Not long ago I sent my husband to the grocery store for a loaf of bread. He came back with an electric waffle iron, dehydrated Oriental crayfish and something called yogurt balls.
"The new Safeway is terrific," he said.
For Northwest Washingtonians, there used to be only one Safeway -- the Wisconsin Avenue store just above Georgetown. Though it often meant long waits in the checkout lines, the lithe men and women in designer tennis wear who hopped out of silver BMWs wouldn't have thought of shopping anywhere else. This was no ordinary supermarket, but the Social Safeway, where upwardly mobile young professionals picked up each other along with their kiwi fruit.
Then last May they tore down the Social Safeway to make way for the Super Safeway -- 45,622 sq. ft. with a pharmacy, florist shop, cheese pavilion, deli and appliance center. And to hear regular customers of the old store tell it, the world is no longer going to hell in a hand basket; it's going to hell in oversized shopping carts, roomy enough to contain the television sets, stereos, blenders and slide projectors which line the shelves of the new store like so many boxes of corn flakes.
The Social Safeway -- supermarket of Nancy Kissinger, Barbara Howar and Elizabeth Taylor Warner's maid -- has been turned into a miniature K-Mart. It's a little bit of Marlow Heights right there in Georgetown -- a great big, gaudy, simulated-wood-paneled-station-wagon-of-a-grocery store smack in the middle of a community of Volvos.
When I wrote an article about the Social Safeway in 1973, I studied the opening gambits of singles who hoped to find love among the produce, "If you were buying ----, what kind would you buy?" was a favorite male conversation starter, allowing a woman to rise to the occasion with maternal advice about nitrite-free hot dogs and do-it-yourself cake mixes. Now, in the Super Safeway, there is a section for contraceptives, not your most comfortable conversation opener. And you would have to be part dowser and part chemist to advise anyone on the water selection. There are nine -- count 'em -- kinds of bottled water: Peter Vals (from the mountains of the Black Forest), Evian (from the Alps near Mont Blanc), Apollinaris (the Queen of Table Waters), Celestins Vichy (from the springs of Vichy), White Rock (from Simpson Spring, Mass.), Poland Spring (bottled just as it flows through Maine deep granite), Blue Ridge, Deer Park and of course, the ubiiquitous Perrier.
The function of a supermarket is not to provide a meeting place for people, of course, though in the old days that was a nice by-product of mom and pop stores. The subject is food, and no one can deny that the Super Safeway delivers. Still, the bakery department isn't going to threaten the Watergate Pastry Shop, the plastic-wrapped seafood won't lure many customers from Cannon's, and Wagshall's needn't worry about competition from the deli. Diversity, not excellence, reigns.
As for the section of the Super Safeway that sells Zenith stereos, towels, dresses, Timex watches and waffle irons, my guess is that the impulse spending of this upscale neighborhood runs more along the lines of Bloomingdale's designer sheets, Cartier watches and Bang & Olufsen stereo components.
There's a rumor circulating that when the Safeway folks surveyed shoppers at the Social Safeway to see if the locals wanted a new, larger, more modern store, the answer was a resounding "no." Not so, says Safeway public relations man Larry Johnson. Progress, Johnson says, won two-to-one.
And progress will probably mean that Safeway shareholders will make out just fine with this new store. The bigger shopping carts make modest purchases appear puny. The scanning machines that read those black and white line grids on packages eliminate the lines -- and conversations -- at the checkout counters. And some people -- like my husband -- become drunk with diversity -- and spend four times more than they intended.
The day of his first visit to the Super Safeway, my husband announced that he would prepare lunch -- another first. Following instructions on the box of dehydrated shrimp, he soaked the little fellas in some wine, sstirred them into a bowl of sour cream, then grandly poured the mixture over a batch of waffles.A garnish of yogurt balls followed. He called this Waffles Orientale.
To me, this new dish had something in common with progress: It sounded much better than it was.