I don’t quite understand the business of selling food, having only been involved in preparing and serving, being a consumer.
Cans in the grocery store are aligned. They read “tomatoes tomatoes tomatoes.” Cans are the typical grocery, as in THE JUNGLE or CANNERY ROW, although they’re not widely used anymore. We have refrigerators. There are different kinds of plum tomatoes, such as “Italian” with a soggy basil leaf and a more appealing label. Then there are different textures, puree, chopped, condensed (paste). There are different brands. Different brands and sizes have different prices and often the difference will be advertising, although sometimes it will be quality. While during the summer you can get as many as ten pounds for a dollar at my favorite market, fresh tomatoes in general are three times more expensive than canned.
You can make a brilliant sauce with fresh tomatoes and hours and hours of simmering. The simmering is in our kitchen, which has its original 1940s appliances, including live gas jets. I imagine us sitting in sticky white cotton clothes in a metal folding chair in the yard, like someone’s grandmother might have done, then coming in to the sweltering kitchen to stir the sauce. To me, to metal folding chair is contentment, which (according to the Catholic definition) means not seeking further pleasure. It means not seeking air conditioning in a movie theatre on a sweltering day, or newer appliances. Contentment is a very status quo virtue. All our grandmothers are or were Catholic. Ron’s grandmother sieves her sauce to get the same silky texture store-bought sauce had in the 1950s. Now it is all “chunky” and “garden style” and store bought isn’t a virtue, but a sign of laziness or some sort of fault in contentment which might lead one not to have metal folding chairs in the back yard.
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There are all types of non-grocery items in the grocery store. Each time I look at the t-shirts and shorts in the “holiday” aisle, I think of a movie with criminals on the run, characters with no time for laundry or aesthetic shopping. They are arrested looking like tourists, since outlawry’s transformation is removal from society, the place we move through every day.
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My Dad ran the errands and he always called them “adventures” to get us to go happily. They were adventures. Anyway, Mom would also threaten us with yard work if we stayed. This was before ATMs and “Open 24 Hours.” We would cash checks at the grocery store. There were very long lines. The stores closed early and very little was open at night or on Sunday afternoon due to blue laws, even though we were not living in New England.
A friend of the family works with very poor women, and obesity can be like alcoholism for people who don’t take intoxicants. A woman bought flats of Hershey’s syrup cans and would gulp the chocolate when she was depressed or despairing and needed a lift (sugar high?).
I go to a warehouse grocery store called “Smart & Final” for some items and ran into a friend who was doing some sort of research for his book. He said so there are real people who go to these things. I showed him my bargain prosciutto. I don’t have a home slicer, but some recipes call for chopped prosciutto. His book is about growing up fat. When the first warehouse store opened, it was also the first local 24-hour grocery store, it was called Tolly’s and was in a series of Quonset huts by a railroad crossing. My Dad and I went there on a Friday night when I was too young to go anywhere exciting. Very fat people were there, moving slowly on their painfully aching ankles and feet, with their stuffed carts, each person with more than one of them.
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My Dad was a city councilman, and I didn’t realize until I went to summer camp for one hellish week of record freezing temperatures in August in Illinois that all the stores we went to while running errands were local, family-owned stores, and that this was unusual. A girl tried to give me attitude about her jeans coming from Target and where were mine from, “Applebaum’s”? Then I realized it really wouldn’t even be worth talking to her. The errands were for much more than buying groceries. The bread or cookies had to come from Van Zetti’s Bakery, where they gave us free samples and let us see the girl decorating birthday cakes in the back, not because the grocery store’s sheet cakes with half-inch think frosting and machine-stamped decorations, the dyed carnations of cakes, were nasty, but because a good bakery in a small town is a rare and beautiful thing. A life which includes going to such a bakery is a way of contentment unavailable outside larger cities, now. Having this path available is the reason my sister and I now prefer cities.
Author: Catherine Daly is a poet living in Los Angeles, where she teaches at UCLA Extension and has a software development company; she still eats sugar and white flour.