The Butterfly Effect
Part 2: A dish or recipe
I touched on this the other day, so it's fresh in my mind.
Back in the lofty, boomy days of the late '90s, the explosive expansion of the Internet was like a Big Bang of businesses. Before 1995 or so, there was nothing, at least to the non-academic civilian, and then, suddenly, BOOM! There was a massive vacuum just desperate to be filled. The possibilities seemed limitless, and certainly many innovative, if occasionally irrational, business concepts took root in this newly fertile soil.
All at once, there was a medium where businesses could hawk their wares directly to customers in the privacy of their own homes or offices, a medium that could simultaneously receive the customer's wishes. We of course had Webvan, which to carless young professionals like myself seemed like manna from heaven. I remember building my shopping list from a laptop during boring meetings, and having them arrive when I got home. And there was Kozmo. Initially a video rental service, their product mix got so varied and frivolous that Karen Solomon, writing for the Bay Guardian, once remarked, "the only thing Kozmo doesn't deliver is the bong and the stuff to fill it."
But the one delivery business that won, and then broke, my heart was Cook Express. The concept was genius. You ordered from their selection of ready-to-make meals, dinner for two for $14.95. It was delivered to your home or business in a compact brown box. Each meal was fully prepped, with all ingredients lovingly chopped, trimmed and ready to use. Each ingredient was individually wrapped in a clearly marked baggie or container. Along with the ingredients came a one-sheeter with clear, lucid instructions on how to cook and plate your meal.
The instructions were written like a manual for a some-assembly-required piece of furniture, only you could understand them. Preheat oven to 350º. Open container A (salmon). Put a pan over high heat with one teaspoon of oil and cook on each side for three minutes, until a crust is formed on the outside. This is called searing. Transfer salmon to oven and finish for another five minutes. Puncture holes in top of container B (black bean sauce) and microwave on high for three minutes. Place salmon on plate, pour sauce over and sprinkle with sesame seeds from container C.
It was cooking for dummies. But the first time I made that salmon with black bean sauce, sesame and steamed bok choi, it turned out amazing. It looked good and tasted great. It was like restaurant-quality food in our own home, and it only took ten minutes to cook. You could -- and we did -- make it for company and pass it off as your own dishes, as long as your dinner guests weren't fellow customers. And, except for the prep, I cooked everything myself. Soon, we were eating Cook Express meals three nights a week, and the front desk at the CNET offices would be stacked with brown boxes every afternoon.
Cook Express was an early casualty of the dot-com economy. One day, they abruptly went out of business. No explanation, no good-byes. Just gone. All of us mourned its loss; our hearts ached and our bellies grumbled. And yet we were not left totally high and dry, for we were now armed with basic cooking techniques and a newly trained eye for camera-ready food. That was the epiphany: Cooking is easy. Elegance and simplicity can and should be synonymous. You can do it.
Paradoxically, Cook Express, a deliverable convenience food, made me a better cook.
Next: Part 3 >>