Today I spent over an hour and a half at a giant supermarket. Crowded aisles notwithstanding, the decision making was extremely stressful and was the most time-consuming factor leading to the obliteration of my afternoon. Did you know there are at least forty brands of spanish olives available in northern Illinois?
We have all read or heard about the paradox of choice (and I've written on it here), but today I really noticed it at its most paradoxical. I learned from that book about the issue. I learned not to do too much comparing of prices, to "satisfice" and buy what looks good without agonizing over whether it is the perfect choice or the highest value. So I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.
This particular mega-mart is employee owned. It's old fashioned inside, with the shallow carts that old people have to use because they can't bend down to place groceries in a modern deep cart. They don't even accept credit cards. So, for many more reasons, I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.
I was excited to go there. I hadn't been to a large store in months. In good financial times I do all my shopping at Trader Joes. I pick up the things they don't have (i.e. plastic wrap) at Target, but all my food comes from TJ's. They only have about two types or brands of each food. The store is only seven or eight aisles wide, and the products I love are always there. I buy the exact same things every time, and glance at the endcaps for some new ideas and for the new beers.
Indian Dinner = TJ's brand Masala Sauce, Couscous, Garlic Naan, Tofu.
Jewish Dinner = Spinoza Everything Bagels, Cream Cheese, Nova Lox, Latkes.
Snacks = Fage yogurt, Fruit Leathers, Bean Taquitos
Beer = Something different every time, but their selection only spans 12 feet of shelf space.
And so on. It's very easy to shop when you love the food and it's always in the same spot in a tiny little store! Sounds like it may get boring, but for me it doesn't. Eight aisles offer plenty of variety, and the quality is amazing.
Lately, however, I've had to do some shopping at an inferior market -- ALDI. At ALDI the food is not so great. And there are only five aisles. And they only have one of each thing. At first I loved how easy it was to choose, and that they make you bring your own bags. But after a few trips I was beginning to doubt my solemn oath that I would be just fine in a socialist country where the market has only one government issue brick of cheese, bag of rice, etc. I wanted variety!
I pictured myself in Soviet Russia, fighting with very strong women over the last bag of dried milk till Tuesday. Then I pictured myself writing home, begging for a care package of assorted breakfast cereals and a cornucopia of cooking sauces.
It didn't help that last weekend, while I was in Chicago for the Humanities Festival, our professor took my classmate and I to a veritable food-fantasy-land. At Foodlife in Water Tower Place they admit you through a turnstyle and hand you a plastic card -- a golden ticket by golly! Every sub-gourmet dish you can dream of can be found somewhere in that labyrinth of sushi, veggie burgers, Nutella crepes, pumpkin milkshakes, steak soups, flavored teas, and wine. Again I doubted my oath -- capitalism seemed almost acceptable for that hour and a half.
And so, after weeks of "grocery rut" my trip to the unnamed Mega-Mart was with great anticipation. But as I already gave away, it was mostly an hour and a half of staring at ten shelves of olives and winding between stacks of bread in 250 varieties in vain search of a "British Muffin," as they are called at my beloved TJ's.
For a few sublime minutes I relived the euphoria of Foodlife, when in the cereal aisle I found no less that three diverse varities that were wholly new to me. But once I got the shiny boxes home, the feeling passed. I had pictured myself furiously scarfing down a dinner of cereal melange, soymilk and oat squares flying willy nilly. I haven't touched the oaty treasures, and if it is possible to have buyers remorse for a two dollar item, I think I am experiencing it now.
Although, for my $96 and change I did make off with a boatload of food. But not as much as $96 would buy at ALDI. (It would probably fetch one of each item in the store!) So maybe I need to give up my urges for variety. It is expensive and time consuming. Even if our capitalism was doing well, that would mean we had the capital for variety, but certainly not the time.
So later this evening when I picked up a copy of Walden, I started skipping around from chapter to chapter hoping to serendipitously alight on some words of wisdom. Of course it didn't take long.
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
That was exactly what I needed.
I'd better set aside a quarter for the shopping cart. It's back to ALDI next week. And to the seed catalogs in the spring.