To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was when I strolled through the grocery store, leisurely, a flâneur shopping for food with nary a care in the world.”
Of course, many cares dominated my life – family, health, concern about the future of the planet.
But grocery shopping, or browsing as I call it now, offered respite from the humdrum world outside. Inside the store, due to a global economy, I could dream of once again sitting in a bistro in Annecy, eating cheese from a mountain village, said cheese for sale at the cheese counter. Plantains for tostones? No problem. And butter churned in Ireland, wine pressed in Italy or Chile. Of course.
My mouth traveled the world, in other words.
A cook’s paradise. The American grocery store. It really is. I know. I used to come back to U.S. on R&R from our many long-term overseas assignments and just stand there in the aisles of a grocery store, marveling at the bounty. Such a contrast to the places I called home at the time.
I never lost that awe, even after we returned to the U.S. for good.
The average grocery still inspires that awe, even now, thanks to all the amazing and brave souls working to keep the rest of us fed as we stare into the abyss of COVID-19.*
But now it’s just not the same.
There’s no olive bar anymore. No salad bar, either. The coffee-guzzling crowd must buy their lattes to go. No sitting down for those long, drawn-out chats.
Now I rush through the aisles, sticking strictly to my imperfect list, dodging the maskless – though there are fewer of those recalcitrants – and punching the keypad at the checkout with a Clorox wipe clothing my index finger.
In the car, I lunge for the hand sanitizer. Only then do I yank off my mask. I breathe deeply, grateful that I can.
At home, I put the groceries away, wiping down all surfaces with more Clorox wipes. Of course, I’ve forgotten a lot of things, things I easily remembered back when I strolled through all those aisles, on the hunt as it were.
That’s what I miss most on a daily basis. To make like a flâneuse in the grocery store.
And so I pull M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf off my bookshelf, hoping for inspiration from a writer who lived through other challenging and dangerous days.
Hoping to stroll like a flâneur once again.
*Farmers, migrant workers, meat packers, truckers, grocery store clerks and stockers … .