I was not a good employee. It feels only fair to say that upfront. The season I spent working for a packing and shipping store after my freshman year of college saw me at my most frazzled, distracted, and generally cash-register-averse. Nevertheless, I found the job surprisingly fascinating: customers would drop off unremarkable and precious items alike, and we’d handle them all with care. Consequently, I learned a lot about how food items make their way through the postal system. Here’s what my time spent packing, wrapping, and shipping other people’s food taught me.
“Olive oil” is never olive oil
Every hour of the day, we were being lied to. Not unkindly—the customers were usually very pleasant—but every one of them thought they could get away with the same fibs. At least twice a week, we’d see someone come in with a box already packed and taped up—unusual in a facility where we securely packed everything for a minimal added fee.
“Does this contain any liquids, perishables, anything flammable?” I’d ask. The customer would quickly respond in the negative...but then the box would slosh as I heaved it onto the scale.
“Oh, well, yes, there’s, ah, some olive oil in there,” the customer would invariably reply. “Part of a gift basket for a friend!”
In this line of work, the words “olive oil” are almost always code for “illegally shipped wine.” Shipping alcohol from one individual to another individual is not permitted in the United States; this type of shipment is limited to authorized retailers, requires a special permit, and in many states can only be left at a residence if someone over 21 is available to sign for it. But that didn’t stop intrepid revelers from trying to send their friends a bottle or two in celebration of a 40th birthday or MBA graduation.
At this point, we’d either have to open the meticulously packed box in front of the embarrassed customer or, depending on whether the boss was around, simply pretend not to notice that the weight of the box exceeded that of a typical bottle of olive oil. Word to the wise: You’re not fooling anyone with your deceptions, but if you’re going to try this maneuver, at least make sure there’s tons of protective wrapping so nothing explodes in transit.
Giardiniera is a regional delicacy
Having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, I never understood that one of our most precious resources, hot giardiniera, was a regional specialty. On several occasions, customers brought in jumbo jars of the stuff for shipping out of state.
“Our neighbors retired to Florida and they can’t find it anywhere!” we heard from one couple.
“I had a friend visit and she couldn’t get enough of this stuff!” said another.
While giardiniera has become more widely available in recent years, it was definitely not on your average non-Midwestern grocery store shelf back then. This made me wonder what other delicious foods I was taking for granted, and has always kept me in the habit of practicing gratitude for all the wonderful cuisine my geography treats me to.
There is such a thing as too many care packages
Twice a week at 10 a.m. sharp, a local grandmother would arrive with two 14 x 10 x 6" boxes full to the brim with candy, one for each of her two grandkids away at summer camp. Through her frequent visits, we learned that the camp was four weeks long, and that the kids’ parents were also sending care packages to supplement the grandma’s shipments.
Picture just how big a 14 x 10 x 6" box is, and just how much candy it can hold. Now picture receiving eight such shipments. Now add on whatever the parents were sending. It’s a wonder that the kids had enough room under their bunks to store such an immense haul—hopefully they shared it amongst many, many fellow campers. When it comes to a summer camp care package, it might be best to make fewer shipments, and make them count. Though, of course, when we saw how happy it made the grandmother to send them, it was clear that some gifts are as much a treat for the giver as the recipient.
Baked goods go stale, sorry
Let’s take a moment to marvel at the wonders of the postal system: you send something, anything away in a little box, and it can show up on the other side of the world in just a few days or weeks. That is incredible! Humanity at its best! But like all manmade systems, it experiences snags, and not all items were meant to make such a journey. Case in point: baked goods.
Upon seeing a customer walk in with a Tupperware full of cookies, the exchange typically went down like this:
THEM: Can you get this there fast?
ME: We don’t recommend shipping perishables, as we can’t guarantee a delivery time without the overnight one day air rate.
THEM: Oh, I’ll do next day air! How much is that?
ME: [citing some obscene figure usually starting at $27-40]
THEM: Oh, no. No, no no. Couldn’t you just get it out on the truck today?
ME: We can, but it’s estimated to get there in three days, and we can’t guarantee that window.
THEM: [thinking, upset]
ME: Baked goods also tend to arrive broken.
THEM: [confidently patting Tupperware container] Don’t worry about that. I put a paper towel between each cookie.
The conversation would devolve from there, and usually the customer decided to risk it since they’d already gone to the trouble of baking the damn things (and stacking them with paper towels, an obviously ironclad packing solution).
Baked goods go through the same shipping process as everything else: boxes are run through chaotic conveyor belt systems, tossed onto trucks, upended in transit, left in hot cars, and so on. Even if your cookies arrive before they grow stale, there’s a chance they’re melted, broken, or otherwise worse for wear. No shipping facility can magically guarantee they’ll stay fresh and picturesque on their journey, though you’re welcome to take the chance that they’ll arrive unscathed; try using this guide for shipping treats through the mail. Alternatively, maybe you could save the homemade desserts for when you see your loved ones in person?