Being a food writer, I’ve always kept this dirty little secret to myself, afraid that colleagues and readers would label me as a fraud because I didn’t have one of those pristine, photo-ready pantries stocked with Maldon salt and $18 pickles.
But just because I despise the chore and (gasp!) actually hate to cook doesn’t compromise my taste or make me unqualified to judge the quality of a meal. In fact, who better to critique a chef-prepared dish than someone who eats 600 of them a year?
I should acknowledge that it’s a luxury to be in a position where I can dislike grocery shopping and afford to eat out. I don’t live in a food desert. I’m a single woman with no family to feed, and I have disposable income to spend on dining out. I recognize that these things grant me a level of privilege not everybody experiences.
“We have to appreciate how lucky we are to go grocery shopping every day,” says Michael Ruhlman, author of “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America.” “This is a chore you should say, ‘I know I don’t like it, but I’m very lucky to be able to do it.’ ”
Lucky as I may be, I’m not budging on this.
I thought for sure that I could change my feelings about food shopping and cooking by linking them to things that I actually enjoyed: I’ve volunteered with a number of food-related organizations, including one where I helped children learn how to cook. I’ve also regularly delivered produce to the elderly who could no longer make it to the store. Alas, I’m a grocery Grinch to the end.
My reasons are as varied as your supermarket’s tomato sauce selection: The lack of clocks and mazelike layout lead me to believe whoever designed the store is tricking me. Putting the milk all the way in the back? Nice try. Why make the trek when the coffee shop on my street keeps it right by the door? (In reporting for this story, I’ve learned that grocery stores keep dairy in the back so they can more easily keep it cold off the delivery trucks, but I’m still annoyed.)
Furthermore, stepping foot in a supermarket stokes nearly all of my anxieties: The number of options is crippling for someone who has a hard time making decisions; my internal Peter Pan is appalled that I’m doing something so adult; and as a commitment-phobe, that little bag of baby carrots seems huge when I consider that I’ll be stuck with them until I eat them all (or, more likely, let them rot).
If I dig deeper into my disdain, my upbringing probably has something to do with it. As the child of divorce with a dizzying joint-custody arrangement (Monday I was with Mom, Tuesday I was with Dad, Wednesday I was with Mom . . .), trips to the store were inconsistent and frenzied. My parents went to great lengths to make sure food was on the table every night, but proper meal planning was difficult when they were constantly making sure my bags were packed.
It’s no surprise that this idiosyncrasy has affected my dating life. I tend to gravitate toward men who love to cook for me. Once I stayed too long with a man partly because his pasta e fagioli tasted exactly like my Italian grandfather’s. (Who, by the way, if he were alive, would be mortified to learn that his granddaughter once paid $42 at a restaurant on a plate of spaghetti with clam sauce.)
In discussing my attitude with friends, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. I also learned that a number of them find joy in grocery shopping. My response: Tell me your secret.
Ever helpful, people in both camps have suggested I try alternatives to the typical bricks-and-mortar shop. And believe me, I have.
Take the farmers market. The addition of dogs and free apple samples makes shopping for food slightly more enjoyable, but for me the fun stops there. I can’t get over the fact that a head of lettuce costs $7, or that at 9:30 a.m. the bagel stand is already sold out. I’ve found it impossible to source a week’s worth of food there, partly because the prices are so exorbitant and partly because my abysmal cooking skills are not worthy of such beautiful produce.
I’ve tried same-day grocery delivery services, and while it’s relaxing to shop from home, I’ve had mixed results. Once a store was out of mini gold potatoes, so my proxy purchased two five-pound bags of russet potatoes. (In case you’ve ever wondered, mashed potatoes topped with hash browns eaten with a french fry instead of a fork make for a very filling meal.) Also, because I’m not physically in the store to cruise the aisles, I tend to overlook crucial items, like that time I forgot to request hummus and spent a week dipping vegetables in ketchup (from a packet, naturally).
The closest I’ve ever come to actually enjoying food shopping was at the secret (and very illegal) co-op in my neighborhood. In the basement of someone’s townhouse, it’s much smaller than the typical store, which helps quell a lot of my typical issues. The last time I visited the space — in operation for more than 40 years — one of the workers was sharing photos of her recent trip to Mexico with a customer. The vibe is beyond welcoming; I feel as if I’m among friends.
What’s more, prices are jaw-droppingly low. Because there’s less overhead and the owners work with local growers, organic avocados go for 79 cents and a jar of tahini is $2.13. Who cares that the olive oil is sold in an old peanut butter jar? The Department of Health, I suppose, but we’ll keep this one our little secret.
Grocery stores know that such alternatives are bad for business. In response, operators are coming up with novel ways to make the experience more enjoyable. Last year, a Whole Foods in New York City began offering shoppers a “produce butcher” who chops your fruits and vegetables for you. To cultivate a stress-free environment, another supermarket in Richmond introduced free meditation classes. And an increasing number of shops are building bars into their design to encourage lingering.
“Grocery operators are asking themselves, ‘How can we make it easier for you?’ ” says Rich Majors, chief operating officer at BRR Architecture, which specializes in grocery store retail design. “They’re looking for intriguing ways to turn what was previously a chore into an enjoyable experience.”
Well, I’m not buying it. For me, nothing could be more enjoyable than letting someone else do the shopping — and, while they’re at it, the cooking, too.
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