Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lost in the Supermarket

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All / I take a box / And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens...

--Randall Jarrell, "Next Day"

"I'm all lost in the supermarket. I can not longer shop happily."

-- The Clash

I should have known that this day would come. Like the Clash and the nameless speaker of "Next Day," one of my all-time favorite poems about middle-age, I have lost my claim to mindless happy shopping -- the birthright of all Americans. What's worse, I have given it away in exchange for a hunk of cheese, and thus have nobody but myself to blame.

Flash back twelve months. July 2009, Bill and I had recently extracted our family from Brooklyn, where the only grocery options are Bleak, Bleaker, and the Byzantine systems of the Park Slope Food Coop. There are terrific greenmarkets, certainly, and the Fairway over in Red Hook, but those both demand a major commitment of time and planning. For the greenmarket, you can only buy what you can carry on the subway, and they don't sell Cheer, or Joy, or All. And for Fairway, you have to drive, park, negotiate the chaos of other crazed shoppers, shuttle your grocery bags up multiple flights of stairs, and then re-park the damn car somewhere in the neighborhood. Hardly something you can do every day when you just need a few pork chops and some peaches.

So when we got to New Hampshire's Upper Valley, home of the Hanover Food Coop, we thought we had died and gone to homemaker heaven. They had everything you can buy in America, and lots of it. They had little specialty sections, and a bulk food aisle, fancy artisanal dairy products and real beef. Unlike the Key Food on 7th Avenue, the store didn't smell like a long-abandoned port-a-san. And unlike the Park Slope Co-op, you didn't have to sign your life away to join.

And so we spent last summer in happy shopping bliss, grazing the snow peas, the clover honey, the organic soda spritzers, and the freeze-dried edamame pods and the polenta chips that taste like Bugles with a Ph.D.

And then came France. I stumbled there as a shopper, hard. Nothing in the supermarket looked familiar, and nothing came in an extra-large. All the words for things were different, so that it took me forever to find horseradish (raifort) and sour cream (crème fraiche, but only sort of) and toilet bowl cleaner (bleach is, I think, javel, although I left without ever being sure.) Do you miss those early days of this blog as much as I do? Yes? Well then, click here and take a stroll down Aisle Six of memory lane.

As the year unfolded, I learned a whole new way of living, which of course included a whole new way of shopping. Which of course required forgetting my old life and its ways, at least in part. Which leads me back to the disconnect I felt today.

I thought I had readjusted to the U.S. unscathed, but as it turns out, I was only pretending. You see, last weekend I went back to France. I know, it sounds ridiculous, just to jet off to France for four nights (one of them spent crammed into seat 42C on a British Airways 747) but it was terrific. I'm still working on writing about all of the nuances of this little tidbit of France, but the upshot was that I went there for Jessica and Gerard's wedding -- perhaps one of the most joyful celebrations I've ever attended, (aside from your wedding, of course, which was every bit as nice, except without a gypsy band, a circus tent, raspberries in the champagne, and a cheese course.)

I went back to Aups by myself, leaving Bill and the girls back home, and in between the parties and catching up with friends, I spent a lot of time just wandering my old haunts. The road up from the Bastide, where I would pick thyme and rosemary to put in the dinner. The marché, where I would get fresh apricots and asparagus and beets and carrots and dinde: food all the way through the vegetable alphabet. The boulangerie, the spice store, the place that sold only olive oil and wine.

And the Intermarché, which I eventually memorized. I nearly burst into tears when I saw all that rosé and chocolate and cheese. I waved my carte du fidelite and picked up a little wine and candy to take home in my luggage, plus a mushy round of Banon cheese, all runny and wrapped in oak leaves, and then ate the whole thing with a baguette in the courtyard of my hotel.

I had never realized it then, but I think I spent nearly every moment outside of the house that year procuring some particularly delicious sort of food from some specific place. I thought I was going to France, when really I was going grocery shopping.

But then I had to come back. It's nice to be here, and while we're still not back in Brooklyn, it feels a lot more settled to be here with no other major trips planned for the foreseeable future. In fact, it's not just nice. It's deeply, deeply good in a settled and happy way I had hoped it might be. Perhaps this is just because the kids are in camp, and I have some time -- and Bill -- all to myself, but I think this sense of bien-etre, wellbeing, has to do with the sense of being at home.

(Even so, Abigail keeps checking with us on this: "We're going to stay here, right Mommy?" She will even try to guilt us into letting her watch T.V. rather than go swimming, in the middle of a heatwave. "But I don't want to go to the Pond and swim! This family moves around way too much." We took her to France as a sweet little pixie of a seven-year old, and we brought back a master manipulator.)

So we're home, but there remains the business of adjusting back to shopping reality. The Hanover Food Co-op is just as wonderful as it ever was. It's me who has changed.

All the vegetables were stacked up in their usual, hopeful way, but for some reason they all just seemed cold and uninviting, as though none of them had ever seen a real farm. Fruit that could sit in my fridge for a week and move straight from unripe to pointless without ever aquiring flavor. Industrial-strength cucumbers. There was a bounty of choice, (plenty of it in plastic bags) but no straw panniers to put it in. I started to get a little disoriented.

I left, looking for sanctuary in the wine section. I said to Bill, "I'll just go over here to the wines and pick up a rosé."

He warned me in a gentle, coaxing voice, having already tried this, "There won't be any, sweetheart."

"OF COURSE there is rosé, I said," as though saying would make it so, and then set off to find it.

I kept pacing back and forth in front of the ports and shirazes and merlots, certain that if I scanned hard enough, that nice bottle of rosé would float off the shelf and into my waiting arms. It's only about 92 degrees here today, (not a life-threatening 103, like in New York) but is there anything else that anybody else wants to drink when it feels like this?

(Those of you who knew me when must be wondering: what happened to Launa, the Queen of Beer Drinkers? Dear old Launa, whose last name rhymes with Budweiser? Can't she just pull a Stella out of the fridge for old time's sake and just can it with this snobby rosé stuff? Short answer: no. At least not yet.)

I finally saw something pink, but then looked at the label and saw it was just some awful old Zinfandel. I had a nasty run-in with that stuff in the early 1990's, and it will never again cross my lips. I recoiled from the bottle as though from a semi-poisonous snake.

In the wine section I came up short, but in just about any other aisle I could hardly breathe. There were simply way too many options among packaged foods. I know that Americans are known to thrive on super sizing and rampant variety. I used to be that person. And now, when I look at all those different things, it makes my head hurt. All that Cheer. All that Joy. All that All.

All I wanted? A little clarity. A little less process. As Jarrell's poem goes on to say, quoting William James, "Wisdom is learning what to overlook." I would like the edicts of a thousand years of French culture to swoop in and organize the foodstuffs in a particular and specific way, and help me to wisely overlook.

I want fewer options.

I'm all lost.

It's a phase, I tell myself with one soothing, reassuring voice. Corn syrup and I had a vibrant, thriving relationship before, and we can rebuild that again. Jarred salsa is my friend. Olives are not the only fruit.

I'm all lost.

"FOOOOOOD SNOOOOOB!!!" some other awful voice shouts at me from within my own head. "You're full of pommes de terre and foolishness juice! Snap out of it, and pick up some of this nice guacamole for dinner!! Get yourself down to the store and buy some of America's favorite tropical fruit: Guar." (This voice is very bossy.)

I'm all lost.

The sanest, quietest voice tells me this: Get a grip, and make a little spaghetti with red sauce. There is no ill on this earth that can not be addressed with a nice plate of pasta.

I'm back. It's just my tummy that still hasn't quite returned.


  1. Back away from the corn syrup!

  2. I had radishes from my garden with butter and salt in your honor the other night. I don't blame your tummy for staying in France.

  3. Wonderful post, Launa! I especially like your description of the stacks of hopeful veggies.

    I feel much the same way you describe when I visit a typical U.S. restaurant and receive a plate laden with more food than any human should eat in one sitting, particularly when a doggie bag is not an option.

    (I am writing this, by the way, before heading off to the marché in Riez — and this after several days working in Germany, where my 30 [sigh, okay, 30+]-year-old "one year of university German" is of little help navigating product choices. Anyway, oldest daughter is here and I'd like her to try some rascasse — a Mediterranean fish. I'd usually buy this from the fish truck here in Quinson on Wednesday, but this Wed. is Bastille Day, so I expect the truck won't be coming.)

    Hi to Bill and the girls from David and me. —Lynn

  4. I think food and place are (or should be) inextricably connected. I find that as I get further into this mothering gig, preparing healthy food for my kids becomes more and more important to me, and that, strangely, it is uncomfortable--but rewarding--when I venture out of my familiar zone and take a walk through the Asian supermarket or buy a vegetable as yet unknown to me. And now? Off to make hummus!

  5. OK, I'm not going to rub it in or anything, cause you two rock stars are way cooler then I am regardless of where any of us buy our produce, but you are going to LOVE the Food Coop food. Well, until Bill gets you kicked out.

    (Note that I said the Food Coop FOOD, not the Food Coop itself...)

  6. There is just something (dare I say je ne sais quoi?) about marches in France ... I can almost smell their distinct slightly rotten, slightly exotic, fresh-bread-just-baked smell now. And I am drooling over your baguette and drippy cheese experience, although Bugles with a Ph.D. do sound pretty delicieux. =>

  7. Oh Launa, I so loved this post. Your lovely words painted such a vivid picture of your emotions, your heart and mind. Thank you for this wonderful writing, which I enjoyed with a monster-sized can of cashews.

  8. Oh this post made me swoon in the big girl crush kinda way. I HATE to shop. Canadian/American style shopping anyway. The joy of a good farmer's market or off the back of a hutterite truck I am totally in for but the supermarket makes me anxious in the worst of ways. One of my best friends brought a bottle of good olive oil for his provence in Spain and I kissed him (ok I probably would have kissed him anyway but the oil did not hurt). And now I get an Organic Box of produce delivered to my house weekly so that I can stay out of the grocery store AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Yep, I heart that your stomach stayed in France!