W Bruce Cameron:
I am descended from a long line of warrior/hunter types, except that my dad was a gynecologist. This means that you can assign me to do anything, no matter how challenging, and I will complete my mission without fail. Just don’t ask me to do something that goes against my very nature, like going to the grocery store.

I view grocery stores as being about as helpful as a list of ingredients on a candy wrapper: I could no more take some lactose, cocoa butter and lecithin and manufacture a 3 Musketeers Bar than I can walk around the grocery store and wind up with a chicken pot pie. (Unless I’m fortunate enough to find something labeled “Chicken Pot Pie” – now, that I can work with!)

When they were little, my children always liked it when I went to the grocery store, because it meant that (a) I’d be gone all day, wandering the aisles in frustration, so they could sit around in their pajamas and watch cartoons until dinnertime, and (b) when I came home I’d have the only thing I knew how to cook: Cocoa Pebbles.

Eventually, though, they became old enough to complain. “I hate send-your-dad-to-the-grocery-store day,” my daughter told me. She said everything I brought home seemed to be made of artificial flavor.

“When I was your age, artificial flavor was our favorite food,” I lectured her.

A recent innovation has changed everything: shopping online. Now, instead of wasting hours and hours wandering the aisles of the local grocery store, fruitlessly searching for items I can turn into meals, I can do the same thing at home! Here’s how it works:

The grocery-store Web site is laid out to be as uncluttered as, say, the control panel for a 747. With a few clicks, you can select options like “foods for people who eat meat with a certain amount of moral ambiguity” and “foods for people who hate the idea of snap peas.” Little icons in the corner provide clues to the type of meal you’re preparing.

They’re pretty self-explanatory: multiple dollar signs, happy rabbits, retching children. Type in a search for “ice cream” and you’ll receive 20,000 listings, including “Ice-T’s Christmas in San Pedro” and “Cream of Tabasco Soup.”

After half an hour you may decide you’d be better off using the special pre-loaded lists the site has helpfully prepared for you. These automatically add items to your online order without your having to bother with trying to find out what they are. This is sort of the equivalent of going to the store and randomly stealing someone else’s full cart. At checkout, you’ll find that these pre-populated lists are apparently for people with a lot of disposable income. Eventually, you’ll learn to be sophisticated enough to determine which lists you prefer, picking, say, the “Foods From Corn-Syrup” list and avoiding the more expensive “Endangered Species” list.

Selecting purchases online means putting a lot of faith in your ability to determine what sizes you’re buying from a postage-stamp-size picture, which is why you wind up with onions that are, well, the size of postage stamps. You’ll also buy a box of dishwasher soap that turns out to be bigger than the dishwasher.

My favorite thing about buying from an online grocery store is the “substitutions.” When the store isn’t able to find what you ordered in its inventory, they’ll substitute something they think you’ll like just as much, which is why your order for a bottle of lemon juice becomes a box of lasagna noodles.

You know what they say: “When God hands you pasta, make lemonade.”

I may be exaggerating about the lasagna noodles, but last time I shopped online, a third of my order was substituted for something else – either another product or, most frequently, nothing. That’s why my daughter calls the service “Send-Your-Dad-to-the-Store Dot Com.” Every time I use it, I wind up needing to make a quick trip.

To the grocery store.

Write to Bruce at [email protected]