Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Southerners and the Grocery Store

I had a roommate in college who was from New Jersey, and she called going to the grocery store "food shopping." It baffled me, which I supposed it shouldn't since that is exactly what a grocery trip is supposed to be, but it just never sat right with me. We don't call it that in the South because, frankly, it's too rudimentary. We can't be confined to simply shopping for food. Our trips to the grocery store involve so much more: it's a town meet and greet, where we not only pick up what we need for the neighborhood bake sale, we reflect and reminisce. Going to get groceries is a social event, an adventure, an occasion.

My mother goes to the grocery store practically every day. She justifies this by saying she prefers not to plan out her meals a week in advance, but rather to go each afternoon and buy whatever sounds appetizing to cook that evening for dinner. And while in my younger days I may have scoffed at this, I realize as I am writing that we have been to the grocery store three times in the last three days, with another trip planned this afternoon.

That planned trip? This should further underscore the important place grocery stores have in Southern life: I have carefully arranged (and frankly, rearranged) my to do list so that I will be in the vicinity of the new Publix store--it opened three weeks ago and I'm starting to feel like the only person in my part of Charlotte who hasn't been there to scope it out yet. To go, I will pass two other grocery stores, but that is not my concern. I need to see this new store, peruse the selection, get a feel for its atmosphere, so I can compare it with my other shopping options.

After all, we know there are certain stores you go to for certain items. Winn Dixie? Pimento cheese, of course. Publix? Sheet cakes that rival any bakery. Harris Teeter has the best rotisserie chicken in town, and I read somewhere that Bi Lo won a gold medal at the National Pie Championship last year with their ready made desserts. Down here in the South, we don't just food shop. We food test, sample, categorize, and rank. We consider ourselves experts and freely critique the product displays and store arrangement. The customer is always right, especially when she's a Southern woman.

Things are a bit different for you if you live (and grocery shop) in a bigger city. I vividly remember the first couple of years we lived in Charlotte and the freedom I had when I made a trip to our neighborhood grocery store. It was so highly unlikely that I would see anyone I knew, I was able to make emergency trips without wearing makeup, run out for a pint of ice cream in faded yoga pants and an old Dollywood t-shirt, and remain anonymous and unnoticed. It didn't take long, however, before I made a trip to the store to grab a few things thinking what a horror it would be to see anyone that I knew...and sure enough, I did. It happened a few more times before I realized that even in a city the size of Charlotte, the grocery store is still a place to see and be seen.

It's even more the case in a small town. When I visit my parents in my hometown, my mom and I inevitably wind up at the town's Ingles grocery store to pick up snacks, Cokes, or something for supper. Instinctively, I apply lip gloss before we enter, like a natural reflex. We are usually in the store less than 60 seconds before we see the first person we know and the conversations begin. We wave and chit chat our way through the produce and deli counter, all through the store, and then update the cashier on what our plans are for the rest of the day. Back in December, a high school classmate I hadn't seen in years asked if we could take a selfie...right there in the produce section (and you know we did).

I supposed the ultimate goal when a Southerner goes to the grocery store is to buy food, but we accomplish so much more than that during our time there, and that's why calling it "food shopping" completely misses the mark. Why, during a trip to pick up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, we have the opportunity to get an update on who in town is sick/hospitalized/convalescing/dead (typically courtesy of the good church ladies gathering their casserole ingredients), hear all about Joann's new haircut (she shouldn't have, y'all, we hope it grows back fast), and peek into Virginia's cart to see what in the world she's actually eating on that newfangled vegetarian diet of hers (she's just big-boned, bless her heart).

We push that cart up and down the aisles, meeting and greeting, gathering new recipe ideas and getting the day's news. If you're recent to this scene, just make sure your appearance is ready to be scrutinized by any and everyone you might meet, by all means make small talk with the meat department manager because calling him a friend has immeasurable rewards, and pretend not to notice that bottle of wine the Southern Baptists are hiding under a big package of toilet paper in their carts. The grocery store is a revered community in and of itself, with its own set of etiquette.

Now, if you'll excuse me, that Publix is practically calling my name. Even though I'm not exactly in a small town, I threw on a nice pair of earrings, just in case I run into someone I know. And I think I'll go ahead and chat up the meat department, too...just in case.