She finally broke me. I knew this would happen.
We had a casual working relationship, N and me. I'd engage her services once a fortnight, except in summer. She was cool with that. Never got jealous or accused me of cooking behind her back.
Then last week, 55 minutes into a 40-minute (suggested time) recipe from her meal preparation kit, I started to crack. I was making comfort food - a chicken and leek pie. It looked simple: 12 ingredients; four steps. Except for the chopping. Halfway into dicing New Zealand's largest onion-like bundle of sheaths, I was cursing N and wishing for a sous chef. My knives aren't sharp enough. My chopping isn't fast enough. And three large celery ribs are stalking me, awaiting their whack.
There's nothing comforting about questioning your culinary skills at 6.30pm on a weeknight when you'd hoped to have everyone seated by now.
Instead, I'm still chopping. I'd moved to (free-range) chicken thighs, discarding stringy fatty bits and pondering the cost of meal prep kit versus procuring a flash gourmet pie from the store. I've never bought a supermarket pie for more than $8, but the fancy ones are priced around $18. A quick calculation shows my chicken and leek pie (with a side of broccoli) costs $43. Delivered. It's about $11 per serving for four people.
I thought the meal kit would be a kitchen hack. My children are always talking about life hacks, ie, clever ways to make tasks faster or easier. Some are helpful, like using shower curtain rings to fit a heap of singlets on one hanger; placing icecream in a Nutella jar that's nearly finished; or storing cords and cables in paper towel tubes. The advantage of the prep kit, I figured, was having someone else choose meals and set the ingredients on my doorstep.
Excuse me, it's time to make the pie filling. Mix cornflour with water, then add chicken, stock, salt, mustard and stir while sauce thickens.
After a minute, I add sour cream (which I nearly forgot) and pour the ingredients into a casserole dish. I top it with a large slab of pre-made pastry dough.
Into the oven it goes. But wait, there's more. More chopping for the side dish. Broccoli must be cut into medium florets and boiled five minutes. Where is that sous chef?
About an hour and 20 minutes after starting my easy recipe, the meal sits on the table. I am the slowest cook ever. At least I can pour a glass of wine in one easy step.
"What are these, noodles?" asks Master 12, poking at leek pieces. I don't want to ruin his dinner by admitting I baked a green vegetable into the main course. "It's pie filling." Every child, including our 16-year-old Brazilian exchange student, says the pie is delicious. Miss 16 plonks a generous slice into a container after dinner for her lunch the next day.
Did I hack dinner? I diced vegetables, but hardly turned meal prep into an efficient exercise. As with so many other "clever" life strategies, this one didn't provide the quick solution I'd hoped for.
An internet search reveals funnier bumbles, like a girl who says she read in a teen magazine banana would make her hair "soft and silky". It wouldn't wash out and she was picking rotten banana clumps from her hair for weeks (her father called her Banana Split). Another beauty DIY - a homemade gelatine face mask left on too long - resulted in painful removal of skin. And a man found a Russian life hacker video about how to make an air conditioner using fans and dry ice. The mixture created enough carbon dioxide to kill his dog.
Some hacks are hazardous. Some are silly. Many have consequences. Hack: I can let my children linger on devices so they don't bug me. Effect: They struggle to entertain themselves without smartphones.
The path of employee, parent, community member is never linear. One hack does not fit all and often a shortcut is the last thing you, your friend or child needs.
No one's figured how to hack time, though if it happens, my children will see it on YouTube and tell me how to do it.
I haven't sworn off the meal prep kit, but N and I are taking an extended break.
The night after my chicken and leek pie extravaganza, I opened three bags for dinner: frozen fish sticks; French fries; and mixed vegetables. I baked the first two items and microwaved the third. Hands-on time was about two minutes and dinner was on the table in less than half an hour.
Three bites into the meal, Miss 16 exclaimed, "I love this! This is my favourite. I don't know why we don't have in Brazil."
Sometimes old-fashioned solutions taste best.