Hey, there’s a quiz at the end!
New year, new me, right? I get very comfortable in my habits, and sometimes I have to rock the boat a little.
I still remember that magical day in 2002 when I discovered a Trader Joe’s had opened nearby. Since then, my joke has been: if Trader Joe’s doesn’t sell it, we don’t need it. Our TJ’s is one of the smallest US stores, and I’m not complaining. When I was buying for a family of six, it was like a surgical strike – I could get in and out with an entire heaping cart in 30 minutes. There’s only three of us these days, me and the teenage boys (plus some hangers-on; whose kids are those?) so I still buy a lot of groceries, because teenagers.
For someone who loves to cook and eat as much as I do, I loathe grocery shopping. I’d rather clean the boys’ bathroom, seriously. I find buying in volume a chore; don’t even get me started on big box stores. You’d think I’d like the idea of cramming more into fewer trips but I’ve been to Costco twice and the second time I am ashamed to say I threw an actual tantrum and we had to leave immediately. I find it utterly overwhelming. Also I don’t want a three-pack of giant jars of Jiff, where the hell am I supposed to put that stuff? Do people convert their garages or spare bedrooms into pantries? Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.
I love the idea (delusion?) of the French way – stop at the boulangerie on the way home for a baguette, then the farmer’s market for some fresh lettuces picked by nuns at dawn, and a lamb chop from the butcher, etc. Do people really shop like that– at multiple places each day? I am gobsmacked. Someday I’m going to be like that. Or: I’m going to be the person in Whole Foods buying petite but hideously expensive cheeses and a hot-food takeout for one (total with kombucha: $37.72). Then I think back with some amusement to the year in my early twenties when my fridge contained nothing but coffee, prosecco and takeout Chinese from the joint around the corner. Those were the days, I tell you.
So this weekend I threw a kid in the car and we ventured up the pike to Aldi. I’ve certainly heard about Aldi: the great prices, the crapshoot shopping experience, the carts you have to pay a quarter to unlock. After one too many conversations with Anita and “best of Aldi” articles online, I took the bait. It occurred to me driving to the store that maaaaaybe a grocery run early on Super Bowl Sunday might be a mistake, but I figured if it was a nightmare we’d laugh and leave.
Man, it was fabulous. I’m sure the individual stores are different; ours is I think a converted former grocery store, with wide aisles and nothing towering over you alarmingly. They had enough variety that I could get some version of most of our staples, but not so much that it turns into a three-hour slog and I emerge, dazed, into the sunlight with all sorts of goodies and no actual meal components. Even their much-maligned produce aisle wasn’t bad (Hass avocados: $.49, some delicious-looking organic berries for 2.99.) The prices are almost shockingly low. I’d say a half to two-thirds less than a regular grocery. And because it’s not my usual TJ’s I actually bought some not-usual items to try.
I understand why my mom served us a steady rotation of the same meals growing up, and there’s comfort in that, but it’s also kind of boring. I can’t say we’re wildly imaginative gourmands over here, and my weeknight cooking often consists of pulling together components that I slow-cooked or roasted the previous weekend. But it’s fun to mix some new items in there too.
Your turn: what does your grocery shopping look like? Are you one of those folks who finds comfort in food tucked away in back pantries and larders and chest freezers? Does your fridge contain less than 10 ingredients? Do you cook: always, seldom, never? Do you shop for groceries twice a week or once a month? Do you toss money at the Whole Foods gods, or are you an extreme coupon ninja? Are big box grocery stores even a thing outside the US? Tell me all about it. Food (and cooking it, and shopping for it) is symbolic of, and influenced by, all sorts of areas in our lives, and I’m curious.