My mom would disappear for hours on a Sunday, usually in the afternoon, and then she’d storm through the door after sundown carrying a load of bags under each arm. She grocery shopped on Sundays. It was during what little time she wasn’t at work and I know she always felt that it was her personal relaxation time. My mom was an expert maker of lists, but she usually left a little wiggle room in the budget for things at the grocery store that just caught her attention on the spot. Roaming the aisles is why shopping took so long, despite the constant referencing of the list. My mom spent many years as a chef and hanging out with her in our home kitchen was certainly one of the most influential threads of my young life.
As a tiny kid, my job was to help unpack the grocery bags when mom came home and if I knew the proper place of something in the pantry, I could take the new purchase and put it in its proper place. Eventually, I passed enough knowledge tests to upgrade to fridge duty. Simultaneously, I was studying to come along on the ride for the big Sunday grocery run. I learned when to sit quietly in the cart and when to work on my negotiation skills. Then I got to walk alongside the cart and graduated to pushing it as soon as I could see over the top of it. Eventually, I could be sent on small missions for two cans of chicken broth or a six-pack of mac ’n’ cheese. Years later, she taught me how to pick out vegetables and rifle through sale bins at the meat department.
She was no great adherent to recipes, though we did have several fat cookbooks. My mom would glance at the instructions and then do it her own way, a counterbalance to her professional life making massive pans of standardized tiramisu. This slightly slower, more louche approach to cooking is what created space for improvisation at the supermarket. Sure, the list said we were having potroast on Tuesday. But who knows whether it’d have sweet potatoes or yellow potatoes until we got down into the produce aisles to see what’s what. When my mom first began showing she trusted me to make these momentous decisions without her standing by, she simultaneously began teaching me how to do things in the kitchen rather than just using me as a prep cook.
I think most people have strong sense-memories tied to the kitchens of their youth, but we ought to think through those memories root and branch for how they educated us, because I suspect many people will recognize that going grocery shopping is one of the earliest forms of schooling we experience. My mom would always thank the baggers, but she would especially compliment those who had what she considered to be expert bagging skills. Learning how to stack cereal boxes and protect the eggs ultimately led me to be a fierce competitor at Tetris. Learning the pros and cons of brand names versus generic items made me an astute observer of human nature. It was at the grocery store that I first encountered a developmentally disabled person and it was in a grocery store that I first heard ’80s new wave music.
In 1958, Gaston Bachelard wrote an excellent book, The Poetics of Space. He argued that the human mind processes architecture as a lived experience. If we engage buildings as emotional phenomena — and of course we do — then the makers of supermarkets should design their stores with due consideration to this form of spatial awareness. Granted, a supermarket can be full of some truly lovely efficiencies of time; the way the roll of plastic bags is hanging right there by the veggies, the rise of self-check-out, the breadth and depth of aisles, the cart return in the parking lot, and so on.
But why would you go to the grocery store at all, if time management is of greater importance? These days I mosey around the store, just like my mom taught me. This sometimes annoys people who quickly swing around my loitering, their express basket in one hand and flailing cellphone in the other. I actually get about 80 percent of my grocery needs delivered directly to my door these days. It’s so efficient. I put stuff in an online cart, pay up, then somebody else faces any hassle and hustle while I sit around reading another book. Between personal shoppers and local farmer’s market co-ops, do we ever really need to enter a supermarket again? Yes, we do — for the 20 percent of our groceries that spark joy and take root as a form of pathos.
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That’s why I’m skeptical about Amazon’s Go idea. The store with no lines and no checkout has one location, launched in Seattle, of course, so let’s not kid ourselves by talking about food deserts or white technology privilege or anything too hypocritical. Parents of Seattle, I ask you: why would you deprive your kids of the chance to grow up waiting patiently in line and interacting with other humans, just like you did? Yes, they can pick up these skills elsewhere. But don’t you kind of love the grocery store?
This is the brick and mortar argument for any and every industry, isn’t it? Don’t let Amazon deprive your neighborhood of an independent book store and record store, except the argument doesn’t quite work in reverse. Amazon’s Go actually respects the utility of brick and mortar stores because of the challenge of refrigeration in the delivery business, and then also because big data no doubt shows that supermarkets can maximize spontaneous consumption in a way online shopping doesn’t. So Amazon is willing to keep most of its business in digital space while dipping this toe of Go into actual physical space, except it neglects half the joys of experiencing that space.
By eliminating the need to interact with other people at the store and by removing any barriers to exiting quickly, Amazon is hacking away at the poetics of supermarkets. When I was in seventh grade, I got to go on the turkey run. My mom had agreed to host our giant family Thanksgiving that year, and her time would be so consumed with cooking everything that she even prevailed upon my father to spring for a cleaning lady to come and keep my mom from double duty. We needed two carts, and we left extra early to beat the rush and get the best bird they had. Despite our preparations, the store was swarmed by a rush of other families who were also trying to beat the rush.
My mom was a model of graciousness and patience that day, as we waiting in line at the checkout for a thousand hours while an old woman in front of us counted out her pennies to the tune of over 300 (or so it seemed). That day, I learned to put all the cold items in one corner of the cart with the frozen items on top of anything that won’t get smushed, to keep everything the right temperature. When we finally got our turn at the register, the cashier rolled her eyes at the back of the exiting snail, then winked and smiled at me. She had purple eye shadow and her name tag said Carlotta on it. I don’t know why I remember that. It was a good moment.