This weekend in Boston, my friends and I were eager for a more cost-efficient meal, since eating out was draining our wallets. There were four of us — me, Sean, Shira and Jaime — and the plan, as these things often do, ballooned in complexity as dinner drew closer. First it was chicken breasts and kale and rice, and then it was breaded chicken and wild rice, and then it was chicken with white wine, cream and mushroom sauce with brown rice and kale, crème brulee, and an appetizer of brie cheese, bread and wine.
The long and short of it was that when Jaime and I walked into the Shaw's on Porter Square, we had a rather long shopping list. But the length of our list somehow felt appropriate for the size of the store. Or perhaps size is not the right phrase — it was a city grocery store, smaller in size than Middlebury's Hannaford, but everything was more concentrated, the aisles thinner, the shelves stacked higher and, at close to eight on a Sunday night, it was packed with people.
We wandered through the produce section, past the apples, the pears, the oranges, the swiss chard, and found the mushrooms and onions. Then the rice, then the eggs and cream, the broth, the chicken.
We took special care to find the cheapest versions of everything: we compared the price per volume on chicken broth, spent ages in the rice aisle debating whether or not to buy wild rice (cheaper brown basmati won out in the end), and went for generic brands whenever possible. It struck me that this was the way I've mostly stopped shopping for food.
I'll be the first to admit that I spend too much on food. But I'd argue that the lump of my paycheck that goes to groceries isn't badly spent. Call me a food snob, but really, who wants to eat rice and lentils at every meal? And if given the choice, wouldn't you pick fresh spinach over frozen, especially fresh spinach from a farm you've driven past many times, where you might even know the farmer?
That's not to say that I always buy local or fresh or avoid generic brands, and I buy things on sale wherever possible. But even in the larger, brand-name grocery stores here, there are reasonably priced eggs from Salisbury, milk from Weybridge, apples from Shoreham. And I won't say I'm guilt-ridden when I buy vegetables or cheese from goodness-knows-where in California or Wisconsin, but I am distinctly aware that I am choosing to buy those and not their more local counterparts.
In the Porter Square Shaw's, the eggs were anonymous. The packages said "Large Brown Eggs" or "Large White Eggs" and that was about all. The labels in the produce section were devoid of any labels save for the generic "product of USA."
It's not just that particular Shaw's. When I was growing up, the baskets of produce around the corner from our Manhattan apartment were where vegetables came from and the refrigerator shelves of the dusty bodega down the block were where the milk came from. In the summer we could buy "New Jersey tomatoes" or "Pennsylvania peaches," but for the most part vegetables and fruit simply arrived there from somewhere out there, packaged neatly in their cardboard boxes.
All this is not to definitively prove one system better than the other. There is always the energy that goes into storing squash, apples, potatoes, the heat that it takes to start tomato seedlings early on in the chilly Vermont spring. I'll leave the efficiency calculations to the scientists. It's more that here my vegetables don't simply materialize out of the ether and appear in produce bins. Here I'm aware that they come from somewhere, that they grew in the dirt, were pulled up, packaged and shipped here — whether that is a few miles away or a few thousand.
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.