One of my great pleasures is walking the 4-lane aisles of one of our modern-day super markets, without a shopping list or particular objective but filled with a sense of appreciative awe by the near-endless selection of goods available to the shoppers who crowd around me with overflowing carts. I notice few of them even glance at an old-fashioned penciled list, but instead consult a glowing electronic screen on the latest “hand-held device” braced against a box of organic mango-flavored couscous in the child-carrier rack in front of them. Few of them I realize can even conceive of the historic memory-film (black & white) running through my octogenarian brain cells as I take all this in; and thrill, by the way, to the triumph of today’s “horn-of-plenty-like agricultural miracle” and technological transportation and marketing genius so evident in everything I see. Lettuce picked yesterday in California’s Central Valley and raspberries flown in from Chile keep company with Persian melons raised to ripeness by a farm family fifty miles down the freeway from where they are now displayed.
I readily confess to being a dedicated “shopper”; a “kicker of tires” rather than a buyer of things. I enjoy being at that junction where produce and consumer meet as the two have been doing for maybe 8,000 years. I am an inquisitor of quality and a weigher of worth; I like knowing what is available, how good it is and what it is selling for. Whether writing about food and food history or experimenting in my own kitchen, I enjoy feeling connected to that food chain which whispers to me that Bavarian garlic bulbs, cloth-wrapped 7-year old cheddars and balsamic vinegar aged in hard-wood for at least 12 years, raw single-source honey and “first-pressed” estate olive oil from Italy all deserve to be in my pantry.
In a small New Jersey town where my great, great uncle had doubled as U.S. Postmaster and proprietor of the village store for decades, and where we traded at Tony’s Produce and Shuster’s Butcher Shop as I was introduced to the art of “shopping”, I learned the secret behind Tony’s shining red apples and savored the ends of liverwurst, baloney and mortadella Mr. Shuster set aside for “good little boys and girls” in his walk-in cooler as he cut and tied our Sunday English roasts to my mother’s exact and demanding specifications.
In a typical “Mom & Pop” grocery store of the 30s, you would hand the clerk your shopping list and wait while he/or she made the circuit of tall shelves with their long hand-grabber, assembling the collected goods on the counter. Running visually down the finished list they would then calculate the total cost with a pencil pulled from behind one ear. At that point the shopper would count out the money. But not my aunt Molly who would already have added the column in her head, and the fight would begin. Invariably she would be proven correct and I would be embarrassed by the interchange. Of course shopping was different when each Wednesday we took the bus over the bridge to New York City which was another “world” altogether.
In 1933 a former New York Yankee pitcher named Harry Harper bought a massive white brick commercial building in Hackensack, New Jersey, a few miles from our home town, and promptly signed a 99-year lease with prominent businessman and publisher Frank Packard who had a dream. Why not create a huge “super-store” where people could shop for anything they wanted from around the world in one place. Three floors of 50,000 square-feet each were turned into a magic kingdom of products from canned Bengal tiger meat to 140 varieties of honey and exotic packaged goods from around the world. Live monkeys, fur coats and baby carriages shared space with aspirin, canned rattlesnake meat and household furniture. While the huge sign proclaimed the name to be Packard & Bamberger my parents always referred to the institution at which we shopped regularly as Harpers’. To me as a kid it was a wonderland, and I think I became a dedicated shopper then and there. – a lifetime before the first Wal-mart, and the same year a store-owner in Oklahoma named Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart.