This country, unlike the many other bustling and inventive places throughout the world, has always been, at least comparatively, somewhat conservative and conventional when it comes to the contents of its vending machines. Sodas and candies take up the majority of the inventory, as selling cigarettes and beer via a machine is largely frowned upon (if not entirely illegal) in this country. But even without the more illicit retail items, American vending machines are uninspiring and pedestrian, at best. For most Americans, the vending machine serves as a last ditch option for sustenance or hydration (think candy bars and Vitamin Water) and not the sort of destination that denotes fresh and vital food choices. In China, as well as many other places in this wide world of vending, it is something decidedly different altogether.
Recent reports in the international media have revealed that in a limited sector of the Chinese vending machine market, fresh and vital is exactly what is in stock. In a Nanjing subway station, there exists a vending machine dispensing live crabs, presumably for consumption, and not cuddling. So, if you are in Nanjing, you have missed your train, and you have 8 minutes to kill before the arrival of the next one, for approximately 2 to 7 dollars (15 to 50 Yuan) you can have a crab and some ginger-infused vinegar to go with it.
The crabs are kept at between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit — not enough to freeze them, but cold enough to make them docile, and are contained in little plastic pods (somewhat reminiscent of the film The Matrix, where humans are captive in similar energy pods and used as batteries). Put the money in, and a submissive and sufficiently chilled crab rolls out of the bottom of the machine. Below is a video from Japanese television profiling the machines and their crustacean inhabitants (note: the report is entirely in Japanese, but easy enough to figure out what is going on):
These machines, which are exclusive to the Chinese market, are reportedly selling 200+ crabs a day. However, there is no word on what customers actually do with the crabs after purchase. Do they eat them on the train? Bring them home for preparation later? Or do they set them free in the ocean for good luck? in all probability, these crabs don’t have much longer than a train ride to think about their very sad and pathetic lives. In addition, there is something revealed in this new mode of edible commerce that serves as proof positive that people ain’t no good. Keeping live crabs in restrictive plastic cages, in near freezing temperatures, with no food, no water, for lord knows how long is just not humanity at its best (not to mention the uncertain demise of an animal purchased in a subway for a few bucks – you could figure out how this is just an invitation for cruel teenage boys). There is something remarkably callous and inhumane about the whole enterprise, and that said knowing full well how reprehensible our current industrialized livestock system can be.
Inhumanity aside, the crab vending machine phenomenon is just one of a series of bizarre, and sometimes inspired vending machine concepts that exist throughout the world. Recently, Pennsylvania has seen the proliferation of wine vending machines throughout the state, but that is about the extent of vending innovation in this country. Elsewhere, there is virtually no limit to the fantastic and peculiar offerings via machine. Everything from hot French fries in Australia to a truly outstanding, fully automated, pizza vending machine in Italy, which takes only 3 minutes from flour to pie (see below):
While it is difficult to get behind vending machines as the way of the future; as they have already experienced their moment of novelty. Still, they hold a distinct appeal, not so much in product but in concept and ingenuity. The live crab option being somewhat of an obvious moral low-point in vending machine history, what do you think some of the high points might be? Have you ever seen something astounding or, dare I say, inspiring coming out of a vending machine? What is the strangest thing you have ever witnessed being sold from a vending machine? What is the next great vending machine idea that has yet to be tapped?