Like cooking, grocery shopping is a fairly personal act. The food in our carts isn’t just what we are going to eat this week; it reflects where we live, who we are and who we want to be.
Seem like a stretch? Not to the dozens of readers who reached out after my column about grocery shopping in Boise, Idaho, a few weeks ago. I went to four stores in four days and wrote about how much I enjoy grocery shopping when I travel because it helps me learn about the people and place I’m visiting.
That’s a sentiment that resonated with many of you. When Kathy Genet visits her sister, Julie, in Westfield, N.J., they hit up the Shoprite together. “I point out things she doesn’t even notice anymore,” she writes. “I see all the strange versions of comfort snack food that I am completely unfamiliar with, like (the cream-filled cake rolls) Yodels. But mostly, we laugh over the butcher’s very thick accent when announcing specials over the loudspeaker.”
Diane Axtell of Marble Falls has discovered Wegmans in New York, Coles and Farmer Jack’s in Perth, Australia, and Hy-Vee in Iowa. “I always find something local and/or different when shopping at grocery stores while traveling. One of my favorite things to do!” she wrote.
“Grocery stores are my nirvana,” wrote Corinne Hebda, who has been known to hit up three grocery stores in one evening with her supermarket-loving husband.
Hebda first discovered Trader Joe’s while visiting her sister in Southern California. She always makes a point to stop by Whole Foods wherever she travels. However, no store compares to one particular supermarket on the Texas coast.
“One of my very favorite grocery stores, not for the awesome selection, is the IGA in Port Aransas, because Port A is my happy place,” she says. “It also brings me back to a time and a place of the smaller grocery stores I remember from my childhood in Chicago.” After reading my column, she says there might be a trip to Dallas in the future to visit one of the WinCo stores in that area.
Sue Lindsay, a fellow self-described “grocery nut,” loves Sendik’s near her hometown of Racine, Wisc., and a little Italian neighborhood store called Tenuta’s in nearby Kenosha, which she remembers visiting as a kid — and it was a big deal to drive from Racine to Kenosha, just 10 miles away.
Anne Jordan, a former Boise resident, reminded me of the city’s thriving co-op, a store I have visited in the past but not recently. Like Wheatsville here, the Boise Co-op is a community-owned natural foods store with a ton of prepared foods and specialty goods that has been around since the 1970s. It has opened a second store, just as Wheatsville did a few years ago — an indication of a growing interest in cooperatively owned businesses and the natural foods industry.
WinCo is a store that Boomer Anderson misses from his California days. Both Anderson and fellow Central Texan Mike Smith wondered why stores like WinCo and Publix haven’t entered the Austin market. They both came to the same conclusion: H-E-B.
Julia Gibson expressed her frustration that there are so many H-E-B stores in Round Rock, where she has lived for six years. She misses Giant Foods in Virginia and Publix in Florida — “Now THAT is a grocery store to get euphoric about!” — but mostly she wishes that she could persuade her nearby H-E-B to carry some of the East Coast products she can’t find here, like cans of East Point shrimp or Quaker’s Red Eye Gravy & Country Ham grits. “Never have I ever had to order cases of grocery items by mail (until) now.”
Marcia Kaylakie encouraged me to have another look at Randalls, a store I threw shade at in that column. I find the prices too high and selection too low at the Randalls I have shopped at, but I do find myself there in a pinch from time to time. Kaylakie says she enjoys the nicely maintained stores, friendly staff and how easy it is to get in and out of the market, especially when she only needs one or two items. “They also now carry Dietz and Watson meats and cheeses, which I enjoyed growing up back east,” she writes.
Audrey Arechiga-Kajs in Round Rock wrote a letter about her love of grocery stores that made me cry at my desk.
Her dad worked in grocery stores his entire life, starting at his parents’ little store in Harlingen in the 1950s and eventually becoming a meat merchandizer for Safeway in Houston. During his meat-cutting years, he let 12-year-old Audrey help him by wrapping meat for customers. She learned how to identify cuts and freshness of meat working informally with him and ended up earning her first paycheck as the greeter at a new store that opened. (She bought a Texas Instruments TI-31 calculator with it, she recalls.)
“I find a lot of comfort in going to grocery stores,” she writes. “It has always seemed like something I can control and reminds me of those times with him. When he died in 2008, I burst into tears my first time at our H-E-B when I realized I had a question about what roast I needed to look for and didn’t have him (around) to ask.”
As a longtime grocery fanatic, she always shops at supermarkets when she travels, from London to California and everywhere in between. “My husband accuses me of needing to find a grocery store wherever we go, and he is probably right. To me it is like seeing into the window of the people who live there.”
Isn’t that the point of traveling in the first place? To see how other people live? To get a sense of what life looks like outside our own little bubbles? It thrills me to hear that so many of you soak up these experiences and find so much joy in walking the aisles of an unfamiliar market. The challenge shifts: How do we see the stores we shop in all the time with new eyes?
Thank you so much for sharing your stories with me. Feel free to call or email anytime with your own grocery discoveries, both near and far. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-912-2504.