authenticity: meals made the old-fashioned way, the way our great-grandmothers used to cook back when, according to popular imagination, ingredients were fresh, food was wholesome, and nobody worried about too much screen time. I thought about this every time I opened another meal kit. As I transformed those packets of premeasured ingredients into what felt, to me, like gourmet meals, I couldn’t help wondering, Was this real cooking?

When some of the first meal kits were created, in the late 1960s—a time of elaborate home entertaining—convenience seemed far from their goal. Columbia House Records hired now critically acclaimed cookbook author Paula Wolfert, then an unemployed single mother, to put together a series of dinner party kits. The idea was to pair a gourmet six-course meal with matching “international” instrumental music: a French meal with French music, a Chinese meal with Chinese music, and so on.

Wolfert’s meals were more complex than the average home cook likely wanted. Her French meal involved time-consuming steps like making your own aspic and mayonnaise from scratch and then adding carefully sliced pimento and lemon petals as decoration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the service never quite took off and was quickly cancelled.

Meal kits as we know them today—subscription-based boxes with preportioned ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes—originated in Sweden with the launch of Middagsfrid (“dinnertime bliss”), in 2007, followed by LinasMatkasse, in 2008. These proved so popular that competitors offering similar services quickly sprang up across Europe and, a few years later, in North America, where they became a mainstay among many Gen X and millennial households. Today, HelloFresh is the most widely available meal kit in Canada, according to the company.

With many people spending more time in the home, HelloFresh Canada has seen enormous growth during the pandemic. Between September 2020 and February 2021, the company’s revenue was 183 percent higher than in the same period a year prior. So I know I wasn’t alone in my newfound interest in meal kits, but they still don’t tell the whole story of quarantine cooking trends. As people were signing up in droves for HelloFresh, others were taking different approaches: incubating sourdough starters, trying out Instagram-friendly viral recipes, or even eschewing recipes altogether.

Several cookbooks in this vein have been published this year, including Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Recipes (and Love My Microwave), by Momofuku restaurateur David Chang and food journalist Priya Krishna, and The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes, by the paper’s food editor, Sam Sifton. In the latter, Sifton promises to make weeknight dinners “more inspired and delicious,” writing in the book’s introduction that regular recipes are like playing an instrument while following sheet music: useful but, he implies, a bit formal and rote. Once you can ditch the written instructions and learn to improvise, that’s where the real fun is to be had.

Sifton’s writing is conversational and interspersed with words of encouragement. (His entry for New Mexican Hot Dish ends with the exhortation, “I’m telling you, you could make it tonight.”) Instead of following a traditional recipe format—there’s no list of ingredients, no measurements, no step-by-step instructions—Sifton offers paragraphs of prose recommending a glug of olive oil here or a knob of butter there. There are some solid guidelines, like oven temperatures, but even those are sometimes just suggestions. For his Teriyaki Salmon with Mixed Greens, he writes, “Turn your oven to 400°F or so,” though it’s hard to imagine someone setting their oven to 395°F in the spirit of culinary creativity.

The format Sifton uses isn’t necessarily new. One of my mother’s old cookbooks from the ’70s, called Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, is filled with similar ambiguities. A recipe for clam pie, for example, reads:

Line a deep dish with paste or not as you like; then take the amount of clams to be used, take the hard part of the clam, chop fine and cook for 15 minutes, then add the soft part and bring to a boil. Slice the amount of potatoes to be used (having had them in cold water), boil until half done. Then put a layer of potatoes and a layer of clams, a little chopped onion, salt, pepper, pieces of butter, until baking dish is full. Pour over the liquor from clams, cover with pie crust and bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

The recipes in Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens were written at a time when children grew up watching and helping their mothers in the kitchen, and they—similar to the ones in Sifton’s book—assume a certain level of competence. While I appreciate that Sifton and Chang are trying to help people build a sense of playful confidence by doing things the old-fashioned way, what about those of us who are still trying to crack that kitchen door?

When I talk to Bonnie Stern, who founded Toronto’s Bonnie Stern School of Cooking and was a former food columnist for the National Post, she notes that being able to cook for yourself—no matter how you do it—is something that isn’t given enough credit.

“People think they should instinctively know how to cook and that they shouldn’t have to learn how to do it,” Stern tells me. “But, when people go skiing for the first time, they practise a little bit, they don’t just hit the hardest slope. I think meal kits are a way into cooking. It’s like so many other things, you just have to keep doing it. The more you do it, the more you relax, the more confidence you get.”

When I ask Stern if she has any tips for anyone out there who, like me, is trying to learn to cook, she tells me that the key is staying organized: read the recipes ahead of time, assemble your ingredients beforehand, and look for things that you can prep in advance—things meal kits already do for you. Even as a veteran cook, she likes to make a to-do list before she gets started.

It’s a relief to hear that Stern’s own process runs so counter to Sifton’s beliefs on what the optimal cooking experience should be—not because it discredits him but because it’s nice to see such a range of approaches from professionals. There is no objectively right way to be in the kitchen, and I’d even go so far as to say that there isn’t any such thing as “real” cooking. Instead, cooking seems to be about something more primal: the ability to nourish yourself and those around you. How you do it—whether it’s through a meal kit, an intricate recipe, or no recipe at all—doesn’t really matter.

The biggest gift meal kits gave me was relieving the mental load of cooking: figuring out what to make, what ingredients to buy, how much time it would take to put it all together. Having all those questions answered was what let me slip into that feeling of orderly pleasure and, for the first time ever, enjoy being in the kitchen. Maybe, someday, I’ll learn the skills necessary to make cooking from scratch feel the same way, but maybe not. And, if this is as good as it gets, that’s fine by me.

Anne Thériault
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer who has contributed to the Guardian, Chatelaine, and Longreads