Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Smith's Red and White

Yesterday, I took Fain to Smith's Red and White in Dortches for groceries. It's far out of the way, and it may be a little more expensive, but it's the only local grocery that we've got in rural Nash County, North Carolina as far as I know.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not opposed to warehouse supermarkets. In fact, I love them. Robert's in New Orleans. Ralph's in California. Fresh Markets and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's everywhere. I could spend as much time in a grocery store, whether warehouse or tiny shop like the neighborhood Zara's or William's in the Garden District, as I could spend in a book store, whether a Barnes and Noble or a Beckham Used and Rare Bookshop.

When I was a child, Sunday was what you might call "going to the market day" in our house. We made a special trip from Tarboro to Rocky Mount, a thirty minute drive, to go to Harris Teeter, which was (and still is around here) the closest thing to a high class, specialty item grocery store. It used to annoy me. I dreaded the call to the car to make the long trip to walk up and down aisles. Can you imagine anything duller? But it must have lodged in my brain, sandwiched between other pleasanter memories, because now I find myself making excuses, sometimes on a daily basis, to make a run to a grocery store.

It's not strictly the food. There's an aesthetic quality to a grocery store; whether it is a cathedral or a small chapel, it is dedicated to Andy Warhol and Normal Rockwell. The shelves are neatly stacked with rows of uniform cans, each with its own iconic image of sunshine yellow corn or bright cheerful green peas, like little round babies tumbled together. Mythical creatures and comforting mortals intermingle, the tiny mermaid on a can of tuna and the matronly Mrs. Butterworth, King Arthur on a bag of flour and an impish devil on the canned ham. And then there are the landscapes, golden wheat fields and lush vineyards, Sumatran jungles and maple tree forests steeped in winter snow printed on the labels in miniature.

And the smells. The thick, sweet smell of the bread aisle. I confess that I manhandle the loaves and insist that Fain stick his little, freckled nose into the flowering plastic packages to determine which smells the best before we buy any. The earthy, warm, dark scent of the coffee aisle intoxicates me. And the scent of the spices. I couldn't even begin to describe that. What I suppose must be cumin and chili and cinnamon and cloves and dozens of other herbs and spices in their pretty glass jars. The possibilities of the spice aisle. To just stand there and consider the names, Chinese Five Spice, Herb de Provence, Hungarian Paprika, and then all of those American mixes from Paul Prudhomme and Mrs. Dash. I've got a dozen herbs right now in my cabinet that I bought in a fit of scent-induced passion, believing that I would truly have need for them in the near future.

Grocery stores are centers of communities, comforting ports when the outside world is all awry. Living in my car in Los Angeles many, many years ago, I found myself walking through Ralph's on a daily basis, as much for its normalcy, grocery stores are mostly alike wherever you are, as for its novelty, each grocery store has its own local wares. (And then, of course, there were the samples, which my child also pilfers today.) Likewise, in New Orleans, I found myself drawn to Zara's, the tiny neighborhood grocery store on Prytania. It was the first time I'd ever seen a neighborhood grocer, and I felt as if I'd traveled back in time. I can still remember vividly watching the manager peel back the unappealing brown skin of onions to make the display tidy and attractive, the onions shiny and purple. Even though the goods were probably the same as what I'd have found in a larger store, they seemed different, specially chosen. I suppose because the space was so small, I assumed special choices had to be made. And in Nashville, I'm drawn to the old Lowe's because I see the same people there every time, people from my church or from my neighborhood, and so it feels a little like a home away from home. A home on a special occasion when everyone has gathered together in the kitchen.

So I find myself repeating the pilgrimages of the past with my own child, driving down country roads while Fain reads to me from Captain Underpants, in order to buy the same groceries that I might have bought just down the street. Insisting instead on Smith's for its local customs, the three toy trains set up for Christmas, suspended overhead so that amazed children can walk around and around following their paths while parents plunder the spice aisle. The Christmas trees and the old-fashioned candy barrels, the over the top holiday decor mounted on the tops of the freezers and shelves, wherever they fit, the temptation of meatloaf made fresh in the deli and the blackberry cobbler, a former student talking and joking at the cash register, a local woman referring to the employees by name. It feels like being home for the holidays. Over the river and through the woods, to the grocery store we go.

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A Mirror, A Summer, A Street by Autumn Crisp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.