In early 2008, not long after I came out of a not-excellent relationship, landed a new job and moved to Philadelphia, I found my soul mate at the supermarket. Okay, my soul mate was the supermarket — specifically, the Trader Joe’s around the corner from my apartment.
Like most affairs, this one didn’t really start with love. I just felt lucky that I had such a decent place to shop so close by, even if the cramped store always felt like blizzard shopping, all bumper-carts and panicked grabs for the last box of Puffins. (I once watched a man in the middle of a line so long it wrapped around the store heave a sigh, abandon his basket on the floor — milk and all! — and stomp out the door. As one friend says: “The lines and the parking lot there are like you’re on Candid Camera.”)
But as time went on, I found that it wasn’t just about the convenience of geography: I adored the happy-go-lucky vibe and the friendly (stoned?) dudes in Hawaiian shirts, the punnily named products (“Hold the Cone” mini-ice creams! Adorable!), the famously well-edited selection of frozen meals, the planet’s most addictive chocolate-pistachio toffees. So what if Trader Joe’s didn’t carry fresh shrimp or Ben & Jerry’s or contact solution? The whole store felt like me, or the person I fancied myself to be. Organically inclined, but not overly crunchy. A little more special than Acme, but not as upmarket as Di Bruno’s. Good-humored, not terribly experimental, disinclined to excess and preciousness, with a tendency to overdo it on the snacks and the avocados.
When I moved across town to Fairmount a few years later, I bravely tried to transfer my loyalties to the Whole Foods, which was much closer to my new place and boasted a cult of followers (many of them my friends) so staunch, they made the Scientologists look like Brownies. Somehow, though, it just never took. Sure, the place was gorgeous, the bakery’s cakes were light as air, and the olive selection was basically the eighth wonder of the world. And I was happy enough to pop in for the pre-formed grass-fed burger patties (the best in the city). But I never really felt like I fully belonged amongst its gluten-aware, multi-tattooed denizens. I mean. These people actually remembered to bring their own bags.
“Whole Foods is bullshit,” offers a colleague of mine. “All that effort going into feeling authentic and romanticizing food shopping when the place is all about Ayn Rand-style capitalism.” He prefers Aldi, where “you’re shopping in a gray box with no music; they barely even have shelves. What they have is great stuff, cheap, for which you trade money. That, my friend, is a pure experience.” Read more »