The Art of Grocery Shopping

01 May 2016
May 1, 2016

Growing up, my family’s grocery shopping was always a major event, something I was forced to endure on a weekly basis. Every Saturday morning my father would comb the newspaper ads for specials. Like the true engineer he was, he mapped his shopping trajectory based on which stores had what deals. We spent the better part of our Saturday going from one market to the next –often four or more. I pushed the cart while he consulted his list. This was not quality father-son time.

With a childhood like that, my grocery shopping has morphed into something less time-consuming. And, my wife and I split the chore. She makes the list and I go to Trader Joe’s, where as they say, everything is a special. But, like my father, I am efficient. I have created a shopping list template for my wife listing the placement of every item in the exact order of my trail through the grocery aisles. I want to get in and out as fast as I can.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed her list has become more a mix between a crossword puzzle, a rebus, and a scavenger hunt. A few weeks back, I got to my last stop in frozen foods where she told me to buy some “Chicken Tenders.” Chicken tenders? We haven’t bought those since my youngest was four. Now that we’re virtual empty nesters (my oldest is in college and my high school senior refuses to eat with us), I couldn’t imagine any recipe we would make that called for processed meat nuggets.

Over the years, I’ve grown to know the people who work at my local Trader Joe’s. We kibitz, we joke, and I complain about their penchant for moving things around without telling me (thus making my ordered shopping list obsolete). So, I stopped George as he walked by. “What do you think this means?” I asked, pointing to my wife’s notation. He stopped to consider my problem. “Does she mean chicken tenderloins?” Yeah, we eat those all the time. That’s what she meant. But, why would she write tenders instead of tenderloins when I could so easily get confused? When I got home I asked her. “Oh, I knew you’d know what I meant.” Really?

My wife's puzzling shopping list

My wife’s list started to become more abstract.

A few weeks later the list told me to buy “1 Unforgetable cheese.” I knew what that meant. Trader Joe’s makes a cheddar cheese that has a hint of Parmesan. It’s tasty and cheap. But, it’s called “Unexpected Cheddar Cheese.” The taste is unforgettable, although, apparently its name is not. I felt triumphant. I had deciphered her code and I didn’t even have to ask for help! But my victory was short-lived. Two lines down was this cryptic item: “round brownish wheat” with an accompanying illustration. Was that a tortilla? Tortillas are right next to the cheeses on my route and I often buy the whole-wheat variety. But she already had written tortillas. And then the next item: “New ones you’ve bought (smaller shape).” Sigh. What the hell was she talking about? Did she want crackers? They were on the other side of the cheese. I stood there while multiple clerks offered to help, that is until they saw the list.

Despite my scientific approach to shopping, my wife espoused a more artistic and interpretive way. I feel comfortable with the order of taxonomy. She likes abstract expressionism. I closed my eyes and picked a box. Wait, two boxes. I could have called her but that would have slowed me down. She would just have to live with the consequences of her artistic spirit. But I felt queasy.

My wife's shopping list, a work of art

Rainbow popsicles, indeterminant crackers, and broccoli parts

And then last week came the ultimate in cryptic mind games: a drawing of steps with the word “crackers” at the top. Okay, I figured out the steps. Those must be shelves. But there were a lot of crackers on the top shelf. This was so arcane, once again I was forced to use my lifeline: this time three clerks who had just been told to move all pasta sauce to the next aisle over. “What is this?” I asked, pointing to the drawing. No one knew. We laughed. They showed the list to their coworkers and they laughed. They understood me. Why didn’t my wife?

Discombobulated, I completely lost sight of my task. I was no longer my father’s son. Instead, I had become one of those undisciplined shoppers, grabbing whatever looked good to me. And, worse, I forgot to buy coffee even though it was clearly written on the list.

My wife couldn’t understand how I could forget the coffee.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074