Although I hate shopping in general, I love grocery shopping. And it seems that between the time I l moved abroad and the time I came back, grocery shopping went from being a mundane but necessary errand to a near-artistic, anything-but-mundane experience. I do believe a grocery store hierarchy has emerged.When I was a kid, it seemed like there were a few mid-range options and a couple of budget options, but all in all, a grocery store was a grocery store. Nowadays, grocery stores seem divided along several lines: Organic vs. non-organic, food shopping as an artful experience vs. food shopping as a necessary experience and of course, “willing to spend a lot of money on food” versus your “I want my food as cheap as possible” demographic.
In this new hierarchy, places like Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market and Wegman’s reign supreme among upper middle-class moms, yuppies and those who believe that only free-range, organic, natural non-processed non-preserved foods should be consumed (and who don’t mind paying $8 for tea). Wegman’s and Whole Foods are beautifully laid out, seductively warm and inviting and make grocery shopping a pleasant, enjoyable experience. In fact, grocery shopping almost feels like an elite, exclusive art form at these places. I met a friend at Whole Foods for lunch this past weekend and I ate my Mediterranean salad in the wine lounge as soft jazz played in the background. Downstairs, the sushi bar was bustling and there was a live band performing by the fish market area. What kind of ridiculous world do we live in that live Johnny Cash covers accompany seafood selection?
Then there’s Trader Joe’s. I could write love poems to Trader Joe’s all day. I love Trader Joe’s because it’s small and thoughtfully laid out. When I walk into Wegman’s or Whole Foods I instantly feel overwhelmed. There are too many options and I want them all. But Trader Joe’s is about 1/4 the size of a regular grocery store and although they trend toward the healthy, they have nice variety. I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel a little better if my TV dinner comes in a bag and features polenta, spinach, sautéed mushrooms or herb chicken. There are few things that bring me more pleasure than waking up bright and early on a Saturday morning and heading over to my neighborhood Trader Joe’s to peruse the cheese section, pick out some pastries and chocolate, get myself some free coffee and, ultimately, spend $100 for two bags of food before the crowds arrive. In my defense, these two bags include $100 of lovingly hand-picked and carefully selected foods. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I’ll just drive over to Trader Joe’s, pick up some organic honey or a block of grass-fed sharp cheddar, and suddenly, everything seems right in the world again.
And then there’s Costco. If you are an immigrant, the child of immigrants or a member of a family with three or more kids, chances are you purchase most of you big-ticket items at Cosco. Think 80 pound bags of frozen chicken, 1,000-count granola variety packs, jumbo cereal boxes meant to feed an army and weird-looking tennis shoes that don’t look quite right but only cost $20. Think long lines, cement floors, super-sized shopping carts and brown carton packing boxes. And of course, best of all, free food samples on the weekend. Tons! Entering a Costco on a Saturday afternoon is like simultaneously stepping onto the Indian Subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, the Central American Isthmus and the far east. Yes, Costco is truly a cultural experience and, in my humble opinion, the perfect place to see American diversity in action. Costco brings back so many happy childhood memories of free samples, of my younger, deliriously happy self jumping from one free sample to the next. You can also buy the cheapest lunch of your life at Costco: $1.50 for a giant hotdog and soft drink.
Then you have your Safeways, Harris Teeters and Giants, which I consider traditional mid-range options. Granted, there are some pretty nice Safeways and Harris Teeters, but these are the kinds of places you might run to when you need to pick up some milk or eggs after work. Sure, you’ll find some organic products but that’s not really their specialty. You can still pick up as many processed, unhealthy foods as you want and you dont’ have to feel guilty about it, because you’re not at Wegman’s or Trader Joe’s. Personally, I like Giant. My first job was at a Giant cashier, so Giant will always have a special place in my heart.
On the lower end of the spectrum, you have Shopper’s and Food Lion (does Food Lion still exist?) and of course your Grandmarts, H-Marts and LA-Marts. These places don’t have much in the way of organic or natural but they tend to have a lot in the way of niche items: Entire aisles of Goya products, Asian spices, rice (of all kinds!) tortilla flour, and of course, an incredible, mouth-watering selection of processed foods with indecipherable ingredients. A few months ago, as I was cruising the aisles at Shopper’s, I was transported to my childhood dinner table, when I considered canned bake beans and microwaved hotdogs to be the epitome of culinary delights. And yesterday when I stopped by LA-Mart in Springfield, I was greeted by aisle after aisle of strange and mysterious fruits and vegetables. These grocery stores aren’t usually overly warm and inviting, but that’s OK because you’re getting three bags of produce for $13.
Personally, I think Aldie’s is a great budget option. If I remember correctly, it’s owned by the same people who own Trader Joe’s, and it’s dirt cheap. However, it’s pretty bare-bones, no frills…you have to pay for a cart and they don’t take credit cards.
Then there’s Walmart. A few Super Walmart’s have recently sprung up in my area, and, let me tell you they sell some cheap stuff. At Super Walmart, you can buy a pound of cheese for $4 and already mixed pizza dough for $0.88 cents. Don’t be surprised by $0.75 cans and $3 ham. I don’t find their produce or meats to be particularly cheap, but if you’re looking for snacks, sodas and processed foods, you’ll find some pretty good deals. I’ll admit I’ve done a little bit of grocery shopping here, but every time I put those crackers or $2 strawberries in my cart, I am overtaken by guilt and this feeling that I’m somehow contributing to the suffering of child laborers in Chinese factories and making the world a worse place. So I try to stay away as much as possible.