October 25, 2013

FREY: Lessons from the grocery store aisles


---- — While walking up to the deli counter at the local Frankfort IGA a few months ago, I was greeted with a smile by the lady who shaves my Virginia baked ham and colby jack cheese.

I hadn’t been in the store for a number of weeks, and God love her, she had noticed. She asked how I was doing and wondered how I had gone so long without my usual order of cold cuts and cheese.

I found that refreshing.

This is one of many reasons I like shopping at hometown groceries.

Our hometown grocery in Freehold, N.J., was called Food Town. When I close my eyes, I see the lay out of that store, where the yogurt and milk were housed, and how bags of Twizzlers chocolate licorice were stacked next to the Dots on the bottom shelf in Aisle 2. I hear the clicking sound of the pre-scan cash registers echoing off the walls.

My mother, with list in hand and sale prices memorized, would go food shopping once a week, usually on Thursday. On the days I accompanied Mom, we were greeted by the aroma of homemade breads and cookies from the bakery.

We would make a quick right, and there before us was the fresh fruit and vegetable aisle. The best heads of lettuce, Mom said, were the ones that were firm.

Every year, my mother asked the produce manager if she could collect rogue onion skins. Nana, Mom said, used onion skins to dye Easter eggs, especially during the Depression when money was tight. It was a time, she added, when people “made do with what they had.”

A little further down on the right was the deli, where my mother would order a pound of imported, not domestic, Swiss cheese. The imported Swiss cheese tasted better, Mom said, and was only a little bit more expensive.

Three or four times a year, Mom and I would purchase half-a-pound of butter cookies in varying colors and shapes from the bakery. The cookies were sent home in a white cardboard box tied with a white string. My mother’s favorite was the star-shaped vanilla topped with a candied cherry. It was good thing, Mom said, to “treat yourself to something special every once in a while.”

While walking down the aisles, Mom would often stop and casually chat with people she knew. I have a feeling, Mom said, that she is not doing well.

After returning home, Mom and I would compare all items purchased with the receipt. Always make sure the prices match up, Mom said, and always pay attention to price increases.

Many years later, when reflecting on those shopping trips with Mom, I came to realize that more happened in the aisles of Food Town than choosing a good head of lettuce.

I learned to pay attention to what people were saying and not saying. That lady my mother talked to, I later learned, was indeed very sick.

I learned I really do get what I pay for, and sometimes paying a little more is the best route (especially when it comes to Philadelphia cream cheese).

I learned that it really was a good thing to “treat yourself” to something every once in a while. Today, that would be a Starbuck’s mocha latte.

I learned that economics has much to do with everything in life, like the time prices at Food Town increased, then a few days later we were all waiting on long lines to purchase gasoline every other day based on whether our license plates ended in an odd or even number.

The most important lesson I learned, however, was the one about “making do” with what I had, and remembering the refreshing simplicity in my mother, just like her mother, dying Easter eggs with onion skins long, long after the Depression ended.

Alvia Lewis Frey is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at