As we near that great American holiday dedicated to eating, it is time to pause and take stock of where all that food comes from. I am not speaking about distant farms or ranches. They are too far removed from my experience. I am speaking of the lowly local grocery store. That is where my food comes from.
My store itself is twenty years old. It replaced a much older, smaller store about two miles away. When the new store opened, it seemed so big. Bifurcated between fresh food and dry goods halves, it once sported a live trout tank. The tank is now long gone, and the store no longer seems so big. It is dwarfed now by newer larger superstores further out in the county. What seems to have shrunk the most are its aisles. I am sure that they are still the same old size, but now they are festooned with addon freestanding displays that encroach on all sides.
The store is usually busy. Despite its relatively diminished size, it is still the busiest store in the chain. This is primarily due to location. It sits less than a mile from the city line and the food desert that is the City of Saint Louis. People travel west from the city to shop at this store. Eschewing both the few high-end stores that still remain there or the bodega want-to-be establishments. Sunday afternoons are always crowded. This time of year, things just get crazy.
After crowding through narrow lanes there still remains one final hurdle, checkout. We have had self-checkout for some time now. Originally there were only four kiosks, but now there are four times that. There is talk of doing away with these machines. They are expensive and have not brought the savings that were promised. They yell at every checkout infraction, both real and imagined. And then there is theft. Did you know that you could get organic cucumbers at the same price as regular ones by just pressing the wrong button?
One nice thing about the pandemic is that it improved the checkout process with a live cashier. It used to be that one had to choose a lane. Forced to edgily guess which lane would be fastest and usually failing. Now everyone queues up in one line and with everyone’s shopping carts maintain six-foot separation. At the head of this line an automated voice dispatches you to the next available cashier, much like a croupier does with cards. I love this system. I get in line. Get out my phone and play solitaire until that disembodied voice calls me to my lane.
This week is different though. As we near the holiday, with each passing day that single line grows. Eventually, it will wrap around the store. I think that its eventual length is only governed by the total number of carts that are available. This is only of academic interest to me this year, because we are not cooking. Oh, Anne will make a dish to share, but we are going to friends for dinner.