for 31 October 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.

 

 

Time to Market

 
 
Americans are well-known agoraphiles,
and they approach shoe emporiums and
outdoor equipment suppliers with a
piety usually reserved for
cathedrals - distant, vaulted
ceilings even offer tried-and-true
reverence-inducing subsonics. But to
assign these three-dimensional
shopping channels any cultural
significance is a mistake left to
the late '80s: The superstore isn't
the definion of America anymore, the
supermarket is. Trend-driven yet
timid, walking the fine line between
enticing John Q. Public and
offending him, the cultural
insitution that is Ralphs stands as
a signpost for our time.
 
No other place captures such a
picture-perfect snapshot of American
life: apples are always in stock, of
course, but the appearance of yet
another exotic fruitlike thing
(Starfruit! Quince! Guano! Er,
guava!) announces yet another shift
in the gastrointestinal landscape.
Claiming its place at the corner
market, a particular avant-garde
culinary weirdness is suddenly made
acceptable. If you want to find a
trend that has come home to roost in
middle America, just take a stroll
down Aisle 3: "Hey! The deli's got
sushi!"
 
And there, crashing through the store
like an angry bull, is the latest
symptom of modern American life.
It's palpable and frantic, and it
seems unstoppable. Once confined to
the well-decorated office of the
workaholic lawyer and the badly-lit
lab of the driven academic, the
chant, the mantra, the credo of the
overworked, underslept, malnourished
automaton is echoing across the
country:
 
 
"Not enough time! Not enough time!
Not enough time!"
 
"Not enough time!" has arrived, the
way Zeitgeists do, slipping from the
fringes into the mainstream, from
the chest-thumping of too-busy nerds
to the wail of working mothers. "Not
enough time!" has arrived, and in
the process has dragged a gaggle of
changes in its wake, everything from
ubiquitous day-planners to
gaily-colored children's beepers,
from express lanes on the freeway to
any number of herbal uppers. And
"Not enough time!" has arrived,
truly arrived, at the supermarket.
 
The impact has been extraordinary.
Supermarkets have become more than
supermarkets, beyond super and past
markets: uber-supermarkets. They are
now post offices and banks, video
stores and newsstands - the hub
around which modern suburban life
revolves, all in the interest of
saving time.
 
But beyond these additions,
supermarkets have changed
fundamentally, at their very core.
The food is different. "Not enough
time!" stalks the aisles, dragging
products behind it like captured
booty.
 
While TV dinners and Chef Boyardee
have been around forever (and the
date-stamp on the bottom of the cans
prove this), only recently have
partially assembled "fresh" meals
begun to appear. Designed for those
who know the night guy at 7-11 a
little too well, these products are
supposed to evoke all the normality
of home and hearth - fresh food! -
with allowances made for the
temporal vulture that hangs over
your head, eyes gleaming.
 
Salad-in-a-bag may cost 10 times its
individual ingredients, but it takes
a tenth of the time to prepare.
Compare ripping open the plastic to
shredding the lettuce, dicing the
carrots, finding the croutons,
unearthing the dressing, and pick
one: a salad in a minute, or a salad
in 10. The difference sounds
insignificant until you listen to
the buzz, the electric crackle, of
"Not enough time!" What about a meal
in two, or a meal in 20? Three or
30? What could you do with 30 extra
minutes a day?
 
 
More and more, those ads that tout
easy-to-prepare beef meals, ready in
half an hour, evoke nothing but a
short, cruel bark of laughter. Who
has that much time? In the meat
department, there are entire racks
of slow-roasted ribs, presauced,
ready to be microwaved. If only
there was a way to eat them in the
car.
 
"Not enough time!" even haunts
individual ingredients. Like any
trend extrapolated to the nth
degree, pre-preparing can become
downright silly, as it does when
applied to anything of smaller
resolution than a complete dish.
That the products are ridiculous,
even to those who chase after every
minute as if it were gold, hasn't
stopped them from being created, and
stocked, and sold.
 
Does the world really need
"Chedderella," a premixed
combination of cheddar and
mozzarella that looks like nothing
so much as the skin of a redheaded
sunburn victim? The packages states
reassuringly that it is, in fact,
"Real Cheese" despite the trademark
symbol after its name. Does the
world really need Dijonnaise, a
premixed combination of Dijon
mustard and mayo, and Chedderella's
perfect complement in the great ham
sandwich of life? Does the world
really need broccoflower, a
premixed combination of broccoli
and cauliflower that undoubtedly
would have sent Gregor Mendel out of
the priesthood and into a life of
debauchery?
 
 
Yes, apparently. Sure, a certain
laziness is evident in the naming of
these products (though, truth be
told, it could be worse - Mayotard
sounds like something that needs
disinfecting). But the Invisible
Hand guarantees that if they weren't
being bought, they wouldn't be for
sale. The only option left is that
they actually do work, or appear to
work, and that people - you and me -
are so desperate for the sliver of
time they save that we buy them. And
buy them, and buy them.
 
"Not enough time to open two jars!"
we cry. "Thank God for Goobers and
Grape!"
 
Now if only they could put the bread
in there, too.
 
 

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
An Entirely Other Greg