Saturday, March 22, 2008

Foodshopping and Making Groceries

Seems I’m cribbing again off of my favorite rock and roller, none of whose music I own, but whose blog I visit on a regular basis, to see how the expats live in France. I found Ms Rigby via notable 70s bad boy Wreckless Eric, all of which has been chronicled elsewhere in this blog. There’s enough French in me via me relative Joachim Murat and his ambitious chick Little Ms Bonaparte, but when it all gets down to it, I just like the Rigby vibe whenever I “visit.” I love the fact that she is so real and so accessible. And our blogs have the same black background.

Ms Rigby is going on this time about the irony of horrible supermarkets in a country known for its fabulous food; the current irony takes her down memory lane’s horrorshow of other nasty markets it’s been her curse to have endured. I reason, if lip balm can spawn a blog post (spawn many blog posts, as it turns out), why not My Life in Supermarkets? I have no idea where this will go, and do not plan to be linear or chronological (yes, there is a difference), nor do I plan to be comprehensive.

Down on the Olmos Circle (I love traffic circle/rotaries, and I particularly love the one at Olmos, just two blocks from the apartment building where I passed some of my earliest years), there is a stuccoed sliver of a building currently masquerading as a Yarn Barn that was once a Handy Andy. Before venerable South Texas grocery tyrant HEB took umbrage with all its competing grocers, there was a thriving multi-grocer universe in SA that included Handy Andy and Piggly Wiggly. I think I preferred the pig as an urchin, but this memory is of my first day’s return to SA, after a three and a half year exile in Frankfurt, Germany, away from my childhood best bud, my cousin Lane. What strikes me about this HA were two things: the worn wooden floors of the store, much like what you’d expect to stumble onto in an IGA in, say, Knippa, Texas or in Mosca’s, the Mecca of Italian roadhouse food in Westwego, Louisiana. These were floors you could have skated on, or run endlessly upon with nary a fear of splinters. The marvel of the floors collided with the odd conversation my cousin was having with his mother about dinner: mind, this was a family that consisted entirely of the two people in conversation, contrasted with my own family of five soon to be six children and two parents: the horde of seven did not negotiate meals, we simply devoured them. These two were negotiating what for my aunt seemed an endless RE-negotiation of same old same old: plain unseasoned hamburger patties and white rice. Can we say bland? These were the days in which my aunt was still a stunningly beautiful wild woman about town, while her erstwhile offspring was dictating the most repressive of culinary politics on the home front. Did I care? Not a whit: I was home with my bud, and bland food on TV trays in front of the boob tube suited me just fine. As did that fine floor.

My current favorite HEB in SA, which I have little occasion to visit, save for purely nostalgic reasons, was actually a Handy Andy in its earlier incarnation, a convenient neighborhood spot to make late night phone calls to Valerie Reid, when the phone curfew had been levied for the evening at Lane’s house (he and Aunt Elaine had moved on up into relative bubble conformity with Uncle Ernie), during my last high school summer in SA, before joining my family in Mississippi. At the corner of Nacogdoches and New Braunfels, it is not the pay phones that draw me back (I have no idea where Ms Valerie is now, nor should I be looking, eh?), but the gorgeous wooden beams that form the most beautiful ceiling in any grocery store I have ever seen—an elevated version, it now occurs to me, of the floors at the old Olmos Circle HA. It is like shopping in a tree house.

I remember now that I invented an HEB on South New Braunfels Avenue, for a story I wrote fifteen years ago, in which I satirized my maternal grandfather’s lack of geographical immortality (the fictional conceit: he’d had all manner of brothers who’d had multiple roads named after them; he’d had to settle for a dirt alley out the back of the store, that he’d managed to slap his name onto). This was in my very early writer days, when I discovered the delicious yet nefarious pleasure of getting a fictional dig into folks who I felt deserved some manner of comeuppance—a chemical dependency best left to Mr Waugh: it is too fine a substance, and not one I need to indulge too terribly much.

Let’s get out of San Antonio, shall we?

On to the Mecca of groceries: New Orleans. In the glory daze, for many that could only mean “making groceries” at Schwegmann’s which, I believe (and this was even pre-Katrina), is no longer: the equivalent of HEB going out of business here in SA: unthinkable, but I suppose something to ponder in this goes around comes around world we live in.

I did not make groceries (standard N’awlins Y’at) at Schwegmann’s. For a brief time, on uptown Coliseum Street, I indulged the fancy of shopping two blocks over at the Prytania A&P, staffed, I think, by the same people who staffed the Key Food store in Ms Rigby’s early Brooklyn grocery shopping daze. Said A&P staff conspired with good friend Barbara to send me out to the suburbs of Metairie to the mighty Dorignac’s, where I thought I had died and gone to heaven. An insanely wonderful wine collection, cheeses galore, the finest of meats. It was like spurning Mardi Gras, simply because you had no clue where to stand to catch the parade: Dorignac’s was the Steps of the Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue of Groceries. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, cher.

Ire fueled Ms Rigby’s blog post, while clearly I am running off at the mouth, fueled on blissful memories, foodly and otherwise. I need to cut this short, but not without at least mention of two more places.

The original Central Market in Austin was and is a marvel—the only grocery store I have known to be a tourist stop must (save, perhaps, Central Grocery in the French Quarter—but who actually makes groceries at CG: we’re all just there for the muffalettas): the yuppiest of yuppies havens, with an 8 mile serpentine array of produce, fine wines, fine everything, samples out the wazzoo (heaven for grazers), a wonderful bistro, with music on the deck outside. Let me just say that, for all it’s “Gucci-ness,” SA’s Central Market (upscale flagship of HEB, by the way) pales miserably by comparison. Not that that keeps me out of there.

Can’t leave without mention of Whole Foods as well; we were there when WFM was one meager store at 10th and Lamar in Austin, known more for its hilarious customer and staff intercom announcements and the fact that, in my carnivorous earlier daze, there was not a decent hot dog to be found. The new WFM at 5th and Lamar is the Babylon of Babylons, the Taj Mahal of Taj Mahals, the Seventh Heaven of a Grocery Universe That Only Knows Six Heavens. I despise the place: it reeks of the self-conscious Austin We Are Hipper Than You and Your Next Sixteen Generations of Indigo Child Spawn Can Ever Hope to Be hipness that catapulted us out of the birthplace of the beautiful Mr Baby to the swarming teemingness of Lost in Translation that is this wonderful vibe we know as Tres Leches, Bouvet Island, San Antonio, Tejas.

Quick shout out, though, to Austin/Clarksville’s Fresh Plus: now THAT was a neighborhood grocery worth walking to.

And a last shout to the mother of Mr Baby, whose south Jersey equivalent of making groceries was (and is) “foodshopping.”

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Blogger San said...

Thank you, Murat, for a deeper look at Paschal, as seen from the shelves of Handy Andy, Piggly Wiggly, and Whole Foods. Your description of the "tree house" Handy Andy reminds me of a place called Jitney Jungle in my childhood. Really.

The places where we buy our sustenance, they do figure in our lives probably more prominently than we realize. Know what you mean about the hipper-than-thou mentality. Our Whole Foods here in SF is pretty friendly. Actually, their customer service is legendary. But I've experienced the MOFO TOFU Attitude in other stores.

2:28 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

San: After moving on to jacksonmississippi from the tree house, I got to know the Jitney meself. There is a legendary JJ in Eudora Welty's old Belhaven neighborhood, compact little place: EW and her buddies would sometimes leave notes to each other on the shelves about the store. Jitneys were okay for service, but nada when it came to personality, unless you had a Pulitizer Prize-winning friend.

I've been to the SF WFM and found the place quite peaceful, too.

3:25 PM  
Blogger jsd said...

Hmmm, I grew up with Krogers - at the time a blue collar grocery store. My only tale of interest would be that it would be years before I realized that the green books that the family filled with stamps in the '70s was actually welfare in the form of old school food stamps (no Lone Star credit cards back then).

7:55 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Anyone remember when it was Skaggs Albertson's? I've navigated the aisles of a handful of Kroger's in my day...Safeway...Tidyman's in Moscow, Idaho (home of some splendiferous donuts)...IGA...Randall's up in Austin (the McTaco Cabana of Texas grocers)...Langenstein's devotees in NOLA would be plenty steamed if I didn't at least shout out for their awesome meats (sez the nouveau vegetarian). Thanks for joining in the memories, jsd. The stamp books were not S&H green stamps, for "redemption" and merchandise?

8:19 PM  

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