“Haven’t seen him.” Pause. “Call Publix.”
I don’t know for sure whether this exchange has actually happened between my wife and son, but it has an authentic ring. If I can’t be found, the grocery store is a good place to start looking.
We eat for sustenance, we gather provisions to stave off need, we do what we must to provide for our loved ones. Our ancestors did it by walking, sometimes daily, from market stall to specialty store to the next specialty store — butcher, baker, occasionally even candlestick maker — until the market basket was filled and the wolf at the door lay down, resigned to waiting for another chance.
Grocery stores changed all that. From narrow-aisled attempts at expanded enterprises by the second generation of real mom-and-pop businesses (still to be found in some parts of Manhattan), they morphed into huge castles of convenience, where the batteries are just steps away from the beef and your shopping capers can include…well, three kinds of capers.
To a foodie, it’s exciting. I do patronize specialty stores occasionally. After all, crème fraiche just isn’t an everyday item in this country. Still, my standard grocery-store habit goes beyond mere hobby-chef stuff, and even beyond habit. Just as gourmands eat for more than just sustenance, I shop for more than just survival. A grocery store is not a mere convenience to me. For true fulfillment, I need a grocery store I can have a relationship with.
This is no small thing. It has affected life decisions. Fact is, I shop for places to shop. We have lived in four cities and five houses in the 22 years we have been married, and each time we were deciding where to settle, the same make-or-break questions arose: Is there 1) good Chinese, 2) authentic Italian, and 3) a really solid grocery store?
I’m not kidding, Stop snickering, or I won’t get you a Snickers at checkout.
Here in central Florida, the dominant grocery chain is Publix. It was founded in nearby Lakeland by a man named George Jenkins, who believed that the personal relationship of grocer to shopper is crucial to success. This is not meant to be an ad for Publix (they don’t need the help), but I must say, Jenkins’s approach has worked. They like to say that Publix is the place “Where Shopping is a Pleasure.” It must be. Why else would I go back so often?
And I do go back. Often. As parents of an 11-year-old, we have a relationship with the dairy industry that is, in adhesive terms, a significant improvement on Velcro. Reflexively, I buy milk every time I step into our Publix on Maguire Road in Ocoee (average driving time from house: 2:14, depending on traffic light behavior). I never worry that we will overstock and lose crucial milk. Gallon of 2%, half gallon skim, every time. I am glad — no, humbly grateful – that Publix is there to handle this need.
(I once toyed with the idea of recruiting the neighbors, most of whom have children, to join me in getting a cow or two that we could keep in our contiguous back yards. We would go in on the expenses of pasteurizing equipment. We could use my wife’s dairy knowledge, gained in her career as a food scientist, and we would all take turns milking and caring for Bessie and…..whoever. You see, I never got to name the second cow. One day I passed Mr. Thompson, the manager of my Publix, in the dairy aisle. The look in his eyes….it’s like he knew what I was thinking. I have sought his forgiveness ever since.)
Beyond milk, there is the eternal cast of characters who, in my eyes, are custodians of my food and the experience of shopping for it. To me, they are no different than the explorers who emerge from the jungle to hand over the gems they have discovered. Take, for example, the quiet young Pakistani woman with the charming smile, who is, without fail, always restocking the cheese aisle when I visit. At any and all times of the day. I cannot prove this, but I believe she sleeps on a pallet in the back, and is alerted to my approach by parking-lot surveillance cameras.
I do not know her name; the personnel at Publix is a whirl of shirt-mounted name tags to me — mainly because they rarely stop moving long enough for me to read. That does nothing to decrease my respect for them. Mr. Thompson, the lugubrious manager, has never been seen standing still, unless it’s to adjust an end-aisle display. The produce manager, a small Hispanic man of fastidious grooming habits, is perpetually dissatisfied with the zucchini display, and will have his charges readjust it until perfect vegetable feng shui is achieved. And he, and everyone else, is commanded to not simply point you to the aisle where the yeast resides — they must walk you there. And they do, with a smile.
Friends, family and a brigade of grimacing physicians know of my intense relationship with food. So it’s no surprise that the getting of it, even in the fits and starts of five grocery visits per week, is a central part of my life. I long ago stopped classifying this behavior as obsessive or weird. I am willing to accept myself for who I am — and so I can spot good deals on produce the way other people detect the scent of French fries. I get an offbeat sense of community from being recognized, at least vaguely, by checkers and bag boys.
After all, you’re gonna eat that, right? It would feel odd to get it from a stranger. Now let’s get this stuff home before the ice cream melts. — Adam Barr
Copyright 2012 Adam Barr