How Did We Become So Obsessed With Food — and So Lazy at the Grocery Store?
I was shopping the other night with my kid at Fresh Grocer in West Philly, which is the closest grocery store to where she lives. I like taking Marcy grocery shopping. I like Fresh Grocer — not because it’s a nice store, because it’s not, really. The layout is chaotic as hell; nothing is where you expect it to be. Wherever you park your cart even for just for a moment, just to check how much they’re asking for ground beef this week, you’re instantly in someone’s way. It’s a cultural wonderland, which means it’s chock-full of people with completely oppositional ideas of what constitutes personal space. But I like the foreign students chattering away in different languages while they block your access to the yogurt, and the laconic fish guy with the beard, and the checkout clerks who run the gamut from incredibly cheerful and excited to have a job to openly yawning at you. Plus, free parking! So long as you remember to get your ticket punched.
And I like the way the produce section tries to be all things to all those people, with 10 different varieties of apples, sure, but also lots of different greens and an array of mushrooms and dragon fruit and mangoes and bagged salad mixes and three varieties of bananas. Marcy’s more or less a vegetarian at this point in her life, but her husband is from Kenya, where any veggie that hasn’t been stewed for three hours with canned tomatoes is written off as a loss. It’s interesting to watch Marcy struggle to bridge this gap.
Which is why our progress through the Fresh Grocer aisles sometimes comes to a halt while she eyes a glistening array of, say, Japanese eggplant and tries to imagine some way, any way, of preparing it that Basil might eat. Which is what she was doing that caused me (once I had found an unobtrusive spot in which to park our cart) to have the leisure to reach up onto the top shelf in the produce section for a small square package of what turned out to be beets.
We often had canned pickled beets for dinner when I was growing up, because my father loved beets. It turns out Marcy loves beets, too. The last time we were in Fresh Grocer, she was delirious with excitement because they had golden beets as well as red beets, bundled into bunches of four or five with their quivers of beet greens still attached.
I’ve never actually cooked beets; I’ve only eaten the canned ones. My husband hates beets, so I don’t buy them. And Marcy didn’t grow up eating them, which makes the fact that she loves them even more intriguing, a sort of stretch across the generations from my dad, God rest his soul, to her.
But that package of beets. There were five beets in it, peeled and precooked, about the size of ping-pong balls. Five beets. For $3.99.
That’s, like, 77 cents a beet. Or, looked at another way, since the package weighed 6.75 ounces, nine dollars and 40 cents a pound. For beets.
I showed Marcy the package. “Three-ninety-nine!” I said in disbelief.
“That’s because people don’t know how to cook them,” she said, willing to make excuses for her fellow millennials who might have enjoyed beets at, say, Vedge or Marigold and would like to re-create the experience but are inept at boiling inanimate objects, though I have absolutely no doubt that if you google “How to cook beets” you’ll find 1,097 different YouTube videos demonstrating it for you.
“How do you cook yours?”
“I roast them in the oven, then put them on salads. They’re so delicious.” I do enjoy the occasional serendipitous run-in with beets at, say, a restaurant’s salad bar, but I have to admire my daughter’s deeper, sturdier devotion to them.
I also have to admire her willingness—nay, eagerness—to start from dead raw, which is more and more rare these days. The Giant supermarket where I regularly shop recently renovated and redesigned its produce section, and I hate it. Do you hear me, Giant? I FUCKING HATE IT. It used to be that if I wanted a pound of green beans, I went to the green bean bin and scooped out a pound’s worth and stuck them in a plastic bag. Now, there is no bin of loose green beans most times I’m there. There are, instead, prebagged bags of green beans. That means I can get a two-pound bag for $4.99 (that’s $2.50 a pound for green beans) that have already been washed and have had their tips removed, except that only about a third of them actually have both tips successfully removed, so that when you wash them again (because really, who knows what the packing company considers “washing,” if they consider “cleaning” leaving two thirds of the tips on the beans), or a 1.5 pound bag of “French” green beans, a.k.a. “haricots verts,” for $5.99, which is FOUR FREAKING DOLLARS A POUND FOR GREEN BEANS!!! What a goddamned racket!
And it’s not just the green beans. You know those super-convenient mixed lettuce bags? I buy them. I buy them even though, on sale, they go for two for five bucks, and a bag weighs, if you’re lucky, five ounces, which means I’m paying slightly more than $8 a pound for LETTUCE, when if I’m willing to wash them and core them and tear them into pieces myself, I can get three hearts of romaine weighing about a pound each for that same price. And that’s when the lettuce bags are on sale. Don’t get me wrong; I’m pro-choice. I don’t mind having 46 different salad bags to pick from. I just don’t want the option of the hearts of romaine to go away, the way the loose green beans have.
Or check out the potatoes. There are nearly as many different kinds and colors of potatoes as there are salad bags, most of them already tucked into little microwave potato saunas so you won’t have to go to the enormous trouble of rinsing them off and sticking them in a pot—and with their prices hiked accordingly. The one million victims of Ireland’s Great Famine must be rolling in their graves.
It’s weird. As a society, we’re in a Venn diagram of convenience and DIY, and I don’t understand what lies within the overlap. I guess it’s all those companies like Blue Apron and Plated that ship you all the ingredients to make a meal, with instructions, so all you have to do dump this into a pot and add these and heat it and drop these chopped-up herbs on top and there you have a delicious if soulless Chicken Milanese. I don’t get it. If you want to make Chicken Milanese, make Chicken Milanese. Is it “cooking” to combine that stuff, or are you just heating soup?
Then again, at Easter dinner at my sister’s, Marcy regaled two generations of relations explaining about the two CSAs she belongs to, one of which sends her ugly fruits and veggies that grocery stores reject and the other of which ships whatever’s ripe from the farm. And then Basil explained how they’re signed up with Amazon for an app that keeps track of their toilet paper and soap and paper towels and automatically ships them more when they need them without their even bothering to go online and order. And in the Venn diagram between the two of them, I sat thinking, “Boy, I really raised a bougie girl.”
Then again, at least she’s not paying $3.99 for five tiny beets. True, there are only four or five beets in the bundles of gold and red beets she puts into our cart. But they’re much bigger, and they only cost about $2 a pound. And — “Do you use the greens, too?” I ask.
“Of course I do,” she says witheringly. She may be bougie as hell, but she’s cheap, just like me.
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