Oh, Odonna, handmaiden to Ceres, goddess of the hearth.
Oh, Odonna, she who urged us to consume five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; who told us the proper temperatures for the insides of our refrigerators (40 degrees) and the insides of our hamburger patties (160 degrees); who smiled down at us from the grocery store wall and whose caring voice came over our radio speakers.
"This is Odonna Mathews," it said, "consumer adviser at Giant. It's back-to-school time. People are thinking about healthy lunches."
And it was, and it was and we were. (Well, actually, we were just thinking about lunches, but Odonna helped us to think about healthy lunches because she sounded so healthy herself, so fresh, so wholesome.)
But now she is no more. The headline of the news release said it all: "Odonna Mathews Selects New Consumer Advisor as She Retires After 33 Years With Giant."
I had a vision of Odonna selecting her replacement the same way one would choose a fresh honeydew melon in the produce department: thumping and squeezing and sniffing.
Or maybe she roamed far and wide like a Buddhist monk searching for a new Dalai Lama: looking for an infant who knew that the key to safe summer picnicking is keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
Odonna was that infant once, when, in 1972, Esther Peterson, Giant's famed first consumer adviser, picked her right out of college at the University of Maryland. When Esther left Giant in 1977 to join the Carter administration, a 27-year-old Odonna took over the top job. For the past three decades, she's urged us to eat smart, and even though we didn't always follow her advice -- somehow we're fatter now than we were then -- we still love her.
And now here she is, sitting across from me in The Post cafeteria along with her replacement, Andrea Astrachan. I hardly know what to say. It's like meeting Elvis. So I start with this one:
Odonna, did you ever sneak into a Safeway to make a quick purchase on the way home from work?
"I never could shop at a competitor," Odonna says, laughing. She admits to checking out the competition and getting funny stares from other shoppers and the occasional hairy eyeball from store managers, but she'd never actually buy anything. "There's enough Giants around," she says. "We have 200 [in the D.C. area], and I've been to every one of them many times."
Odonna's most visible legacy is probably the candy-free checkout aisle in every Giant, something she strong-armed company management into adopting. She said they received only one complaint: from chocolate manufacturers.
She also helped usher in the computerized checkout. It might seem hard to believe now, but people didn't trust it at first, not when they were used to a cashier reading a price tag and, with flying fingers, punching in the cost. Odonna promised that if you were overcharged for something, you'd get that item for free -- and she made sure grease pencils were available if customers wanted to put the price on their can of soup or box of cornflakes themselves.
The Washington area, she said, was one of the few parts of the country that didn't have legislation requiring a price on each item.
"Why was that?" she asks. "Because we had an effective program of communicating the price and the unit price. We always advocated that the unit price is your best money-saving tool."
("The unit price is your best money-saving tool." When Odonna says it, she sounds just like Odonna Mathews!)
Odonna grew up in Arlington and arguably started her relationship with Giant when she was 6 and sat in the audience of the "Pick Temple Show," a kids' cowboy TV show sponsored by the grocery store.
Her hobbies include gardening and reading, and she's gone with her astronomy buff husband to see 10 solar eclipses. "Whenever we've gone to new places -- and he's used to it by now -- we always check out the local supermarket," she says.
Odonna, 55, says she's looking forward to spending more time with her kids, a son in 10th grade and a daughter in 4th.
Andrea, 36, has two kids too: boys ages 2 and 4. She's a sort of local girl, a graduate of Howard University law school who lives in New England. That's where Stop & Shop, the company that merged with Giant in 2004, is headquartered.
Andrea is staying in New England but says she'll make regular trips to the D.C. area. Of course, if she doesn't live here, she probably won't have to put up with something Odonna became accustomed to over the years: people looking in her cart to see what she was buying.
Let's say goodbye to Odonna and hello to Andrea by asking each of them what special dish they're known for making.
"Pesto," says Odonna. "We grow basil, and I always make a bunch of pesto."
Andrea thinks for a second. "What am I known for making? Whatever's easiest!"
She's joking, though she has noticed that whenever there's a big family get-together, her sister-in-law from New Orleans is always asked to make jambalaya and her sister-in-law from the Dominican Republic is always asked to make a traditional rice and bean dish.
"They go, 'Andrea, why don't you make the salad.' I know what you're saying. You're saying I can't cook. And I can cook. I do make a nice salad, with mandarin oranges, raspberry vinaigrette dressing and almonds. And it looks fancy."
"Oh," says Odonna, "my favorite."
My e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.