Grocery Evolution

Paul Lundgren Saturday EssayThere is an evolution of grocery shopping that occurs during a lifetime, if you didn’t grow up on a farm or hunting shack living off the land. It starts when you’re a kid and your parents drag you along to the Piggly Wiggly, Red Owl or wherever.

They try to ram you into that cold metal seat on the cart, facing the opposite direction of traffic, but it never quite works out. It doesn’t take much kicking and screaming to get mom to let you loose, so you can scamper all over the store and knock things over.

It’s not your fault. You don’t want to be there; you were brought against your will. A tantrum is to be expected.

Also, as long as you are being held hostage on this mission, it only makes sense to grab all the low-hanging snack food and try to use it as a bargaining tool. If mom will simply buy a box of individually wrapped corn syrup wads, you’ll stop tugging on her pants to constantly beg for them. It’s a fair deal.

Eventually, of course, your parents smarten up and lock you in the car. Soon you become old enough to be left home alone, and it’s at that point you enter a long period where you never go to the grocery store. Food is just delivered to you and magically appears in cupboards. This is the halcyon period of your sustenance-acquiring existence.

When you hit your middle teens, you enter a convenience-store era. You don’t need to work for your three square meals yet, but if you want a burrito on the fly, or if your parents aren’t stocking you up with a suitable quantity of donuts, Doritos and Coca-Cola, the corner store is there to serve you.

This is an amazing shopping experience that makes you grow to resent your parents, because you can recall being dragged to the big supermarket on those 45-minute expeditions when you were little, but now you learn that in truth one can fuel the body as easily as a car.

If you’re a dirtbag from West Duluth like me, however, you quickly come to realize that whatever few bucks you manage to scrape together for convenience-store junk food will buy you twice the quantity of the same junk food at the local Super One.

This begins your period of being a convenience-item shopper at the grocery store. You run in, you know where the cookies are, you grab them in bulk and are out faster than if you were robbing the place.

Sadly, this is a very short-lived phase. Adulthood and independence are just around the corner, and soon you are fully responsible for your own hunting and gathering. Still, those trips to the grocery store are somewhat infrequent, tempered by pizza delivery and fast-food restaurants. You only need to go buy ketchup and cereal about every four weeks.

It’s during this time that you slowly rediscover the grocery store and see it with new eyes. You learn that macaroni and cheese can be purchased for pocket change. This is a stunning revelation, because when you were a kid, mac and cheese was considered a treat. It was one of your favorite meals. Why didn’t mom and dad just make that every night? It would have been heaven, and they could have saved some of that grocery money and bought you a nice car or something. What were they thinking?

The other thing you discover is that chocolate ice cream costs the same as vanilla. Why the hell did your parents buy vanilla? You always assumed it was because of the discount. Because somehow in the adolescent mind vanilla is not a flavor, it is the absence of chocolate.

You also start to wonder as you mature why the magazines at grocery store checkouts are so stupid. Of course, it’s not surprising that stupid magazines exist in checkout aisles, but it is strange that all the magazines are stupid. You won’t find a single copy of something that even pretends to be intelligent. But I digress.

As the years go on, your taste buds mature a bit and you start to occasionally look around and see what else the store has to offer besides frozen pizza and Rice-o-roni. But a lot of it still doesn’t make sense. You walk down the snack aisle past the Keebler Fudge Stripes and see things like Seasoned RyKrisp and you wonder what happens to a person in life that makes him pass up deluxe chocolate cookies in favor of … whatever rykrisp is.

While these bachelor years play out, going to the grocery store is never really a major nuisance. It’s a necessary chore that can be quickly completed. Even when you find companionship and get married, going to the grocery store is not a huge ordeal … unless your spouse likes to cook and has given you a list.

Having a grocery list composed by someone else — even the person you love unconditionally and intend to spend the rest of your life with — is one of the most frustrating vexations known to man.

The reason is this: You are being asked to do something you’ve done hundreds of times before, but now you have to do it differently. It’s like getting instructions to drive a car that tell you to put the key into the ignition, but you don’t know the ignition is in the glove box on this model.

Being sent on a grocery shopping mission is never advertised as what it is, by the way. It always starts with, “Can you pick up a few things at the store?”

A little Post-it note comes out with two or three items on it. The moment you agree to the task, cupboard doors start swinging open, bags of flour are carefully examined, the refrigerator inventoried … and the Post-it note soon looks like it’s been colored in by a 4-year-old during a long wait for pigs in a blanket at Perkins.

A grocery list never starts on a standard 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper, but it always ends up with enough items on it that it should have been. And no matter how many details are provided on the list, they always seem to trip me up more than help.

“16-ounce can of crushed tomatoes.”

That’s pretty specific. When I start looking at the 16-ounce tomato cans I discover peeled tomatoes, diced tomatoes, strained tomatoes, petite-cut tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, tomato puree…

Puree? Is that the same as crushed? Probably not. So I stare and stare at the tomato cans, trying to decide if I need to make a phone call or find a store employee to help. After about 10 minutes, I finally realize crushed tomatoes are only available in 8-ounce cans. Mathematics can easily solve that problem, but inadequate understanding of food display theory has already taken precious time out of my life.

Though specific details on a grocery list can confuse me, they are there at my insistence after several experiences with vague items on the list.

One time, in the middle of my assigned grocery agenda, was the word “japs.” After spending a few minutes trying to figure out if the word should be attached to items above or below it on the list, like “cayenne pepper japs,” or “Japs fish sauce,” I finally decided I had to ask for help. There wasn’t an employee around, so I asked an elderly woman shopping the same aisle.

“Excuse me, I need a fresh set of eyes on my grocery list. I can’t tell what my wife wrote. What do you think this word is?”

“It looks like ‘japs.’”

“Do you know what japs are?”

“Well, that’s what we used to call Japanese people … but it’s kind of offensive now.”

After asking two more customers, I finally came across an employee who thought for a second and said, “Could japs be an abbreviation for jalapeños? Maybe she wants jalapeño peppers.”

“How is ‘japs’ an abbreviation for jalapeño peppers?”

“I don’t know, how would you abbreviate it?”

“Well, I wouldn’t. But thank you for your help. That must be what she meant.”

It was.

After many years of routine failure to locate items, I get pretty good details on grocery lists now. On a recent shopping list was “black bean garlic sauce” with the added note “in jar in Chinese section.”

OK. Well, first of all, there isn’t a sign anywhere that reads “Chinese Section,” and I feel like I’ve offended the Asian race enough as it is at this store, but I guess I’ll look for rice and then work my way out from there.

Sure enough, I find several jars of various sauces, but none of them are “black bean garlic sauce.”

Since not being able to find things on the grocery list is not a rare problem for me, but instead something that happens every single time, I know I have to ask for help. This is not a problem I’ll be able to solve on my own, and I know from experience that the friendly folks at Super One are quite often able to assist me in short order.

This time, however, I’m in trouble. As soon as I say the words “black bean garlic sauce,” the supermarket employee winces like she’s about to be pricked for blood. She stocks shelves for a living and has a pretty good idea what inventory is where. When a food item sounds unfamiliar to her, it is.

After she spends three minutes studying the same jars I’ve already spent eight minutes studying, she tells me she has an idea of where it might be.

“Wait here,” she tells me. So I do.

After a minute or two, she returns with another employee who is just as confused as she is. Together, they decide I should buy chili garlic sauce, because that’s the closest thing to black bean garlic sauce.

“OK,” I say. “Are you sure you haven’t heard of black bean garlic sauce, because my wife wrote that it’s in a jar in the Chinese section, so she must have bought it here before.”

This causes them to start digging deep into the shelves, then huddle up for a conference and make several calls on their walkie-talkies, but in the end the recommendation is still that I should buy chili garlic sauce instead of black bean.

I know this must be wrong, but I did the best I could.

When I present the sauce to my wife, however, I learn to my surprise that it will be just fine. The specific note about where to find the mystery sauce wasn’t so specific after all.

“I’ve never bought that before,” my wife says. “I’m trying a recipe tonight. It said on the recipe that black bean garlic sauce is in a jar in the Chinese section, so I thought that would help you find it.”

Well, gosh, I suppose that would have been helpful if the author of that magazine recipe shopped at the West Duluth Super One.

These routine challenges have led me to develop a little fantasy to ease my stress at the grocery store when I’m looking back and forth between my list and an unaccommodating shelf. As frustration sets in I imagine myself throwing a tantrum, running down the aisle, knocking all the groceries to the floor. Think of me as the Godzilla of the Asian food aisle. That’s what I want to do, because I feel like that little kid again who hates being put through all this.

It turns out, life comes full circle even in grocery shopping.

SpowlRibbonPaul Lundgren is author of The Spowl Ribbon, a book released in 2010 that finally broke even in 2015. Publishing success!


Eddy Gilmore

about 8 years ago

If you really want to be knocked down on your ass in befuddlement, try spending an hour filling bags in the bulk aisle at Whole Foods! That Post-it note can never be specific enough. Sometimes I wonder how the elderly can survive in this world of so many choices, but then I realize that being a simple guy is really no different! Nice essay...


about 8 years ago

Great article. I have gone through the same progression in life.

Niff Bimrod

about 8 years ago

j'ever break into a sweat cuz ya couldn't find something on the list?....thought so....

Paul Lundgren

about 8 years ago

It's difficult to sweat in the climate-controlled atmosphere of a grocery store. But obviously I suffer the frustration of weighing how stupid I'll feel if I give up and find out what I was looking for was right in front of me vs. how stupid I'll feel staring at the same shelf for 10 more minutes.

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