Yesterday, K and I drove to a neighboring town 20 minutes away on a grocery run. We first stopped at Aldi for the bulk of the items on our list, but needed a couple of things only available at another, much larger supermarket. “You grab the cat food,” I said as we passed through the automatic doors with all the determination of Henry V rushing into the breach at Agincourt, “I’ll find the greens, and we’ll meet back at the self-checkout.” He went left, plunging into the labyrinth of shelves in search of the pet food aisle, and I went right, into the produce section.
And, like a traveler wandering into fairy land, I completely lost myself and all track of time, utterly overwhelmed by a wall of green. There was iceberg, and Romaine, and red Romaine, and radicchio, and arugula, and spinach, and baby spinach, and mesclun, and something called “spring mix,” and about a thousand other varieties and combinations from which to choose – and there were multiples of all of those varieties and combinations, offered by different companies, and all of it encased in plastic bags or clamshell boxes, like jewelry. I finally selected a bag of baby arugula from the salad monolith, mostly just to break the spell and retreat, but I felt a nagging uncertainty about my choice.
Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to make my mother’s recipe (it was everyone’s mother’s recipe, really, during the Seventies and Eighties) for tuna noodles. But this required me to purchase a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup – something I hadn’t bought in years. So I drove to the supermarket, found the canned soup aisle, and instantly found myself in that same state of paralysis. The wall of soup was higher than my head and reached several yards out on either side of me, and while I saw cream of mushroom soup with roasted garlic, and cream of mushroom soup containing 25% less sodium, and 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup, and “Healthy Request” cream of mushroom soup (is that low sodium AND fat free?), and “Ready to Serve Low Sodium” cream of mushroom soup (how is it any more “ready to serve” than any other canned soup? does it generate its own heat?), and cream of both mushroom and chicken mixed together (what unholy alliance is this?!), I could not for the life of me locate a can of simple, basic, cream of mushroom soup – an item that used to be a pantry staple. After what seemed like an eternity of fruitless searching, I finally located my quarry, down near my feet on the very bottom shelf, almost as though they didn’t really want me to find it at all.
When I finally shouldered and elbowed and minced and wove my way through the throng of carts and bodies to reach the self-checkout area, K was waiting for me, looking dazed. We quickly scanned our purchases and practically ran for the exit. Back in the car, still staring into the middle distance, he said, “You know, I now understand why some old people get to the point where they never want to leave their houses.”
I knew exactly what he meant.
If you set out to create an experience specifically designed to induce anxiety, you could not do better than the modern supermarket. Firstly, they are enormous. You can wander for days, searching for basic things – and they always put the bread and milk in the furthest reaches of their cavernous spaces, forcing you to trudge through miles of snack foods and assorted plastic junk to find them. Secondly, the amount of visual stimuli is overwhelming: a cacophony of brightly colored advertising signage, stickers, blinking lights, special offers (but read the fine print – which I am less and less able to do these days, even with my reading glasses). Everything is vying for your attention all at once. The modern supermarket bombards its customers with so much choice and visual noise that it’s frankly a wonder anybody ever finds anything. By the time I’m done with my weekly shop, all I want to do is go home and crawl into bed with the lights off and the covers pulled up over my head. Forget putting things away, much less cooking. I’m exhausted.
And I’m only 48, and in relatively good health. I cannot imagine how it will feel in 20 years. Oh wait – yes I can.
A decade ago, when we suddenly found ourselves in dire need of belt tightening, one money blogger advised that in order to save on groceries, I should pore over the various supermarket sale circulars that arrived weekly in our mailbox, compare prices and make notations of what stores had the best prices on various items, and then comprise my shopping list by store. So I might drive to one supermarket for, say, canned tuna and pasta, and another for milk and lunch meat, and yet another for oranges and bread, etc. At the time, I did not question this advice. For me the bottom line was, well, the bottom line: the total of my grocery receipt. It did not occur to me then to factor in other things, like the price of the gasoline I was using to drive all over town to save ten cents here or fifty cents there, or the inordinate amount of time all this took.
Today, there are so many other factors to consider besides price: pesticide residue, carbon footprints, packaging, plastics, supporting local farms, and the ethical treatment of animals – and that’s before you even broach the topics of gluten, or sugar, or industrial processing.
So K and I discussed all of this on the drive home, and came up with a solution to simplify our shopping, minimize our choices, save a little money, and preserve a bit of our sanity while still broadly supporting our values. We’ll buy our fresh produce, eggs, and dairy from weekend farmers markets and from farm stands located along our work commutes. We will continue to forage for wild greens and mushrooms in season, preserving as much as we can for the winter months. We will buy our canned goods and pantry staples at Aldi (smaller stores, less crowded, less choice, less visual noise, good prices, bring your own bags, and no loyalty cards to sign up for). We will order any vitamin supplements or over-the-counter medications from Amazon (I suggested K try this and he’s still thanking me). And if I must venture into the awful uber-mega-supermarket, I’ll do so early in the morning when it’s less crowded, and buy a month’s worth of whatever we need from there at a time.
Are these choices perfect? Of course not. They are not, in every instance, the least expensive. They are not always (or even usually) carbon neutral. They sometimes involve plastics, and buying processed foods from huge multinational companies. But they’re good enough for us, in our personal circumstances, at this particular stage of our lives. Because never leaving the house simply isn’t an option for us, and neither is producing all our own food. This is the best we can do, for us, for now.
What choices have you made to preserve your sanity in a world of endless choice?