The Stress of Grocery Shopping
I’m not joking when I say that one of my consistent sources of stress here is in grocery shopping. It’s easy to take for granted the comfort of knowing WHAT I’m shopping for and HOW to shop for it. And when I don’t know those two things there’s an absolute and certain anxiety aroused. That may sound ridiculous, but it’s true.
It’s one thing to shop at the grocery store. I’ve greatly improved in that realm. At least there are labels and I can pick up the items to read and figure out what I’m looking at, what to do with it and whether I want it. I’ve gotten better at discerning ingredients listed in Italian, and labels these days often feature a photo which gives a hint of ingredients and serving suggestions.
Someone finally told me how to order my favorite, bresaola. It’s not ordered from the meat counter by the slice, it’s ordered by the gram. OK. Fine. But how many grams do I need? I was raised with ounces and pounds. How big of a pile of paper thin bresaola would 100 grams amount to? As it turns out, 80 to 100 grams is about right for me to order, and I now know what it amounts to. I can order bresaola and prosciutto with the rest of them and not sound completely like I’m from outer space.
In the produce department, it’s absolutely forbidden to handle the fruit and veggies with bare hands. There’s a ritual in buying produce and I had to learn that first thing! I go to the little stand to get my wispy thin plastic gloves. THEN I select my fruit and put it in a plastic bag. THEN I make note of the code number for my item and take it to the scale. I punch in the code and the machine spits out a UPC label. Very simple. But if someone hadn’t told me about that, or if I forget and get up to the checkout stand with unmarked produce, heaven help me!
There are handy tote-along plastic bins on wheels at the entrance to the store. Pretty handy because I usually don’t need a big cart. They have a compact “footprint” and are pretty deep. Therein lies the problem. The produce is at the entrance to the store. I go in, get my tomatoes, peaches, plums, rucola and other delicate, soft fruits and vegetables and put them in my bin. As I continue shopping for yogurt, milk, cheese, wine, bottled water, the heavy things either get piled on top of the fragile things, or I have to constantly shuffle the contents in my cart to put the heaviest at the bottom. I could get my cart, walk immediately to the end of the store, shop in reverse, end in the produce department, then walk back to the cashier at the opposite side of the store. I suppose I could try that and see how it goes.
Then there’s the checkout! This is when I need heaven to help me. I think the checkout stand at the grocery store is the epitome example of Italian speed-demon impatience. I walk up and stand in line with “all the other Italians” (ha ha ha). When it’s my turn, I empty my cart onto the conveyor belt trying to get the heaviest items out from the bottom of the pile and put them on the belt first. The cashier asks me if I want a bag and if I do its extra cost gets added to the tab. (Take note, Seattle.) Well-trained, I always have my own bags, so I say “no”. While I’m still unloading my little cart, my grocery items are flying out the other end and rolling down on top of each other into a big pile. Believe me, I unload as fast as I can so I can immediately start loading up my bags as fast as I can. Invariably, the cashier finishes the race before I do, there’s a line of people waiting, my total is rattled quickly in Italian (I’m getting better all the time at hearing and understanding euro totals), I don’t have my reading glasses on, I can’t see the still-unfamiliar coins to know their denominations, and I haven’t even finished loading up my groceries! It would almost be funny if it weren’t so anxiety-producing!
I’m always glad to get out of the grocery store.
Ahh. Then there’s the Saturday Market I discovered for the first time today. Open air. Lovely, end-of-summer weather. Picture-perfect produce, meats, seafood, cheeses, breads and sundries. This market makes Seattle’s Pike Place Market look like nothing. (Really. Sorry, but it’s true.) Everything is arrayed so beautifully, all so artful. I shot photos for the first hour or so. All so gorgeous.Idyllic, right?
Then it was time to shop. Uh oh. Trouble. New rules here. No labels. No handling the products to investigate. And it wasn’t clear what the buying process was. Who do I talk to and when is it my turn?
After wandering around dazed and afraid for a while, I got bold. What I wanted was simple and recognizable: tomatoes on the vine, fresh figs, prunes, green beans, onions. I told the guy at the front, but then he told me I had to go off to the side to pay for it first. OK. But when standing in line, I watched them fill bags with other people’s orders. They take this beautifully displayed fruit and THROW it into a paper bag! There go those nice tomatoes, those ripe peaches, those soft, fresh figs. After watching this for a couple of minutes, I walked away, telling the guy I decided not to buy any. After having been a farmer for so many years, I just can’t bring myself to buy fruit and veggies from someone that is throwing my food. And I don’t get to select it myself, so don’t know until I get home that the figs are overripe and smashed open, the tomatoes punctured and the prunes bruised. Let alone not yet having the vocabulary to tell them I want just one vine of tomatoes, not a whole basket, etc. When they don’t allow us to pick up the food, I don’t have the opportunity to select 4 nice tomatoes and gently place them in a bag to be coddled during my walk home.
Yearning for good seafood, I found the fish booths down at the very end of the street. (Maybe other vendors don’t like the smell at the end of a hot day so the fish vendors are ostracized.) But I don’t recognize any of the fish, (only the shrimp, octopus and squid). I don’t have a good filet knife in the apartment and I don’t know the flavors of what’s in front of me. (Is it strong and “fishy”?) By this time I was feeling paralysis rather than excitement, so I ordered what the little old lady in front of me ordered: fresh shrimp. I can deal with that for now. I guess that, next time, I’ll just buy myself a fish, drag it home, throw it on the fire and see what it tastes like. (And maybe I should pick up a good filet knife in the meantime!)
I must say that the cheese displays were beyond belief and I finally stopped at one on the side street, not the main drag of the market. This little shop was extensive and more personable and homey. I asked the cheesemonger “which one should I try?” He replied “all of them!”, and we both laughed. He gave me a little sliver of a soft cheese, but it was more mild than I had in mind. He had a huge round of pecorino with several bands of black peppercorns through its middle. He gave me a sliver of that one, and it had power to it. I bought the small wedge that had been sitting waiting for me. He weighed it and said it was 2,40. “2,40?”, I asked, wanting to make sure I heard correctly. “Yes, dear” he said in Italian, and he waited patiently while I squinted at my coins to count out change. I decided, then, to have him slice some bresaola, too.