I have loved many grocery stores in my life. They have been tucked into a street corner and have taken up an entire parcel of land, are painted cobalt or eggshell, are sterile or a bit grimy. They always hunker, loud or unassuming, in the center of a town or city, people always streaming in and out to nourish themselves and their families. They whisper or shout at us about their world-class produce or freshly warmed breads, their community connections, everything. We are asked to come in and provide for ourselves and for the people around us, if only by buying some semi-sweet chocolate chips or clementines.
I do not think I have ever seen food shopping as a chore. When I was younger, maybe eight or nine years old, our most coveted nighttime activity was going to the grocery store. One or two evenings a month, when the moonlight had begun to curl around the trees and our dinner plates had long been cast into the sink, my parents decided that our ingredients had dwindled too fast, and my father was to go to Stop and Shop that night. One of my sisters and I would be chosen to go with him—whomever was chosen would slip on shoes and bound into the car, rocketing over the hills along the river to the store to get cereal or cheddar cheese or cocoa powder.
There was something inherently magical and irresistible about the grocery store at night—something tangibly different. It was not the same space as in the daytime, with the sunlight filtering in through hulking window panes onto dull oranges and fluorescent-yellow cake mixes, not clogged with people wandering up and down the aisles to decide between two types of olive oil. During the daytime, the Stop and Shop was a stretching and teeming place, crowded with voices and elbows and overpriced almonds. At night it was quiet and glittering, the floor just waxed and the overhead music turned moody and slow. My father and I would move through the aisles leisurely, tiptoeing along to inspect the ripeness of stacked bananas, or determining whether the package of Dutch chocolate cookies we were cradling had any broken pieces. No one tried to rattle past us with a wobbly cart and a whispered caution, or brazenly reach in front of us to grab the last good block of parmesan. I was always in the way during the daytime. At night we chose our foods with ease and care, gingerly deciding which would have a home in our cabinet, which foods my baby sister would spread across the floor. The deli counter never had a line in the evening, so our samples of Swiss cheese and turkey were immediate and cherished.
There was something inherently magical and irresistible about the grocery store at night—something tangibly different. It was not the same space as in the daytime, with the sunlight filtering in through hulking window panes onto dull oranges and fluorescent-yellow cake mixes, not clogged with people wandering up and down the aisles to decide between two types of olive oil.
During these nighttime trips, I was allowed to choose one sweet from the international food section. Stop and Shop had carved out a quarter of an aisle as a lackluster grouping of various ethnic products, and my favorite Irish chocolates were given just a sliver of this area. I was given the choice between a saccharine Dairy Milk bar, buttery Digestive biscuits, or a chocolate Aero bar pockmarked with bubbles. I nearly always chose the Aero bar, neatly snapping off one section to share on the winding way back home.
As lovely and thrilling as these night food shopping trips were, more frequently we went food shopping during the day, with each of my sisters and I given two or three items to track down in the cramped and towering aisles. When my father moved to the city, we took the subway to Grace’s Marketplace and Food Emporium along the churning East River. These stores, packed so tightly into the building that I thought the ceiling might buckle, always hummed with shoppers. There was no leisure or deliberate inspection—you were to move swiftly in and out. In Grace’s, the lines for the butcher or the bread and cheese counter had no clear beginning or end, so it was best just to squeeze yourself into a corner by the cheese twists and handmade pastas and crane your neck to look at the towering shelves while the crowd thinned. The air was always slightly frenetic, with business people and parents and students trying to make just the tiniest dent in the city and then feed themselves and their families.
These kinds of shops were where you could see the ways in which people nourished themselves—in Food Emporium and in the Gristedes near my father’s apartment, people’s hunger was on full display. You could tell when someone was throwing a dinner party—a gleaming jar of olives, a pound of briny shrimp, pâté and water crackers—or needed a moment to themselves—luxurious chocolate ice cream, a single serving of tomato soup, a bottle of white wine. When my father moved to New York, we used to buy pizza dough and Hunt’s tomato sauce, potatoes, and Nestle hot chocolate mix for my younger sister. The checkout clerks rarely commented on anyone’s purchases, just nodded at the many tubs of hummus or bottles of diet soda.
I don’t know why I am so taken with the way people grocery shop—I think I like the observation and possibility that comes with seeing people carefully or haphazardly take food off the shelf. You can see what someone is buying and you can imagine what their life must be like, at least a little bit. You can look at the ingredients and meals they haul up to the cash register and see who they are through the food they eat—what it is, how much, if they seem resigned or frantic or excited about what they are buying. It extends to where people shop, too—if someone is shopping religiously at Whole Foods or Star Market, you can imagine their tranquil morning of green smoothies and collagen or hurried scrambled eggs before class.
You can see what someone is buying and you can imagine what their life must be like, at least a little bit. You can look at the ingredients and meals they haul up to the cash register and see who they are through the food they eat
I think if one were to examine my life through my grocery shopping, they would not look at the sugary squares of Cadbury chocolate or my swift dodging of city shoppers, but my almost ceaseless failings at shopping for myself alone. One might look at the half-full boxes of crackers that I meant to decorate lavishly with a swipe of brie, or the unopened bag of frozen vegetables leaning against the freezer wall.
I have tried to carve out a place for myself at the closest Trader Joe’s, enticed by their vibrant packaging and impeccably written chalkboard signs. Here, I have tried to be conscientious and scrutinizing about my food shopping, to be an adult. I do my best to blend into the colorful and vibrant store in Coolidge Corner, less claustrophobic but still teeming with people. I am nearly always in the way. I am in the way of the cruciferous veggies, blocking the peanut butter, almost shoved out of the way of the brie and Romano cheese, too close to the dark chocolates. People always seem to know exactly what to buy here—they comb deliberately or aggressively through the aisles, with chicken breasts and sweet potatoes ready to meal-prep and thick strands of farfalle paired with a jar of pesto.
These shoppers have figured out what it is to nourish themselves, to first choose how and where to buy food for themselves, and then to discern from the soaring and overwhelming shelves and stacks what you can feed yourself. It is something wholly astonishing and breathtaking. It is suddenly an enormous responsibility, essentially carrying your own nutrition along with you to the grocery store. It has taken me weeks and probably hundreds of dollars to figure out what I should and should not buy—I have spent far too much money on a chicken tikka masala microwave dinner and a box of raspberry lemonade, and then forgotten to buy eggs or frozen fruit that will not go bad when I do not eat it within the week. I have learned that you must buy a dark bottle of olive oil, salt and pepper to sprinkle over almost everything you cook for dinner, and at least two bags of spinach or kale to have some semblance of health in a half-hearted pasta dish. I gravitate toward the peanut butter every time I go to the grocery store, chunky with the crimson lid—it can be spread sparsely or luxuriously across a piece of toast or spooned into yogurt, or eaten late at night with a cluster of dark chocolate chips. I have gathered just enough eggs and sweet potatoes and ice cream to keep myself content, to make my kitchen feel like mine. I still cannot really cook, but I can grocery shop for myself, during the day and after dark. There is one grocery store in the smattering of towns I grew up in that says come home to its customers, and I think when we grocery shop we are coming home, we are creating ourselves.