Monday, November 18, 2013

The Grocery Store (and my Thanks-giving)

After living in the Virgin Islands for 2 ½ years, I’m pretty used to most of the challenges and joys of life in the Caribbean.  My longing for a Starbucks coffee (what are they serving now, pumpkin lattes???) and a stateside drugstore has subsided.  In fact, the island just got our very own Wal-greens.  There was a parade for it on opening day.  I’m not kidding.  However, the one thing that I still miss terribly is grocery shopping in the states, and with the biggest eating holiday right around the corner, it’s hard not to think about how wonderful grocery shopping on the mainland truly is. 

When we moved from Chicago, Whole Foods had just built a brand new store that was a replica of their flagship store in Austin, TX.  At the time, I didn’t appreciate it for what it was, but today I realize that that store wasn’t simply any grocery store, it was heaven on earth. 

Upon entering the store and making your way down the escalator from the parking garage, you got an aerial view of the produce department - full of shiny, vibrant, colorful, fresh and healthy organic fruits and vegetables of any sort you may need and several kinds you will never need.  Right next to this was where they offered freshly cut flowers of all colors and types, which they used to make stunning floral arrangements, ready to take home to make a loved one's day. 

But, this euphoric experience didn’t stop there.  This Whole Foods also included a wine bar, a coffee bar, a bar (serving hip and trendy micro-brews, of course), a diner, a sushi/Chinese station, a gelato station, Panini and sandwich stations, a full bakery with freshly baked breads and cakes, two soup stations and an enormous salad bar full of fresh veggies and a variety of salads.  Oh, and the meat and fish departments were stocked completely full of any cut or type of fresh meat you could ask for – just flown in from any given part of the world. 

People would literally go there to hang out, or perhaps relax and have lunch, or a coffee.  Maybe there would be a wine tasting that day.  You simply never knew how this store would outdo itself, once again, when you stepped inside.  To me it was like looking upon a lively rainbow of health and a wonderland of nourishment each time you went there. 

I could go on and on about the friendly service, the fully stocked shelves and the endless frozen food section.  Oh, and that area of wacky health drinks ready to alleviate whatever ailment you may have, or could potentially get.  However, this is supposed to be about grocery shopping in the VI, so I’ll stop elaborating over this dreamlike store and move on. 

Where do I begin?  Well, think of the store I just described, then think of the exact opposite, and that’s where I’ll start. 

The store I typically shop at...
Of course, Whole Foods or any stateside grocery store has the unfair advantage of easy and quick shipping.  I now know that this is essential to getting fresh food.  So, I’ve learned that if you want ‘fresh’, which means non-moldy or fly-ridden food, you really can only go to the stores when they get their shipment in, which is typically on Sunday, so Monday is the best day to go since that’s when everything is fully stocked. 

Keep in mind that if it wasn’t flown in, then it was shipped in on a cargo barge, which can take 2 weeks from the states.  So, imagine those bright, beautiful blueberries that you just bought at Kroger, or Jewel.  Now imagine them after they’ve been sitting in your refrigerator for 2 weeks – wrinkled, with a bit of fuzzy mold.  Or, imagine them 2 ½ - 3 weeks later, should you not be able to make it to the store on Monday.  Would you pay full price for them?  Needless to say, we don’t really eat blueberries anymore. 

The produce department.  Note that everything is still in the boxes they were shipped in.

Speaking of full price, I think there are times when our price is fuller than the stateside full price.  Again, the shipping issue is a huge part of this, but I also think it has to do with availability vs. demand.  Of course, shipping costs money and that trickles down to the consumer big time.  I once paid $20.00 for a liter of olive oil.  Okay, well maybe it was $19.99.  That was at one of those ‘fancy’ St. Thomas grocery stores that I only go to when I can’t bear the thought of having to go to more than one store to get everything I need, since it is rare that one store will have all of the items on your list.  Part of this lack of inventory is because stores aren’t going to pay to ship something down here that there isn't a huge demand for, and part of this is that if they do ship a rare item down here they certainly aren’t going to ship a lot of it.  So, if you didn’t come on the first day or two when it was available, it’s sold out. 

People often comment on how great and healthy island food must be.  They fantasize about having fresh fish every night and snacking on tropical fruit throughout the day.  However, the simple fact is that for a variety of reasons, there is no commercial fishing down here.  Most of the fish is flown in from other parts of the world.  As for the fruit, we do get some mangos and some other exotic tropical fruits like soursop that is most excellent (especially right off our trees in the backyard), but we don’t have the land on this little island to produce enough for commercial re-sale.  We are not a self-sufficient island - nearly everything is shipped.

So, here is my top 10 list of what have I learned with respects to grocery shopping…

1)      There is a substitute for everything.  Google it if the store doesn’t have it.

2)      Go to the store on Monday if you want the freshest food you can get.

3)      Make pit stops throughout the week to stores that may have what you couldn’t get on Monday.

4)      Inspect everything – touch, look and smell.  Take a long, hard look at those onions, or tomatoes before you buy them.

5)      Check and re-check the expiration date.  The shelves are often still stocked with expired food.

6)      If they have it now and you think you may need/want it in the near future, then buy 2 of them.

7)      The check-out lady is still going to be rude to you even if you say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’.  Try to get to know who the nicer ones are and get in their line, even if it’s longer.
Those boxes are for people that forget to bring their own bags in which to put their groceries.  How environmentally savvy!

8)      The wine selection at the store I routinely go to is never going to change, so I typically drink the same type of wine every week.

9)      Bring instant hand sanitizer like Purell with you every time.  The chicken will juice you.  As a side, you will get a dirty look from the cashier when she sees that you have put the chicken in a bag from the produce department.  She will resent you for having to do the extra work of taking the bag off slightly to scan the chicken.

10)   If it doesn’t look good, don’t buy it even if you need it.  Just go with what’s available and make do.  You’ll just have to wait until next week.
I needed this ginger, but it was rotten when I got home.  Yum!

 I suppose these are all of the work-arounds that I’ve learned, but what I’ve truly learned is that somehow, someway, not having a micro-brew, or a coffee bar, or perfectly fresh food at the grocery store has still worked out for me.  Sure.  It’s not as pleasant of an experience – the store I go to has a distinct smell that I have grown to dread – but, life here has somehow worked out for me, regardless. 

Even more, I understand what it’s like to not live in a consumer society anymore.  This has been a big, huge eye opener for me.  Before living here, I didn’t realize how easy and quick companies made it to consume.  Everything is at your fingertips, and if you live in the city, it’s even more so this way.  Want a Starbucks?  No need to get out of the car, you can go to the drive thru.  Already past the Starbucks?  No problem, there’s another one 2 blocks away.  Buying on Amazon?  No sweat, you can make your purchase without having to even put your credit card number in because they already have it on-line.  Even buying music is easy, just hop on iTunes for the latest single, enter your password from your phone and voila.

When I lived in Chicago, I could spend an entire weekend shopping for material items.  This is how I would spend my time - shopping for clothes, shopping for furniture, shopping for food, etc.  It was a past time.  Had I not moved out of that climate, I would have had a stunning condo, full of beautiful furniture, rugs, dishes, etc. (which I still very much long for).  But, I’d be spending my entire life in a store. 

Here, the store is the last place I want to be.  It’s dreadful.  I want to get out of there as soon as possible.  So, while I won’t be eating organic food anytime in the foreseeable future, I’m thankful that I will be nourishing my life and soul with tons of sunshine, saltwater, friends and...wilted lettuce.





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