Adventures in Grocery Shopping

From choosing cheese to picking a cantaloupe, the correct method matters

Illustration by Alexei Chtykhine

A few years ago, my wife, Norma, underwent total knee replacement surgery, and that’s when my intimate relationship with grocery stores really started.  Today, I still do much of the grocery shopping and have actually enjoyed planning meals and cooking for the first time in my life.  When I’m not practicing law, you might find me with my iPad, wandering the aisles of Kroger, Ingles, The Fresh Market, or Publix in pursuit of the ingredients for some new recipe—usually involving beans, chicken, or pasta (sometimes all three together).

For me, it all started with Byerly’s Grocery at 726 Chickamauga Avenue.  Mr. Byerly sold groceries on credit and he delivered.  That was a simpler time when the grocery delivery boy would just open the back door and put everything away.  My family, of course, had its own delivery boy: me.  I would ride my bike to Mr. Byerly’s and a small bell on the door would ring when I went in.  He had a long wooden pole with a pincher on top to grab cans and cartons off the high shelves.  Sometimes, he would let me use the “pincher pole.”  Shelves of groceries covered the walls all the way up to the ceiling, and in the middle of the narrow room was an enclosed counter where he checked your purchase.  He had a large, elaborate ledger with metal pages that he flipped to find my father’s account.  Oh yes, he had jars of candy and Double Bubble Gum.  The licorice was long, black, and twisted.  Once I overdosed on it.

When I stayed with my grandparents in South Knoxville, I spent a lot of time at Smoky Mountain Market on Chapman Highway and ate tons of hot dogs.  Cold bottled drinks buried in ice were stored in coolers lined up out front–the only place to buy Grapette.  Few groceries, but great eats.  Although it has been closed many years, I can still taste those fabulous hot dogs.

Knoxville was sprinkled with small grocery stores in those days.  Clyde Rainwater Grocery on Holston Drive at Ault Street and Bus Reagan’s Market on Central at Springdale are examples.  One of my first trials was one where I represented a man who operated a rolling store in Blount County.  The man had an old school bus customized into a grocery store and drove from house to house out in the country.  A speeder sideswiped the bus, causing a lot of damage.  Independent grocery men are almost a thing of the past.  That’s why Butler & Bailey in Rocky Hill is such a treasure.

Like any dutiful husband and father, over the last 52 years of marriage I have done my share of picking up things at the grocery store on my way home from the office.  But it was not until the knee surgery that I ever considered myself a professional grocery shopper and observer.  First, it’s important to understand what I consider to be a grocery store.  It must sell food, almost exclusively.  No furniture, no clothing, and no automotive parts and supplies.  If I can buy a pork roast and have my oil changed in the same building, it’s not a grocery store.  I once checked out of a new Kroger Superstore and the cashier asked me if I found everything okay, and I told her I had a little trouble finding dog food, but “finally found it between car batteries and ladies underwear.”  I was happy to see the Superstore finally drop home and office furniture in favor of clothing and housewares.  Now I just try to avoid that whole end of the building.

Speaking of cashiers, what about the ones who try to guess about your lifestyle based upon the products you are buying.  “Looks like somebody is going to have a party,” or “What are we celebrating?” in response to my bottle of champagne and two ribeye steaks.  Once I learned everything I would ever want to know and more about rhubarb pie because the lady in front of me had bought out all the rhubarb and pie filling.

Unlike most shoppers, I try not to get into a hurry at the grocery store.  I take my time and learn about the various products I did not know were available.  To me, Whole Foods is like Disney World and costs the same.  I spend way too much time with the cheese lady, but I make up for it by buying tons of cheeses that I know nothing about.  Once I tried to catalog the names of cheeses that I liked so I could buy them again, only to find out that they were no longer available on my next trip to the store.  I’m afraid that cheese, like wine, is a subject that is too complex and involved for me to learn.  I bet 90% of people buying cheese don’t have any idea what they are buying.  They look, and perhaps smell, and then cross their fingers and take something home.  When I buy a cheese that is awful and everyone agrees, I simply act like I love it and know all about its history.

The best thing to happen in groceries stores in my lifetime is the olive bar.  I can’t resist and always fill the largest available container with olives stuffed with everything.  Green olives, black olives, pickled peppers, pimentos, and mushrooms–I load it up.  At home, I will eat a couple of olives while I unpack the groceries, and then a month later Norma will throw the whole thing out.  She does a lot of throwing out.  She thinks “best if sold by” means to get rid of it immediately, while I prefer to hold onto things a little longer.

If the olive bar is the best thing that’s happened in grocery shopping, the worst thing is self-checkout.  I once got tricked into checking myself out and it was a disaster.  I felt like a new employee who had started work without any training, and then the machine starting talking to me and telling me to do stuff.  At the end, I felt like asking for an employee discount.  I also have a great fear of being rejected in the 15-item express lane.  Even though I feel I am buying very little, I do not know how to count.  Is a carton of cokes one item or six items?  How do you count two onions or a package containing four rolls of toilet paper?  I avoid the express lane for fear of being chastised by the cashier and stared at by the other customers with only milk and bread.

When Norma could walk again, she went with me on short trips to the market with the hope that it would prove therapeutic.  I had discovered Ingles during her convalescence and I took her there and let her out in front.  I parked the car and tried to catch up.  For a moment I thought I had lost her and then I saw her in the produce department walking away from me pushing a buggy.  As I drew closer, I noticed a man walking with her.  First, I mistook him for a friend of ours.  He had neat gray hair, but had on very short and tight shorts like boys wore in the sixties.  As she turned to introduce me to her new friend, he had disappeared at the mention of “my husband.”  I asked her about her “boyfriend,” and she explained that he had approached seeking help selecting the right type of apples to use in an apple cake he was going to bake.  This guy disappeared like Houdini when I walked up, and I explained to her that “Any guy who can bake an apple cake knows what kind of apples to use.”  Apparently, grocery stores can be a good place to meet people.

In Publix one day, Norma and I were shopping in produce using a single buggy, and she asked me if I would go over and pick out a good cantaloupe.  Even though I knew nothing about selecting cantaloupes, I faced a bin of stacked melons that all looked the same to me.  I asked a nearby produce man with an apron if he knew how to pick a good cantaloupe and he instructed me to pick up two melons.  “Now, which is the heaviest?” he asked.  “The right one,” I replied.  “Now, put down the lightest and pick up another.”  After several tries, I had the heaviest cantaloupe in the bin, and he congratulated me on selecting the best.  I explained to the man that this was really good information to have because I suspected most women don’t know how to pick a cantaloupe.  “Now I will come in everyday and hang around the cantaloupes until some lady asks me how to pick one–good way to pick up a nice lady,” I told the produce man.  We both laughed and I returned the prize melon to Norma who was now two aisles over.  Later, in frozen foods, Norma and I approached the man in the apron and he and I winked at each other as we passed without speaking.

I hope this report on grocery shopping is helpful to you.  Next time you go to the market, if you have problems, look for me around the cheese counter or the olive bar.

1 Comment
  1. J Zabo says

    Absolutely love your commentary on shopping . Most of us see it as an unavoidable necessity. I will try to shop next with a new respect for the experience. JoJo

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