The woman reached into the display tray marked "mushroom cleaners" and removed a white plastic device, which she proceeded to study. Finally she tucked it discreetly to her side and turned around to her friend. "What," she said with an air of nonchalance, "do you use to clean your mushrooms?"


The woman breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Good," she said. "So do I." And with that the mushroom cleaner went back in the tray.

The Gourmet Giant in McLean, while fast becoming one of the area's most expensive tourist attractions, is not for the faint of heart.

On the day it opened, I decided to stop by on my way to work since I had no intention of buying anything. I had recently discovered a dental bill of some substance that neither my husband (he thought the insurance had) nor I (I thought he had) had paid. Affixed to the bill was a message to "contact us to determine how you plan to take care of this bill." Since I hadn't yet determined how I was going to take care of the bill, I thought it best to determine not to spend money in the Gourmet Giant.

As it turns out, this was no difficult resolve to keep. The parking lot was full, as were all the spaces on side streets and in neighboring shopping centers. I decided to try again on my way home from work, thinking there would surely be parking space since everyone would be home eating dinner. I was right. There was one space.

Everyone else, however, was not home eating. They were all inside the Gourmet Giant.

It did not take a keen observer of mankind to note that by the end of its first day the Gourmet Giant had provided us with something we haven't admitted to having since we separated ourselves from the British: a class system. There was one class of people, known as buyers, who had found something they 1) recognized and 2) could afford. Then there was the other class, known as gawkers, who were easily spotted because we were the ones with the empty carts gawking at 1) the merchandise and 2) the upper class.

I, however, was not content to be a mere gawker. I was in search of green seedless grapes, needed for our Thanksgiving family reunion, yet currently out of season. Here was the Gourmet Giant's chance to show its champagne tastes to a beer budget.

The Calmeria green grapes in the produce section were not labeled as to seed content. I could either betray my ignorance and ask the produce man or pluck a grape and find out for myself. I resolved not to be the first McLean woman caught shoplifting at the Gourmet Giant.

"They have seeds," was the reply. He said seedless green grapes might be coming soon.

From Chile.

I knew right then that removing the seeds from five cups of seedy grapes would be cheaper than buying grapes from Chile. Gawkers think like that.

Last Saturday, a visiting stepson who loves shrimp inspired another attempt at becoming a buyer. One of the store's memorable attractions are the huge red Spanish shrimp at $16.99 a pound. While these were out of the question, I thought there might be some less developed shrimp from somewhere else.

There on a bed of ice was a magnificent display of Ecuadoran shrimp. Needless to say, I know virtually nothing about Ecuadoran shrimp. But these huge shrimp were being sold for a mere $10.99 a pound. Within minutes, I had marshaled all the rationalization I needed: it was cheaper than buying shrimp in a restaurant, we only have shrimp once a year, we only see this stepson once a year, and so on.

Throwing dental bills to the wind, I ordered a pound and a half of Ecuadoran shrimp. Never had I paid so much for shrimp. Never had I had such guilty second thoughts. Finally, the man wrapped up the shrimp, stamped on the price and put the package atop the counter. There was no turning back. I reached up and grabbed my fortune in shrimp, vowing never to tell anyone how much I paid for them. And with that I turned, ready to act like I could afford my purchase.

But that was not to be.

The lady behind me turned out to be the dentist's wife.

The man with her turned out to be the dentist.

To his everlasting credit, he had the good grace not to boom out the obvious question, which was where did I get off plunging on Ecuadoran shrimp when I was behind in my bills to an American dentist.

And I had the good grace not to tell him the check was in the mail.

There are, after all, some things one doesn't discuss at the Gourmet Giant.