Four groceries and a farmer’s market

Not too long ago I was in a bit of a hurry and a couple items short of a batch of blueberry pancakes, so as an experiment I grabbed my backpack and bicycled over to a small crummy looking grocery called something like “Save-A-Lot” that’s just a couple blocks from the apartment we rented in Portland. It’s the sort of place that always makes be depressed to go inside, but under the circumstances I was prepared to give it a shot. I locked the bike to a handrail and went to go inside, but the door was blocked by two Vietnam-era homeless dudes who were butchering a couple sixpacks of Natty Ice and stuffing them into the manifold pockets of their dusty green coats. Once they were on their way, I stepped inside and headed for the baking aisle, but I was accosted by a bagger of about 300 lbs displacement, who told me that I would have to check my backpack at the service window before shopping. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the presumption of innocence from one’s grocer, but I will admit that I have become accustomed to being treated with a certain degree of respect in the establishments I shop, and I am afraid that I was not as polite as I might have been to the poor lady as I stormed out and remounted.

Figuring that the morning was shot anyway, and determined to go someplace where I wouldn’t be treated as a criminal for shopping with an old backpack and a banged-up bike helmet, I pedaled all the way over to the east side of town (not that far actually) and sought refuge in the new Whole Foods.  There I felt I was among my people, almost – but not quite – a bit too much of the doublemochachooieflyinglatte power-yoga-yuppie vibe.  But I was surrounded by reassuringly large stacks of verdant produce and opulent displays of cheese from faroff places.  Not only did I find the frozen wild blueberries I sought, I was further inspired to buy a quart of fresh organic strawberries, a half pint of organic whipping cream, and a sack of wheat germ from the bulk section to fortify the cakes.  I loaded up the panniers and pedaled home, my karma much improved and my wallet considerably thinner (an engineer I used to work with called it “Whole Paycheck”).

At approximately equal distance from the apartment lies a fairly recent Hannaford’s, occupying the broad middle ground between Save-A-Lot and Whole Foods.  The main line groceries have been making a significant effort to pull business away from the health food stores, and lots of them offer organic dairy and soymilk and a wholesome-looking crunchy aisle, featuring earthy brands and sometimes a modest bulk section.  I also enjoy the broad swath of humanity on display there; especially in my home state of Maine there is something unmistakably nostalgic about the dialect and mannerisms on display in an ordinary grocery.  In the case of the particular store I’m describing, the old mixes delightfully with Portland’s new international flavor – nopales and habaneros in the produce section and veiled women in the aisles, bantering cheerfully with one another or padding quietly along with man and child.

While we were in Portland I also checked out the Saturday Farmers’ Market, in the beautiful Deering Oaks park.  Though it was early in the season I was quite disappointed to find practically nothing on sale there except flat upon flat of seedlings for transplant.  I understand that farmers’ markets are all the rage these days, and I am all for local foods, but I have to say that the whole concept strikes me as grossly inefficient in most places, except for those few glorious weeks in late summer when everything ripens at once.  It seems far more efficient from the shoppers perspective for whatever regional produce is available to be marketed via the local co-op grocery.  I have found that I am much more likely to buy local and/or organic if I can buy it in a store that is large and broad enough that I can buy everything I need at one go – bulk organic rolled oats on one hand and a tub of chocolate shyse-cream on the other, if I feel so inclined, as opposed to making multiple stops.  There are those tiny, ascetic health food stores with a little refrigerator case offering a few wilted beets, some lettuce, and a couple trays of pathetically enthusiastic wheatgrass, but I never seem to find what I want there, and leave despairing, trying to avoid eye contact with the sole anorexic-looking employee, in search of a Stop-and-Shop.

Which brings me to my final point, which is to put in a plug for the Lebanon Co-op grocery.  Of all the places I have lived and shopped I think this fine establishment is the most satisfying, offering both crunchy and conventional selection, lots of local food, reasonable prices, good beer/wine section, and bikeability from where I live.  I don’t think I understood just how cool this operation is until I went back to Flagstaff on business and found New Frontiers to be about a quarter the size I remembered it, infested with ear candles and homeopathic remedies (though as I look online, it appears that NF has since relocated to a much larger store, and it’s probably much improved).  The Lebanon Co-op also compares favorably to Harvest in Cambridge, and has better prices and less attitude that Whole Foods.  We are very lucky to have the Co-op here, almost as lucky as we are to have Poverty Lane orchards three miles away.  I can only hope that there will be such a  grocery  wherever we live next.

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