Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoreau at the Mega-Mart

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.


  1. We just got an ALDI around the corner here. I've been curious about the place, but now I fear to tread there.
    My own personal desire would be to buy as much as possible at well established vegetable stands (I pass a Lewis's right on my way to work every day)and from local meat markets (grocery store meat frightens me) but so far it isn't economically as you hit on the time issue. Raw food must be cooked. So much easier to buy precooked food!
    So right now the best I can do is to get a dozen eggs a week from our seven (R.I.P. No.8) laying hens, and wait for next spring to plant a garden. Then eat squash. Lots, and lots of squash. I guess now I've learned that I should plant several varieties!

  2. I was immediately captured by the title :)

    40 brands of Spanish olives? Really? That seems like a heck of a lot. Being a vegan, I often fall into the category of the beggar. As in beggars can't be choosers. I spend so much time reading labels that the amount of specific products often escapes me.

    I'd love to be able to buy nothing but free trade and organic. Those are usually at the top of my "What to look for aside from the obvious" list. Unfortunately, money often becomes an issue and so I usually have to adjust accordingly. If I lived in a better climate, I'd probably just try to grow my own stuff.

    Your Mega-Mart sounds very similar to a store out here called Tishlers. It used to be this quaint little grocery store. They've moved now, to a bigger space I think. I'm still in shock that there are stores out there that don't accept credit cards.

    Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, the vegan's best friend ;) Trader Joe's is fantastic. I like the atmosphere there and you're right, they don't have an insane amount of products. Did you know there are no TJ's in Miami? I was surprised at that when I visited. Do you get the newsletter they sometimes send out? The one with all the new products?

    You've got quite an imagination. I love how you can think of something like you in Soviet Russia just by going down an aisle in a grocery store.

    Foodlife? I've never heard of that place before. It sounds very Willy Wonka-ish (boy, that was a horrible word to make up). I'm curious about it now. I always love discovering new places...if they're vegan friendly that is.

    We've become so accustomed to choice that it seems we are at times overwhelmed. I can't imagine not having a zillion and one choices. I rarely venture out to shop due to my schedule of write, write, write, sleep, wake up, write. My diet is fairly simple for obvious reasons. Even before I was a vegan, various food allergies put the kibosh on many regular dishes. This is just a very long way of saying that in my experience variety can either aid creativity or hamper it.

    I suppose it's just another case of taking the good with the bad.

    Excellent post!


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