In the United States, we waste up to 40 percent of the food we produce, and a sizable chunk of that comes from people throwing away spoiled food, which, in landfills, releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Planning ahead might be good for retirement, but not for food shopping. How do you know what you’re going to feel like eating for dinner next Thursday night? What if you end up working late? Or your kid’s soccer game goes long and you stop for pizza on the way home? There goes the graying ground meat you planned to use tonight. By shopping daily, I throw away almost nothing, and I get to eat exactly what I want every day.
But I don’t shop daily to save the environment: I do it because I can’t help myself. Shopping fills some deep Maslovian void in me.
I wasn’t always an avid grocery shopper. Until my wife and I blended our families in 1997, it was just another weekly chore. Suddenly there were five kids to feed. Nothing was safe. They were like termites, eating through cupboards and boxes and bags. They could consume two or three days’ worth of food in hours, especially if they all had friends over. So I started shopping each morning after dropping the kids off at school, buying just what we needed for that 24-hour period. I figured if they wiped us out, we only had to survive until tomorrow.
What began as a budgetary move soon became a way of life. Daily ritual is how we make the profane sacred. On the days when I eat out with friends, and don’t shop or make dinner, I feel a bit empty. I miss the baskets of dragon fruit and litchis at the Asian market near my office. I miss the bright abundance of my neighborhood grocer.
During my forays, which I now squeeze in on the way home from work or during lunch breaks, I watch people stuff their shopping carts with what looks like two weeks’ worth of provisions. A pound of spring mix in a plastic container the size of a small suitcase. Bags full of peaches that will certainly go bad or worse, never ripen. I feel sorry for them — mixed with a healthy dose of disdain. I can point out things that will end up in the garbage, like that 16-ounce tub of mushrooms: They’ll use half of it, put the survivors back in the fridge and then throw the slimy things out a week later. I want to tell them, “Better to buy a few ounces of bulk mushrooms the day you need them.” (Yes, I am insufferable.)
At times when money was tight, finding just the right tomatoes to make an inexpensive pasta dish shine made me feel like a good provider. These days, shopping provides a daily dose of meditation. I don’t shop so much as search. That’s a better way to describe the existential nature of my yearning. If I need an avocado for tonight’s dinner, I’m willing to go to five stores for a ripe one. An avocado has a window of about six hours when it’s perfect, when the skin gives just a bit but bounces back, and the fruit inside is a sublime shade of lemon-yellow-green. I never buy an avocado unripe and wait; I find the one I want when I want it. And when I need feta cheese, I don’t get the prepackaged crumbles at the grocery store; I go to the Lebanese store and get sheep feta in brine, hand-cut from a large brick. Convenient, no. Essential, yes.
Some people think I’m crazy. My wife isn’t one of them. Why? Because she hasn’t been in a supermarket in years. And she hasn’t cooked dinner since the first Bush administration. She misses me a bit on Saturdays when I’m doing my United Nations tour of food shops: kaffir lime leaves at my favorite Asian store, a giant bag of cumin seeds for just $3.99 at the Indian American grocery or fennel salami at Gallucci’s. At least, that’s what she says, as she hands me a list of things to pick up.
Now that my kids are grown and out of the house, shopping like a normal person would put several more hours back in my week. But what would I do with all that time? Probably what most Americans have done with the extra time that progress has granted us over the years: work more. I’d rather put on my “out of office” message and get lost in an aisle of bins filled with cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks. That’s my happy place.