by Lance Arthur
I'm here to tell you that at least one promise of the Web is coming true for me. The Web is, indeed, changing my life. It's making me fatter, lazier and more capable of ordering boxes of new, expensive, international junk food and alcohol to fuel my continued decent into gluttony.
Do I blame myself for this turn of events? Of course not! What sort of early 21st Century white American male would I be if I started accepting responsibility for my own actions?
I blame Webvan.
The tale of my fall into the abyss of new and exciting food products I'd never look at twice in the gourmet section of my local grocer is a simple one. It starts out by ditching your car and its trunk space and tires that get you to the store to buy the things you need, and ends with you sitting in front of your computer monitor at 2AM on a Wednesday morning considering just how much smoked salmon you actually need.
Webvan is diabolical in its simplicity. You go to the site feeling a little curious, wondering what could possibly be the attraction of grocery shopping via computer. I mean, number one, where are all the big carts you can't pull apart where the wheels are wobbling? Where are all the people who take those carts and leave them sitting smack dab in the center of the aisle leaving you wondering if taking one would be encroaching on someone's personal space when you deign to move them aside? Where are the screaming children? And what about only being able to find parking miles away from the store so when you cart your plastic bags of groceries out to your car in the rain, you can leave that self-same cart sitting in the parking space so when you leave, no one else can park there?
You don't find any of that at Webvan, but neither can you open the egg carton to make sure no one stuck their thumb in one, or reach way, way, way back in the milk fridge and get the fresh, fresher, freshest 1% available. Gazing in semi-awe at the mile-long list of chips pales in comparison to gazing in mouth-watering awe at the real thing. How is one expected to pick up each and every head of lettuce, twisting it around around trying to figure out if this is the head for you?
Here's how it works. First thing you do is pick a delivery time. This is key. If you go through the lengthy process of filling your cart and then you get to the check-out, do you really want to be told you can buy your groceries now, but you can't eat them for three days? So you stake your claim on a slot in their available delivery circles and then dive into the deep end.
Where do you start? When you go to a regular grocery store (i.e. one with squeaky carts) inevitably one end is produce, the other is dairy. So you have to decide whether you want to pile everything on your cheese, or worry about crushing your sprouts under a six-pack of Barq's. Plus, if you miss something on your list, you end up on some wild treasure hunt up one aisle and down another asking all the unhelpful stockers, "Where do you keep the Snuggle?"
At Webvan, you can skip merrily from one category to another, oblivious to where anything's located because it's not located anywhere but some big, anonymous refrigerated warehouse. If you want to see everything with mushrooms, you plug in the keyword in the always present search field and see if you want the 13 Pasta & Grains / Pasta Sauces / Vegetable selections, the two Condiments/Sauce / Sauces/Gravy / Gravy Mixes, the good ol' Produce / Mushrooms / Fresh or any of the 34 other categories that pop up.
Therein lies the danger.
I'm convinced that you can get anything from Webvan. And that includes things I didn't know I wanted, or didn't know existed.
I'm innocently looking for sliced bread, because there's apparently nothing better since it, and I see a category called Artisan Breads, and I think to myself, 'Hmm, what's an Artisan Bread? Does it have different colors inside it? Is it made inside special ovens that make it extra specially bready?
So, I click on that link instead of 'Sliced Breads' and a nightmare world
of new dough opens before my eyes.
Why on Earth am I suffering under the yoke of white bread when a cranberry currant betard could be mine? And so what if it's almost three dollars a loaf and I don't have a fucking clue what the hell a betard is? I want one! I can get one delivered!
Then, my walls broken down, I start to explore even more fascinating international specialties. Olives soaking in brine made from the mucus of French pigs. Korean rhubarb wine. Mongolian barbecued potato dumplings with goat cheese and mint fritters. There's literally a whole world of food out there, and for some reason it's all been sandwiched into plastic baggies with twist ties on.
None of this would make any difference of course if they delivered my Cajun-style red beans and strawberries in a wet paper bag thrown against my window in the middle of the night. But, oh no, they couldn't do me that small favor, could they? No, no. They pull up in their pleasantly square and overly-tall truck, fling up the tailgate with a flourish and bring me my hand-picked fresh Hawaiian pickled cauliflower, jars of vegan basil garlic chocolate aioli spread and individually wrapped slices of Italian hard salami with extra white pieces in brightly colored plastic bins and, get this, unpack it for me.
They walk into my house, carry the bins to my kitchen and take everything out, taking care to tell me, this is the frozen, so I can immediately place it in my freezer, ask if everything's okay, how I like Webvan, hand me a receipt from a hip-mounted printer (which is probably linked to satellites tracking my wanton desire for Icelandic smoked herring pie) and then they're gone, back on the road to the next poor sod.
Friends, let me warn you, when you start down this road -- do not be tempted away from Velveeta and Coke. Stay in the safety lanes, buying your French's yellow mustard, your Oscar Meyer all beef franks and your Ultra Charmin. Once you've tasted the culinary heaven that is La Tempesta Gianduia Tradizionali*, them Entenmann's powdered sugar donettes just won't cut it.
*Crisp, twice-baked hazelnut cookies covered with creamed hazelnut and milk chocolate.
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