Thank you, Meijer corporate employee or higher-up store manager for the kind gift. While shopping with my two daughters who were strangely mostly-well-behaved sidekicks last week, you approached me in the ethnic foods aisle. Maybe I looked tired, or overwhelmed. I wasn’t, but you know, I’ve been known to grocery shop disheveled and unshowered more often than I care to admit so I probably looked the part. Or maybe you thought I was making a mess of your store. I was, I confess, parting the Red Sea of jars on the shelf with giant sweeps of my forearms, trying to see if the one all the way in the back was hoisin sauce. Normally you carry two brands of hoisin sauce, but that day there was none at all. So then I began reading the ingredients of the Korean BBQ sauce, wondering if maybe it could substitute.
So, in this wondering, problem-solving moment, my littles giggling and messing around amongst themselves, you were suddenly standing next to me. “Hello, would you like to try Shipt for free for one year? No strings attached?” Maybe she was expecting me to jump up and down like I’d answered the door in an old Publishers Clearinghouse commercial during the Super Bowl. But I didn’t. “Oh, Ok,” I said, “I guess I’ll think about it.”
“Well if you don’t use it make sure you pass it on to someone who will because it’s worth quite a bit!”
I wanted to be excited. I wanted to want other people to pick out my grapes and cuts of meat and yogurt and secret stashes of chocolate and bags of potatoes. But I just didn’t. By the time we got to the back of the store, the kids begging for new $17 water bottles for school, I was getting a little bit more into the idea. I texted the hubs about it, excited to share the news of getting what seemed to be an exclusive freebie even if I wasn’t completely interested in redeeming it.
Then at the check-out the cashier asked me what I planned to do with the soba noodles she was bagging. Feeling like a good multi-cultural cook I told her about my slow-cooker Asian Pork with Broccoli and Noodles recipe. Unimpressed, she kindly schooled me in “what we do with them in Japan.” She said they mostly make soups with them, vegetable soups. In the summer they use udon noodles instead. Last time she was my cashier she told me she was from Seattle and all about how she used to be a hair stylist but now she can’t do hair because of carpel tunnel. “Oh, so are you first generation American?” I asked.
“I don’t call myself first generation because I don’t necessarily consider myself as being from one place. I was born here but my parents are from Japan and I’ve been there a lot and now my brother lives there.” Schooled again. See, this is why I need this job.
And anyway, isn’t there something sacred, something meaningful about not only cooking but selecting our own food? We are already so separated from our food supply. We already have to think and care so relatively little about it. There are already so many middlemen and meddlers that come between us and what we put in our mouths. Why add another layer? Why rob ourselves of this rewarding responsibility? Giving up this duty, this hunting and gathering, would be depressing, soul-numbing.
This is fulfilling, gratifying work. To come together and choose food for our families knowing it will not last long and we’ll be back soon reminds us that none of us are far from hunger, that our hunger unites us. Individually and collectively we are hardwired for this ritual. I’m not proud of every item that ends up in the cart (I’m looking at you, Nutella), but I like being in places that feed people–churches that feed the soul, libraries that feed the mind. Maybe food shopping–buzzing around alone with our carts but together in the pursuit–is as close as it gets to a true communal table.
Also, isn’t it sort of communist to just passively receive your food? Isn’t that what they do in North Korea–show up and wait in line for rations of rice and beans and salt for the week? Making specific food choices (this plum, that cabbage) is a wonderful privilege. Nothing screams capitalist democracy quite like the luxury of taking five minutes to pick an ice cream flavor because your choices line a cooler that seems as long as half a city block. God bless America!
And what about our kids? How will they learn to feed themselves? How do we teach them how to turn and sniff and poke and inspect produce–to recognize what good food is–if they aren’t there with us to buy it? How do we teach them to compare prices, to make wise shopping choices, to be good stewards of money if food shopping is yet another thing we do quietly, alone, in front of a screen?
In the past ten years, over a quarter of my life, I’ve lived in two homes, worshiped regularly at two different churches, and brought two babies into the world. When I started grocery shopping at the Meijer on Westnedge I didn’t have a smartphone or Facehook account or a job. But every week since then, usually twice, I drive the same gray 2008 Toyota Matrix to the Westnedge Meijer for provisions. I’ve logged in about 1,040 trips so far.
When I run into old friends they ask why I still shop there. There is more than one reason. For one, it’s near other stores. It’s also exactly the same distance from my house as the newer, more suburban-y Meijer. More significantly, after all these years, I know the contents of every aisle. But the real reason I still shop there is because I see people (and once in a while dodge seeing people) that I’ve known for almost as long as I’ve lived in this state: seniors who held my babies in church nursery, former neighbors, co-op preschool moms, sweet Harriet–mother of our former church secretary and grandmother of our old babysitter–who lost her jaw to cancer. She can’t speak well anymore, but can still smile and radiate love from behind the cart she still pushes down every aisle. I see school moms, Kellogg wives, home-schooling dance moms, friends from whom I’ve grown apart but still hug in the frozen food aisle.
And then there are the anonymous coupon fairies that leave their expertly-trimmed, soon-to-expire savings on their respective items. Every time I see the evidence of these random acts of thrifty kindness my heart vertical jumps and clicks its heels in midair. I wonder if they are the same senior ladies who eat grapes when they walk past (This irritated me to no end when the girls were little. Over and over again I would have to tell my little ones that we have to pay for the fruits and vegetables before we eat them. And then who’s breaking the rule right in front of us? The grandmas. They get away with everything I tell you.).
And speaking of seniors I have to tell you this one last story about a fellow shopper that I nearly ran into the other day. Literally our carts almost collided as I rounded the corner. “Sorry!” I said cringing, when I realized he was there. He was very old and wearing aviator sunglasses which were a standard adult size but looked too big on his small frame. “Don’t be sorry!” he said cheerily from behind his cart which also looked slightly oversized, “a farmer don’t care!” It still makes me smile to think about it.
Despite the colorful cast of characters, most Kalamazooans don’t share my fondness for Westnedge Meijer. Sure there was that pharmacy incident when I got the antibiotics home for the sick baby only to learn that the bottle was still just pink powder. They never added the water to it. It is “special water” so I couldn’t just do it myself. And then that time this summer when my very observant child pointed out that a Planter’s nut snack pack I bought for her the day before was six months past its expiration date. And of course there are the buckets that make appearances throughout the store because of a leaky roof. And just the other day when the yogurts felt warm and the cooler’s thermostat said 62 degrees I had to inform employees of the problem. It is a place not without its major flaws.
But I’ve had my moments, too, for sure. I’ve probably yelled at my kids in every aisle by now. Like all relationships, if you make enough mistakes in front of each other it kind of makes you feel like family. But if that’s what we’re calling us now, I’m cheating a little. Lately I buy meat, fresh fish, bulk and bakery items from a new earth-friendlier outpost across the street. But I could never leave my Meijer completely, not after everything we’ve been through.
So, thanks, but no thanks, Meijer Lady, for the free grocery shipping. I will pass it on to a young working mother I know. She lives close to the Westnedge Meijer but shops elsewhere because she says its too dirty to take her five-month-old baby there. I think she’s maybe exaggerating a little but I understand. I’ll keep shopping for myself and my family with a renewed appreciation for what it is–for the life in it and for the lives that continue because of the food we find inside.