Friday, April 05, 2019

COLUMN: Groceries

I'm starting to think I'll never get the hang of grocery shopping.

If there's one quick way to make me feel like a kid again, it's stepping into a supermarket. It's not like I gain a youthful pep in my step or lose the grey in my hair. No, it's just that to this day, shopping for groceries makes me feel every ounce as clueless and intimidated as a kid.

Look around the next time you're at the store. And I say "The Store" because my parents always called supermarkets "The Store," as if there were only one. It didn't matter if it was The Eagle Store or The Hy-Vee Store or The A&P Store, it was always just The Store. "I need to go to the store" always meant it was time for groceries.

But next time you're at The Store, take a good look. Everywhere you go, you see people with a purpose. Everyone seems to have a plan and a clear-cut shopping mission. Some folks are efficiently shopping while simultaneously wrangling multiple children. Some are meticulously gathering ingredients for pre-planned menus in their head. Some are sticking precisely to a budget they've allotted for the trip. Everyone is, by and large, cool and collected and there with intent and direction.

And then there's me. I tend to go to the store only after opening the refrigerator for food to discover there IS no food. I walk in aimlessly and just wander aisle-by-aisle, grabbing anything that looks vaguely appealing and leaving with a mis-matched cart full of food that doesn't remotely go together. I never plan meals or watch prices. I'm generally just an idiot.

I have no idea how to tell if produce is fresh or good. Does it pass the color test? Bananas are supposed to be yellow, tomatoes are supposed to be red except when they're supposed to be yellow, peppers can be yellow OR red OR green but it doesn't matter because peppers are icky. I often find myself poking produce because I think that's what you're supposed to do, but I have no idea what I'm poking for. As long as nothing pokes BACK, I'll usually put it in my cart.

No matter what I'm there for, I always end up spending WAY more than I wanted to. Just last week, I went on what I considered to be a pre-planned, mature, smart-shopping mission. I needed cat food, bath soap, toilet paper, and enough food to make a couple lunches and dinners. No problem, right? By the time I got home, I was $100+ in debt and making three trips to the car to lug in groceries that I didn't really need. How does this ALWAYS happen?

Well, having no clue what food I wanted, I just started strolling down the aisles. Ooh, tilapia. I like fish, so let's get that. But then I head down the next aisle and what do I see? Manwich! Man, I haven't had Manwich in forever. And what's this? A papaya marinade? Yes, please. But I'll need some chicken for that. What goes good with chicken? A bag of frozen veggies. Ooh, riced cauliflower and broccoli? I've GOT to try that. Hey, a recipe on the back says I should add some lime juice and parmesan cheese. Sounds good, I just need to go back and buy some, and hey, I'm out of soy sauce, so I should get THAT... and so on and so forth until I have a cart full of nonsense.

Worst of all, I forgot to buy buns, so at some point this week, I'm probably going to be enjoying papaya-marinated chicken with a side spoonful of Manwich. Mmm.

But maybe sometimes it pays to NOT be on a mission at the store. Last week, I was in the dairy section when I noticed a go-getter with purpose approach the yogurt. In one sweeping arm gesture, she professionally knocked about 12 single-serve containers into her cart before scurrying away. Impressive -- or so I thought at first.

I was raised by a loving and incredibly over-protective mother (and who can blame her? Who wouldn't want to overly protect ME? I'm awesome!) My mom introduced me to the culinary arts with lessons that usually had a arcing theme of, "Cooking is rewarding and can be a lot of fun EXCEPT WHEN YOU DO IT WRONG AND IT KILLS YOU." Ergo, I've always been one to meticulously check expiration dates.

Now, I know that some food is good long past its sell-by date, but I don't like to mess around with yogurt. I'm not convinced yogurt isn't just milk that's ALREADY gone bad, so that's an expiration date I pay attention to. Problem is, it's generally easier to find the Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre than the expiration date on a container of yogurt. Still, I'm glad I looked, because as it turned out, that woman on a mission failed -- unless her mission was to take home a dozen yogurts that expired in early February. Eww.

Every time I'm convinced that I'm the world's worst grocery shopper, I get to the checkout and start realizing it's not just me. Now, I'm not the kind of nozy, shallow person who checks out what everybody around me's buying -- except that I AM. Call it my natural inquisitive journalistic instincts, but I STILL wanna know why the guy in front of me bought ONE Twinkie, EIGHT whole pineapples, and a jar of gravy. Was he prepping the world's most lop-sided pineapple upside-down cake? Served with a thirst-quenching glass of gravy? The mind boggles.

Maybe I'm not the only one just winging it at the store. If you're a smart shopper responsible for feeding a small army and you're able to stick to a budget, you have my ultimate respect. I have no idea how you do it. You're also NOT invited to my place for Riced Soy Cauliflower Papaya Manwich Surprise.

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