Last year, I gave everyone Paul Newman's Own salad dressing for Christmas. This year, the perfect present came to me in a vision, which is to say in a 30-second commercial after "Leave It to Beaver."
"Chia Pet!" the announcer crowed. "Get one for yourself and for that perfect gift! Pottery that grows!"
That grows? Like the worst possible combination of The Blob and your Aunt Mildred's collection of Dresden vases?
I had seen those ads before. I had seen the Chia Pet touted amid a grand local-channel television bazaar of things like hair weaves and bargain divorce lawyers. Much as my friends and family might need either one, they weren't stocking stuffers. But the Chia Pet! Here was something that might be the only thing that someone who has everything doesn't have.
Then again, why would they want it?
It turned out, to my relief, that it wasn't the pottery that grew, but these seeds you had to smear on the side of the pottery. The seeds, it was promised, would turn into sprouts, thus turning the Chia Pet merely into the worst possible combination of a vegetarian restaurant and a pin ata -- one of those things blindfolded Mexicans smash at Christmas. I'd already given pin atas years past, not to mention gift certificates for Christmas dinner at the local vegetarian restaurant.
The Chia Pet seemed like a logical next step.
I made two moves. One, I bought a couple of Chia Pets. Two, I called Joe Pedott, the Chia Pet Patriarch and president of Joseph Enterprises in San Francisco, to see who else was taking a position in these things. And why.
"Look, the Pet Rock did pretty good," Pedott said. "I really think it's a fun thing -- it's an ugly thing but yet it isn't."
Last year, he said, Joseph Enterprises commissioned 200,000 Chias and sold all but 25,000. This year, they made 250,000. Each comes with its own Chia Pet registration card.
"We get 100 a day," Pedott said, "and they're all love letters. Ninety percent of the cards are from women 25 and older. It seems women like to put something in their kitchen that's green and grows fast. Give it three or four days and then: Pow! The complaints are one-half of 1 percent."
Typical Chia Pet complaint: "Seeds won't stay on right side of bull."
I played it safe and got a bull and a ram.
Chia Pet diary:
Day 1: Soaked Chia Pets. Already worried about getting too attached.
Day 2: Smeared seeds; ruined garlic bread brush.
Day 3: Put Chia Pets in Glad Wrap incubators.
Day 4: Waited.
Day 5: Waited.
Day 6: Foul odor detected. From Chia Pets? Called Joe Pedott.
"Does yours smell?" Joe said. "I'll send you some more seeds."
I assured him I had enough. After all, the box promised a 75 percent germination rate. But as long as I had him on the phone I thought I'd ask: "What is chia anyway?"
Chia is the plant, it turned out, and is described on the box as Salvia columbariae. Furthermore, said Pedott, "It's edible. We don't advertise it as an edible because then you get involved with the FDA. You use it for the top of your salad. It tastes like a cress but harder. Some people like it. It doesn't turn me on. What can I say?"
Eat my Chia Pets? I knew I shouldn't have named them. How could I consign little Ansel and sweet Dirk to a mass grave of sliced mushrooms and greens inside a salad bowl?
Then again, the kind of person who watches the kind of television that features Chia Pet ads is bound to run into problems in life. (Sure enough, Pedott has some other products that would fit right in with the pitches for above-ground swimming pools and doo-wop anthologies: the Clapper -- "clap your hands and your TV turns on or off" and the Garden Weasel -- "a 5-in-1 garden tool.")
Pedott has taken a position on eating Chia Pets. He says: "Whatever you do with your animal is your business."
Day 7: Dog jealous of Chia Pets. Have decided to split them up -- Dirk to office.
Day 8: Chia Pets thriving. Sprouting. Office skeptical.
But do they know that, according to Joe, the concept goes all the way to the Incas? That today's Chia Pets -- all rams and bulls -- are made in a village 400 miles south of Mexico City? That they're made from terra cotta that comes from a dry riverbed whose porous clay allows it to soak up the water and feed the seeds? That no two Chia Pets are alike?
"We're going to also make them in turtles eventually," Pedott said. "God only knows when. I have enough trouble with the bulls and rams."
Day 9: Ansel flourishing at home in natural light. Overhead fluorescent bulbs doing strange things to Dirk's coat. Looks like herbal punk brush cut. Do I like Dirk better?
Day 10: Mom -- the person who has everything -- comes to visit. "I think he's kind of cute," she says, admiring Ansel's coat.
Merry Christmas, Mom.