From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
You go to the grocery store these days and a game show breaks out.
“Alex, I’ll take ‘Aisle 14’ for $100!”
“OK: “What is easy to find but hard to choose?”
“Give me ‘Aisle 14’ for $200.”
“Fine. What, like noodles, are easy to find but hard to choose?”
“You bet your hat!”
“‘Aisle 14’ for THREE hundred!”
“Fine. What, like noodles and instant mas…?”
And on and on it goes like that because while your staples are easy to locate, choosing one – for the novice – is a bit of a different ballgame.
Getting to the cereal these days is only half the battle. I go to a store that has an aisle long as an airport runway of nothing but cereal. I can handle it. But I’m an old pro. Not so to the rookie shopper and hungry man who’s supposed to bring home the bacon – but doesn’t know which bacon to get once he finds the mother lode.
A golfer could relate. On some courses, the greens are so difficult that once you reach one, your work has just begun. Of course, few golfers have ever been to a grocery store. I saw one recently in the store where I shop/basically live. He might as well have been in downtown Tokyo. Grocery pro that I am, I asked him, “Ain’t the No.1 tee box, is it, big boy?” I thought he was going to wet his pants. Lost as a lake-bound Titleist.
The store was once a safe and happy place. Sure, you could get run over by a cart. Or your car could hit a cart, since plenty of people just leave them in the parking lot willy nilly, even though you know they can walk to put it up because they’ve just walked all around the store. And you can get hit in the parking lot because otherwise responsible drivers pull into a grocery store parking lot and automatically believe both themselves and their cars are suddenly, magically, invisible. It’s every man or woman for himself. A grocery store parking lot is culinary retail’s version of “The Bachelor/Bachelorette.”
But the point is that grocery stores used to have one or two of everything. Maybe three.
Cereal aisle was Wheaties, Corn Flakes, Frosted Flakes. The upscale stores carried Fruit Loops or Cocoa Pebbles.
There was spaghetti noodles and there was macaroni.
Need bacon? Ask the butcher and come back in five minutes.
Now the grocery store is like going to buy a truck. You THINK you just want a truck. But do you want two-wheel or four-wheel drive? Leather? Satellite radio? Do you want a short bed or long bed? Which engine? Automatic or no? Bucket seats? Bench? Trim? Super package? Economy package?
You could spend a calendar day on packages alone.
Today’s options are similar for hand lotions. Ice cream. Soaps. SOAPS, I say! Don’t get me started on toothpaste.
A professor I knew retired from his college job and was next sighted at the grocery store, on an aisle, two feet from all sorts of colorful boxes, a grocery list right up against his nose. Since he was still standing there minutes later, it seemed wise to ask him if he needed help.
“I’m just trying to buy noodles,” he said. This was a brilliant man, an atom-splitter. Athlete and scholar of renown. But the modern grocery store bought him to his knees. He sounded like a kid who was lost at the State Fair. “I just wanted to ride the merry-go-round is all…”
This was not the store of his youth. While he was away working, the food game – the whole world -- had changed. Imagine Rip Van Winkle going to sleep, waking up and finding out that they now have … BBQ SPAM?
It’s a fast world, Rip.
The grocery store is a cell phone today, and Rip and The Lost Noodlers are still in the party line era, and important truth to remember if you send an unsuspecting spouse to “pick up a few things.” I see them on my four-times-a-week trips for various groceries, and it’s sad. To the modern store, you can’t send a man to do a boy’s job.