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Finding Creativity in the Kitchen

Want to hear some magic words? Creamy, melted fontina cheese. Butter-coated bread, toasted to a golden crisp. Crisp stalks of endive, tossed with basil and lemon. Aromatic and tangy fig jam, fresh from a saucepan. Do I have your attention? I’m not trying to seduce you with food talk or even make you hungry—I just want to tell you about my dinner.

This meal may sound gourmet, or perhaps even restaurant-made, but I actually made it. Me. An amateur cook with an inflated sense of skill and limited ingredients. It only took an hour and most of that time was hands-off, simply letting the jam simmer into a thick, condensed jelly. The most difficult part of the cooking process was stopping myself from eating the fontina cheese before putting it in the sandwich.

In my culinary fantasy, I prepared for this meal by going to a local farmer’s market. I sorted through the stalks of endives and wooden bins of figs. I talked to my neighborhood baker, and then settled on a freshly-baked loaf of country bread. Once at home, I picked a lemon from my tree in the backyard. I meandered around my garden for a few minutes to inspect any other promising produce before heading inside to pick some sprigs of basil from my windowsill plant. Then I put on an apron, opened my grandmother’s recipe book, and let the inspiration flow through me.

I didn’t actually do all those things. Instead, I ordered a meal package from Blue Apron. For those who don’t know about this meal service, I’ll explain. For $9.99 per person, you can have a gourmet recipe and handpicked ingredients delivered to your door. No grocery shopping. No recipe hunting. Not even the guilt of unused cilantro that sits in a rotting heap after you’ve picked off the leaves you need.

Before you accuse me of product placement, let me be clear. This foray into Blue Apron cooking was probably my last. As much as I enjoyed the initial crunch into my fontina grilled cheese and the refreshingly bitter taste of my endive salad, I can’t lay claim to this recipe. It belongs to Blue Apron, not to me.

After I had finished my meal, I tried to feel the surge of satisfaction that comes from a well-crafted meal. It wasn’t there. As the slightly neurotic cook that I am, I fixated on the oddity of this reaction. Why did I feel like I hadn’t really cooked it? What separated this meal from any other one? Perhaps the answer lies in my own idea of creativity. Although creativity often hides behind the juicier label of artistry, it applies more broadly to the creation of something new. It could be a string of words or a business plan or even a piping-hot plate of spaghetti with maple syrup (on second thought, maybe not that one).

For me, creativity seems most alive in the kitchen, where a basil leaf or a dash of paprika can spark the creation of something utterly unknown and unexpected. Forget Steve Jobs and Van Gogh, I want to hear about Escoffier and Fernand Point and Alice Waters.

With the introduction of Blue Apron, I suddenly find myself questioning this understanding of creativity. Can we call something creative when all it involves is following the guidelines of somebody else’s recipe? When the only ingredients we pick out are those that have been dropped on our doorstep? What exactly is the creation there? And who exactly is creating it?

I try not to give in to food snobbery, but I can’t help thinking that Blue Apron has taken art and creativity out of the kitchen. It has distilled cooking down to a process and food to a product. Perhaps this is what people are looking for. And I certainly don’t mean to criticize those who simply want something easy and fast. Blue Apron provides a valuable service: the opportunity to cook without the pressure of buying ingredients or learning a recipe. Unfortunately, those steps are integral to learning how to cook. They exercise our sense of taste and smell and hone our culinary instincts. Without those, experimentation and innovation in the kitchen are nothing more than accidents, and rare ones at that.

As I begin another year in Boston College’s dorms, I’m starting to remember the stifling pressure of having limited ingredients and even more limited time. I have eaten more plates of scrambled eggs and baked sweet potatoes in the past week than I care to reveal. My creativity, culinary or otherwise, is reaching a dismal level. I’m suddenly longing for that fontina grilled cheese and fresh fig jam, culinary integrity be damned.

Maybe this is Blue Apron’s secret. It plays on our overscheduled lives, and relishes in our tendencies to sacrifice creativity in the face of mounting outside pressures. Let’s not let it win. Let’s remember that cooking is art and a well-crafted meal deserves more than an online order.

Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor

August 31, 2016