The other night, Dad took me to the grocery store. We needed three more boxes of mint and double stuffed Oreos to make our chocolate covered Christmas Oreos, the deadliest snack I have yet discovered (after raw cookie dough, of course). He volunteered both himself and me for the job. Reasons #1 was that he wanted those Oreos. Reason #2 is that he only goes when he has other food he wants to eat himself but wouldn't ask for on Mom's weekly grocery list. So he volunteered and took me too. I went when he asked because I know that if he goes, I'm guaranteed to score of some of my own favorite foods. When Isaac goes, this means chocolate milk and gummy bears. My own tastes are a little different.
The store was pretty busy, which makes sense for post dinnertime and right before Christmas. It felt much later with the sun being gone and the Sweet lights already up and going. I was instantly lost though when I realized that the store was switched from the Giant in State College. I couldn't find anything. So I stuck with Dad. He got his favorite bagels and grape juice. I also scored some favorites, ones that I've started getting frequently at school but only recently. I realized that my tastes have subtly shifted since I started having to buy my own food, though what these new tastes mean, I don't really know. I put a quality container of feta cheese in our cart, recently frustrated by the lack of flavor provided by Colby and Monterrey jack Giant brand cheese. I found the shelf of hummus and picked my favorite pita chips to go with it. When Dad made sure to get his peach tea and red grape juice, I pulled a jug of pomegranate and cranberry juice. Since when did I start liking pomegranate anything? And, of course, we got our Oreos.
The grocery store has a long history in the memories of most middle class American children. I remember the delight of fitting in the basket and being surrounded by food, or riding under the cart on my belly. Hannah cut her finger on the wheel one day and Mom left the groceries in the cart, purchased, and rushed to the car to get it taken care of. I remember the bright colors of Trix for Kids boxes, desperate to have a taste after the flashy (for the time) TV commercials on PBS kids. And grocery stores are just so brightly colored and fun to run around in. There are few things more enjoyable than wandering around Wegman's, on any occasion. Grocery stores always struck me as the perfect place to play hide and go seek. There are no good hiding places, only movement, and the intense moments when you are in the center of an aisle, and anyone could come around the corner and find you. Just imagine the intensity of a game of paintball in those aisles! And as a child, it is so easy to be lost and wander, feeling both safe and at a loss all at the same time. And I wanted to work there. Why is it that children want to work at check out counters? I wanted to work in a grocery store above anything for a while, especially after that kid's discovery place in Vestal, NY that our cousins took us to.
But however much the grocery store was part of my growing up experience, measuring my growth and age by the moment Mom refused to let me stand on the end of the cart, much less ride in it, buying food was never something I thought about as a kid. It was just part of life like cleaning was. If I was lucky, it was something Mom did on her own and we simply helped unload the van. It didn't involve choice exactly. The Ray family choices were as inevitable as the fact that I would hate meatloaf from day one through the present. Unchangeable.
Moving off campus changed that for me. I had to buy food. I had to think about what I was going to get and when I was going to get it and what I was going to make with it. Oh, and how much it was going to cost. It made my head hurt a little bit. I started practicing this summer but depended on the glorious Jillian and Jon to find and create our dinners. But I did pretty well at figuring out what I needed and eating it.
India incapacitated me. Completely. I couldn't figure out how to get the store. I couldn't even imagine trying to choose food and make things. I ate food for nearly a week by what came to me: left over pizza at first club meetings, my friend's canned soup, the crackers I had left from my India stash. I wasn't sleeping well. Maybe I was, but I only remember exhaustion and an intense feeling of constant awareness and wakefulness. And growing head aches. And no food.
Maybe it was the choices I would have to make that kept me from figuring out a way to get more food. Maybe it was the abundance of choices. Maybe it as the fact that there was no way to even find something like a grocery store in India, that I had lived off of whatever food Sambia had decided to give us each day (like pomegranates. That must have been where I started like them), and the sheer abundance of it in comparison to... well to... come to think of it, I didn't have a single meal in someone's home. I ate at HOINA or in a hotel restaurant, more aimed at wealthier Indians and tourists than at the average Joe (though they don't have Joes in India). I don't think I ever saw people eating. I saw the market when Prasad let me accompany him. But I didn't see people eating outside of meal times on campus.
And after that, I couldn't think to get more food than the crackers that were right there to eat.
It was Kate who saved me, who said she would come and show me how to grocery shop. I still can't understand coupons, or at least haven't the capacity yet in my mind for keeping them sorted or for using them in time. Kate understood and just knowing that she did was enough to assure me that I and my empty belly would be safe in her hands. She walked me through how to pick breakfast foods and how many days I would eat lunch on campus, what is easy to pack, what foods I'd be willing to eat many days in a row, and how to tell what average prices usually are and why chicken should only be bought when under $3 a pound. I still haven't bought any meat after she told me that. "Accidental vegitarian" I call it. A few days later, I made my first attempt at rice and burned it to high heaven, but at least I had rice, and more than enough to try again and play with flavoring and find ways to eat. Kate showed me how to boil the rice in chicken broth and stir fry peppers and olive oil and garlic to add to it. Oh, and that feta cheese I've fallen in love with and couldn't do without for the two weeks I'm home.
There is something slightly sinister though about grocery stores that I haven't really pin pointed. It's been there since India. It may have something to do with the sheer abundance of it. With the free choices presented, with the ability to have a desire and for it to be met in a short drive. It is also a way to expand beyond the known, but it rarely happens. It is easier to check the spots on the shelf where the usual cereal hangs out, get a box, and go. It becomes routine sameness. Living with Maggie and Sarah, and with Kate's initial help, I found a different set of foods to eat and enjoy, foods that can be made for just one person. I tried making things I'd never eaten. And I learned that leaving extra cookies, cake, and soup on the boy's counter next door made food making extra satisfying. After the first cracker fiasco, I ended up eating really well this semester. And I'm grateful. I'm grateful to know that I can make a mean eggplant parmesan and that I can make satisfying pasta without spaghetti sauce. I'm grateful to watch the people around me cook. I'm grateful for the many who drove me to stores so I could buy food this semester and crafted a more watchful relationship with food shopping.
But something still feels unresolved.