Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shopping on Lenox

I went shopping at Fine Fare on Lenox Avenue, before the real cold set in. It's a large supermarket near a massive block of public housing, halfway between home and Central Park. I find some decent fresh produce there, organic milk and eggs, housekeeping supplies.

There were unusually long lines at each check out point. Maybe eight people deep. I bought vegetables - a fat turnip and beets with stems and leaves attached, parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, sweet potato - winter stuff. Rosemary to roast them on. And four different kinds of local apples; Fine Fare has an incongruous - and welcome - section of organic fruit. I found some JK's Scrumpy cider, and  a roll of paper towels, and then I joined a line and waited.

It moved slowly. I had time to study the nearby baskets and carts. The bearded young guy in front me had  a basket: Several Campbells soup cans (steak and vegetable, chicken and noodle), three packets of instant noodles, Pilon coffee, a small milk, peanut butter and Smuckers jelly, and then a treat, to cheer him up, of fancy chocolate ice cream.

To my left was a couple with only a trolley in common - he was flatfooted and swaddled in hi tech and voluminous insulation, spoke with a Northern Plains accent and had a broad, whiskery face. She was tall and severe and Caribbean with long red false eyelashes, and dressed in head to toe knitted tan wool, with high heels. They discussed cooking hamburgers. He led the conversation, chaffing her on. She was reluctant, but was drawn out on the subject of killing germs with heat. To my right was a woman with a cart loaded to the top. The top layer was ground meat in a mega tray, and canned peas, canned beans, canned corn, and vegetable oil in a huge bottle. Behind her was a woman with a large tray of chicken pieces and another large bottle of oil.

I asked the man behind me, Is it always this busy on a Monday evening. It was around 5pm. Yes, he said, with a slight smile. And then added, But also social security and pension checks come in, then.

Then it was my turn. Campbells soup guy whizzed through. The cashier was a young man, boy, really - big silver rings on fingers, taciturn, no greeting, no eye contact. My paper towels, hazelnut oil, garlic, and rosemary all went through fine. The apples held things up a little, because I'd put them all in one bag, and they had different prices. When we got to the sour oranges I'd found in the section with the interesting stuff in it (plantains, cassava, taro), he paused, looking at them. Sour oranges, I said. Not taking my word for it, he turned to cashier behind him. Sour oranges, said that cashier.

Sour oranges. Three for $2. Yes.

Then the parsnips arrived. This time he engaged me, with some annoyance. What are these? Parsnips, I said. He scanned his price sheet painstakingly. Parsley, he asked? No. Parsnips. A minute rolled by. The line waited. He found the parsnips. Then came the lone turnip. He held it up, eyebrows raised.

Turnip, I said.

Turnip, he said. He scanned his list. I packed my cloth bag, slowly, trying not to look at the screen to see what progress we were making, because there was none.  Another minute. Found it at last. Turnip. He handed it to me.

Last, the bunch of beetroot. He held it, then he looked at me, smiled in surrender, and said, I never seen this before.

Beets, I said, quietly. Almost sorry I had chosen them.

Beets, he said. And found them at last on his list.

I had packed my bag very well. For once, I had had enough time. All the heavy stuff was neatly on the bottom, the light stuff on top. I pulled my hogskin gloves back on, Made in London, and headed for the door, turned right and walked home in the cold night.

The man behind me, who'd told me about the pension checks and social security, only had a bag of peanuts in their shells and some tortilla chips. I had not noticed. I should have let him go first.

16 comments:

  1. Marie - think about it as giving the cashier a learning moment :) Stay warm now!

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  2. I love this. Our cart/basket is usually half veggies and fruit. It's amazing what some people don't recognize. I also have the habit of snooping on what other people are buying. If the combination looks interesting, I ask them what they are making. One time I had to ask some people what they were buying for since their carts were so laden with food. Turns out, they were buying for a weekend boy scout camp out.

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  3. Love kibutzing in the grocery line. We have such different tastes in food! it's enlightening.

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  4. I've recently started giving pop-up cooking lessons in the produce section. Fellow shoppers are always coming up to me and asking "What is that and how do you cook it?" I never thought that my lacinato kale, swiss chard, and ginger root were that exotic, but these have been the topics for some of my recent tutorials.I'm more than happy to share what little knowledge I have, but it saddens me that not everyone knows their vegetables.

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  5. Same thing happened to me this week. Inspired by your white root salad, I made a root vegetable soup ... (I know, not the same thing but the salad is next). My cashier asked me if my turnip was a radish, and wanted to know if my parsnip is something you eat. Just goes to show how few people actually buy fresh food.

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  6. Shopping cart 'voyeurism' is fun. The lack of vegetable literacy (it that a thing?) is a bit sad. I suppose not many turnip patches in Harlem.

    Cheers,
    Jake

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  7. You know you really are a good writer. You should put together a collection of your stories/essays and find a publisher!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, Jack. A very nice compliment. You did make me laugh, though:

      http://www.amazon.com/66-Square-Feet-Delicious-Life/dp/1617690503

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    2. Oh, I have a copy of your book -- which is wonderful, but I was thinking of a collection of stories about people and places, like the people from the lines in the grocery or the people you met camping in the Kruger or ... You have lots of stories!

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    3. :-) thank you!

      I'd have to think carefully about a theme.

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  8. I worry about an emerging theme here….I think we have to be carefull not to appear elitist. GH

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    1. An emerging theme in my Harlem posts? - of course, though I'm not sure we see the same one.

      I moved from a well heeled and fairly homogeneous neighborhood to one far more diverse, socio-economically. I can't not write about it.

      I have always written about shopping, I always will. What we eat, how we eat, where it comes from, fascinates me, and makes the planet tick. And sometimes go boom.

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    2. I worried about the language in some of the comments…GH

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    3. Not one comment above is elitist. Further, lack of knowledge about vegetables is not limited to one class or another and nobody implied such a notion.

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  9. We live near a whole foods market which as we all know is rather one sided in its approach to food.. near this whole foods market is a rite aid.. i have noticed many people buying their groceries there..canned soups, processed whatevers.. you know i am not one to pass buy a pringles container without grabbing one but as a main stay?.. this subject is quite loaded and a thoughtful approach is needed.. i feel your presence in the fairway and buying these items is great for other people to see.. perhaps even if its one person who picks up a carrot instead of chips.. great..best of luck

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  10. When this happens to me I always shudder, what are these children being fed! I brought a Queensland Blue pumpkin from a "well heeled" nursery that grows vegetables on the side - great as you can see them in the field and it's organically grown. The young girl who served me had no idea what it was, when I said it's a pumpkin she did not believe me and went and found the duty manager................................who apologized profusely but still, it is just so sad. You need Ron Finley in Harlem. He is just fantastic.

    Lisa, London

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