Sunday, May 24, 2009


When I push my cart through a supermarket, I often wonder what people of other times and places would think of what I see before me. As we were at the cemetery today, my grandmother came naturally to mind. I look at 600 sq ft of shelf space for frozen vegetables, and wonder what she would have thought. 250 sq ft just for different kinds of orange juice. 50 flavors of ice cream. Amazing.

She was pleased to switch from A&P to Champagne's in Manchester, NH, particularly after Grand Union bought it and it didn't sound so French. Grand Union was bigger, and on the outskirts of town rather than downtown, which made it almost suburban. There were shopping carts - much smaller than today, but a step up from baskets. There were six aisles, I'm guessing a little over 50' long each. Huge. Stunning. Nanna would comment on it from time to time that it was so convenient, and you could find what you were looking for. We took her shopping every Saturday, because she didn't drive.

You couldn't take the carts out of the store. When you had checked out they put your bags in box with a number. They gave you a matching number and slid the box along a wheeled track that went through an opening in the wall. A boy on the other side matched your number to the box when you drove up and put the groceries in your car.

If there was much produce from anywhere outside New England I'd be surprised to hear it. Tropical fruits, picked while green and trucked north from Florida was about as exotic as it got. They usually looked pretty battered, especially the bananas. There were oranges and grapefruit - not any clementines, tangeloes, tangerines, uglifruit. It wasn't that long ago, perhaps the 1980's that I remember being stunned to see Japanese pears for sale in my supermarket in New Hampshire. How can such a thing be? Yes, they were expensive, but how could they not be ten times the price?

Our ethnic foods might not seem as surprising ad you'd think. In a mill town there were plenty of ethnic groups with their favorite dishes - it's just that they were all European. So Nanna might shrug at the Greek, Italian, and Jewish offerings we have now. Her uncle ran the Swedish market in the 1930's after all, and importing those foods that would keep on an Atlantic voyage wouldn't seem that unusual. The Chinese, Indian, and Thai food might have caught her attention, at least to look at. She might be alarmed at so much Mexican food, as it would imply...well...

But perhaps not. When my mother ran the international food festivals here in the late 60's and early 70's she drew heavily on Nanna's network of friends to put together a wide variety of offerings. My uncle claims she was a pretty intolerant person, suspicious of all papists but he may exaggerate. Her sisters had a broader selection of friends, but Louise's bridge groups included Jewish and Greek and French-Canadian ladies - the nicer sorts, of course, and probably of the same aspirations to respectability that she had.

Yet cooking interested her greatly, so she might be a willing audience for all of this variety.

She did pull me aside and tell me it wouldn't be wise to marry a negro girl when I decided to go to college down south. Yet even at that, she stressed that there wasn't anything wrong with them, it would just be too hard for the children. If she had more general objections, she kept them private - and I was pretty good at picking up the undercurrents of her tones of voice.

Come to think of it, what would bother her in the supermarket today would be how people dress, especially the women. To go out in public at all required respectable clothing, and she would deplore 75% of what she saw today, without bothering to ask what ethnic derivation they were. Ethnicity was a clue, not a destiny.


Donna B. said...

My father lives in a small town where the A&P grocery store still has only 6 aisles.

The proprietor is his neighbor and I'm privy to his supplier problems. It won't be long before the residents of this small town are going to have to drive 20 miles to get groceries.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of an article I read in some health nut magazine this weekend. It said there's a growing "locavore" movement which advocates eating only fresh, locally grown vegetables for environmental reasons. I guess these locavores have forgotten what grocery stores used to look like back in the days when their nannas were doing the shopping.

Retriever said...

Nice. But,actually, without being too fanatical about it, I am leaning more towards the locavore myself. Mostly I grow our own vegetables and some of our fruit during six months of the year, and I try the rest of the time to buy local stuff, and eat seasonally.

I detest the giant supermarkets because they take too long to get through them. And the exotic and out of season stuff is usually so old from having been trucked in that it is less nutritious, despite being appealingly diverse. More importantly, I don't see any of my friends there.

We have one small outrageously overpriced supermarket in our town, locally owned, with five aisles, about 40 feet long, but every time I go there I get free cup of coffee, a few yummy free samples, see at least 4 or 5 friends of 20 years for a chat that sets my teen children to twitching and toetapping in exasperation, and long and friendly conversations with the checkers who have worked there all 21 years that I have lived here (a few younger ones recently, including kid's best friend after school). I can shop quickly, have some friendly conversation, and get reasonably good food.

Trader Joe's is probably the perfect store for me as far as the kind of food I like, small so speedy to shop in, and cheap, but I don't usually see many friends there.

I compromise and go to a giganto place like Costco or Shop Rite (Hannaford up north) to get cheap staples and the exotic, but for mundane everyday stuff and local produce I prefer to support a local business.

But this may simply reflect my experience of living in a village over 21 years and valuing the chance in my hectic life of catching up with my friends and neighbors on the fly? Like village women going to the well?

Dubbahdee said...

I recently did a bit of shopping at Danis' Market in Pittsfield. It has changed very little since I was 6 years old (some 40 years ago). The signs marking the aisles are still the same. Many of the soft drinks and chips are new, but most of the stuff is just as it was. Remarkably, Pittsfield actually supports 2 markets of similar size. M&M used to be A&P back in the day. I'm guessing many folks in Pittsfield find traveling to Concord (20 miles) to shop too expensive in it's own right.
I'm with Nanna about the way people dress. I don't think people need to wear jackets and ties or fine dresses to shop for groceries, but for goodness sake people! Out of respect for either me, or yourself, get dressed.