My favorite place in the world, hands down, is the grocery store. This is my mother’s fault.
I was one of those rare, unfortunate children cursed with a parent who cared about her nutritional needs. Our pantry was only, ever, inevitably stocked with unimaginatively packaged whole foods and local vegetables from the farmer’s market. Meals were a solemn affair, chewed woodenly and swallowed responsibly – the soundtrack to my television-less childhood.
And, had I been more carefully sheltered, more thoughtfully segregated, I may have ended up more like my mother. I too would have grown up pale and wan and vegan, raised my children to crunch and consider dogmatically.
But once a month, on a glorious Sunday, my mother would take me to the real grocery store a tantalizing half mile from our home. And there, my earliest and happiest memories were formed. Trailing behind my mother, mouth agape, I would ogle the brightly-colored packages and their happy cartoon mascots and trace the slick surfaces with my fingers. Then, overcome with lust that should be foreign to a small child, I would snatch one. It’ crinkly package gripped in my sweaty palms, I would stalk the grocery cart wild-eyed waiting for my mother to drop her guard.
She always spotted the smashed, hotly-handled confection; usually while we waited in line at the checkout counter, its cheerful vibrance too conspicuous amongst the beans and tofu to go unnoticed for long. I would have to trudge through the aisles defeated to take it back, muttering under my breath about the day when no one would be the boss of me and she’d be sorry.
And, oh, the freedom, the American-ness of it all; when college dawned, and all of my grocery store wet dreams came true. I was unleashed. I spent Saturday’s meandering those big, bright air-conditioned grocery store aisles. I bought soda by the two liter and poured it down the drain when it was flat. I developed a love for fruit rollups at 20; gorged on Captain Crunch even though it cut the roof of my mouth, gained 20 lbs and came dangerously close to developing scurvy. I was blissful.
And eventually, once the fevered madness subsided, a foodie was born. I graduated from Ben and Jerry’s, to Haagen-Dazs and moved on to homemade gelato from a well-hidden wood stove pizzeria. I discovered the nuances of artisanal cheeses, slow food and the surprises in little Korea. But I still kept a stash of artificially flavored, plastic wrapped goodies in the pantry. ‘Cause that’s just who I am. Some people have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of commerce and world affairs. I can name six distinct flavors in a quality doppelbock, at least 20 Indian spices by sight, and I fucking love Twizzlers.
As with any notorious obsessive, my friends are always sending me little foodie factoids in the e-mail. And like any obsessive, I am rarely surprised by their contents. Until a friend of mine sent a Kottke link: a Venn diagram, created by a Michigan State University professor, illustrating the structure of the United States soft drink industry. The bunches of smaller, pastel-colored sparsely connected bubbles of beverages I had never heard of were dwarfed by the three largest on the page: Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper to which 89% of the other little bubbles were attached.
My immediate reaction was to be personally offended. This irrefutable evidence of the illusion of choice, encompassing more than just soda, suggested that my grocery store adventures were less adventurous than I had been lead to believe. But there was something else; something unsettling about those three behemoths. I couldn’t place it, but it felt discomfiting and enormous.
So, systematically, I forgot about it. Until a week or so later when, improbably, I stumbled upon something else soda-related: “Soda Pop”, one of a series of short videos about foodies on Chow.com. The entire 13 minute video takes place in the epicenter of the Soda Pop Stop, right smack in the middle of about 100 store-length aisles packed tightly with an unfathomable number of sodas in glass bottles, its sole product.
As he discusses his store and his obsession, John Nese wears his shelf-stocking apron. He looks like someone’s dad. Except, you know that he has no family, no other life really. His voice has an intensity that suggests that he does most of his talking within the walls of that store. But with the childlike mirth and lack of inhibition that all of the best nerds have.
Whenever the camera is not on John, it is panning down the endless aisles of shiny soda bottles. The white tile floors, tall ceilings and fluorescent lights overhead make the store look like some sort of diabetic’s nirvana. And, as they pan, John describes a hundred different kinds of soda: soda brewed like a beer, soda made out of rose petals, organic fruit soda with bits of fruit still in them. Red Ribbon, the cherriest of all the cherry sodas; Banananina, the soda that tastes like banana jolly ranchers; and Moxie, the soda that made it into the dictionary in 1884: if you could drink two of the small bottles of extra-strong soda, it meant you had a lot of Moxie.
And by minute 13, I felt overly-informed, and a little sad. I would probably never taste any of those sodas. And what else was I never going to have?
And it wasn’t just the flavors; it was the intimacy of the stories he told. Like The Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee soda, owned by the same small family who had been brewing the coffee and the soda and self-bottling for over 100 years. Or the rose soda made by the last man in Romania who still knew how to press the rose petals and process them into soda. Soda Pop Stop bought the total run, the last of the rose petal soda, the last speaker of a dead language.
Thinking about that it occurred to me that his shelves contained the vestigial remains of a rich history, that the Soda Pop Stop was more museum than grocery store. I thought about my trip to Greece several years ago. It was impossible to find a non-English speaker or a Baywatch-less home. And you had to very careful to take your pictures around the McDonalds and Exxons to retain a sense of authenticity for your friends back home. I saw very little indigenous. Even the home we were invited into served hamburgers (albeit with mint). Our tour guide joked wryly that we were not far from the day when spanikopita would only be available on Burger King’s menu.
But, what are you going to do? Globalization does not happen in reverse. But with all of this forward momentum and consolidation, I think that it is valuable to worry that these loses may reveal their importance. And that by then it may be too late.
Now when I shop, a little of the magic is gone. I know that there will be no new surprises in the aisles of my favorite chain grocery stores. And my once-loved 2-liter bottles and shiny brand names now represent an emptiness that makes me sad. So now, I’ve come back full circle, and I go to the farmer’s markets I derided as a child. I talk to the vendors, try the recipes they suggest and try to salvage something old world out of my experience before its gone for good. I highly recommend it.