Sometimes, the second-to-last thing you want to do is dress up, get in the car, and go to a restaurant. The only alternative that’s worse? Shopping and cooking. Of course, this may apply more to women than men. When men are fixin’ to die, they’ll go out for a final burger. When women feel that way, they won’t go out for anything. Men are from dogs, women are from cats.
Whether you’re sick, tired, or sick and tired, when you’re hungry for something good to make up for a bad day, you become an open-mouthed fledgling peeping, “Mommy, feed me!” You don’t insist on four-star fine cuisine — but you do want something better than Pizza the Hut, and something faster than the 90-minute wait for a soggy “meals on wheels” delivery. And heating up some chemical-laden slop from the supermarket freezer cases just won’t do either, not if you care about what you put down your gullet. (What is disodium guanylate, anyway — double-salted dried bat poop?) You want real food, good food, equal to a decent restaurant or home-cooked meal, and you want it ready when you are — or in just a few minutes.
This widespread need came home to me recently when one of my best friends required surgery and months of follow-up treatments. She’s been the main cook in her household all these years. How would she and her husband cope during her illness? They have good palates, and though Stouffer’s frozen mac might be a fun novelty one night, it wouldn’t do for the long haul. (This piece is dedicated to MW — zei gezundt, hon!)
I’d received several catalogs from “home-delivered meal” companies, also available via the Internet, and searching the Web turned up more: DineWise, Home Bistro, and Impromptu Gourmet were the primary sources, plus the much more expensive Gourmetstation.com. This last (at a minimum of $50 plus shipping for an entrée and side dish to feed two) was truly upscale-restaurant priced, hence beyond my budget for testing if I wanted to try other alternatives. I also found some “live” local sources: Daily Dish and Optimal Nutrition. (A third, La Jolla’s Vida Gourmet, didn’t answer my email inquiry.) I didn’t look at “lifestyle” diet-meal services like Jenny Craig and NutriSystem — they’re more controlling and cultish (and probably costly) than I figured you’d want to deal with. I assume regular readers are devoted to the pleasure principle and won’t want to delegate their dining choices to some corporation.
(Another candidate flunked out before the testing even began: Last fall, after a flurry of snail-mail pitches from High Plains Bison, I ordered their “introductory pack” of buffalo steaks, burgers, and 32 ounces of ready-made bison chili. I love bison — at best, it’s like grass-fed beefsteak, but more intense, if a tad chewier. Apparently, High Plains specially slaughtered the toughest, oldest bull of its herd just for me, but the steaks and burgers were almost tasteless as well, perhaps frozen too long. Given the flavorless raw materials, I still haven’t dared defrost that daunting bag of chili.)
After looking over the menus on the various websites, I ordered three or four basic meals (entrée plus veggie) from each of the delivered-dinner sources, plus a few little extras, e.g., appetizers, soups, dips, and one dessert. Where possible, I ordered similar items to make direct comparisons. I also targeted the kinds of foods that I’d order in restaurants — game birds rather than chicken, braised meats rather than grilled (they’d reheat better), well-sauced seafood (rather than grilled, which might overcook when reheated).
First test was a “delivered dinner party.” Samurai Jim offered his modern kitchen, dining room, and amiable parrot Limpio (my new sweetie), who volunteered to join the human tasting team. (Limpio’s favorite: the low-carb cheesecake from Home Bistro.) This dinner began with a charming torte of Gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes (Home Bistro again), then a three-source seafood course, four “gourmet” poultry choices, and a four-piece slow-cooked meats course. Each of the posse filled out a form rating each food in each course, with space for comments. Then, over the next ten days, between restaurant meals, I tried to plow through the remainder myself, with direct comparisons wherever possible (a bite of this, a bite of that).
I literally bit off more than I could chew. Not only did I overbuy, but the more Internet foods I tasted, the less I wanted to taste. Most were not “chef quality,” although a few (some entrées from Impromptu Gourmet and appetizers from Home Bistro) stood out for flavor. To my disappointment, I never found a one-stop solution to the problem.
In the new best seller In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan’s first words are, “Eat food.” What he means is — real food, not chemicals, or weird derivatives from things that begin as food. Ordering from the Web, you can read the nutrient specifications before you buy, but not actual ingredients — for those, you need the packages. Once I read the fine print on the foods I ordered, I discovered that the majority included, along with chemical preservatives, tons of laboratory substances derived from actual food (mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans, America’s most heavily subsidized and industrialized crops — hence, cheap) that were transformed into such etiolated versions of themselves as “vegetable base” (huh?), hydrolyzed soy protein, modified food starch, and the ever-popular high-fructose corn syrup.
By contrast, even if the two local “live” private chefs don’t furnish food quite fit for the gods, at least their dishes are made entirely of — food.
Ideal Client: Hildy Johnson. The careerist news reporter of His Girl Friday, incarnated by Rosalind Russell, would love Daily Dish — nice-looking, decent-tasting, fast, and convenient meals to enjoy after chasing a scoop through a 14-hour, lunchless workday. Another local publication awarded Daily Dish the designation of “Best Personal Chef.” You mainly get frozen meals (a few refrigerated) ready to reheat in oven or nuker, delivered in person by a “concierge” who will even put them into your freezer (or refrigerator) for you and explain how to reheat them. Unfortunately, once she’s gone, you won’t find instructions on the labels to remind you what to do. I wasn’t thrilled by any of the dishes I tried but found all of them edible, pleasant tasting, and attractively presented. Furthermore, unless you’re ravenous, the portions are large enough to lightly feed two, making these dinners a deal for, say, senior couples.