For some, grocery shopping is a real drag, for others it is a tolerable chore. There are those for which going to the market is a competitive sport - you know the one; that little old granny in the muumuu who wields her shopping cart like a bumper car driver on a crack induced rampage. In stark contrast, there is Francine Prose who, in her essay for Saveur Magazine entitled Religion Found, describes grocery shopping as a religious experience fully stocked with ample opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. For Francine, the grocery store is no battleground, rather the hardy soil from which the conscious may rise, and from which our humanity flowers. Of course grocery shopping is all of those wonderful things, but for me, there is only one experience to which I can compare food shopping and that’s love.
When I passed through the front door of Elat Market on Pico Blvd in Beverly Hills, I knew instantly what I was feeling was special. Somewhere between the entranceway and the hustle and bustle of the inside, a yearning gurgled up inside me. I stood back and, as with a new lover, I ran my eyes across every crevice of the produce and dry goods sections, mapping out future destinations.
It is not always love at first sight. Crowded aisle ways, disorganized produce, and lecherous staff members are all details that have cast the ugly shadow of uncertainty upon past potentials. ‘Is this really the market I see myself shopping in?’ I have ask myself with unease as I pondered how to retrieve the bottle of Sicilian olive oil from an obscenely high shelf. The freezer door that used to stick on aisle 9, yeah it was sort of cute to begin with, ‘but what about two or three years from now,’ I asked myself one morning while gazing hopelessly at the rows of neatly stacked bags of Cascadian Farms Organic Berries. When I find myself asking these types of questions, I do what my mother always advised me to do and I listen to my instincts. Usually, with time and patience I discover weather or not a store’s assets are worth overlooking its shortcomings.
My experience with Elat was something entirely different. The instant I entered the store I stumbled upon one of its gaping flaws, but instead of feeling doubtful, I felt intrigued, interested, and incredibly excited.
Grasping my oversized shopping cart, I hesitated on the perimeter of the congested produce section. The drawbacks were evident; navigation was not going to be an easy feat. Along the left side of the two aisles, shoppers had stashed their carts bumper-to-bumper like parked cars lining the sidewalk. There were no immediate spaces available so I waited, patiently. But three or four minutes later there was still no parking! ‘Should I plow right through?’ I questioned after watching an old man do just that. Just as I was about to abandon my perch and follow him down the rabbit hole, an old woman began scolding him mercilessly and she didn’t stop until he had cowered back to the other side of the invisible boundary that separated us from the Elysian Fields of fruits and vegetables. I waited two more minutes only to lose my opportunity to a tenacious old lady who pushed right passed the both of us and entered the aisle without obstruction.
Clearly there were unspoken rules in effect, and even clearer was the fact that I had no clue what those rules were. I returned my shopping cart and grabbed a basket and, in the name of love, dived courageously into the mix. I leaned right, I hopped left, and I stepped on many a foot in between. These women meant business! Wading threw the herd was at once an intricate dance, as well as a barreling game of chicken, a kind of masochistic game of hard to get if you will. The only way I was going to make it to the other end of the aisle was to fane confidence; if they sensed fear, it was all over.
There were no hellos, no excuse mes, no sorry for running over your foot with my very heavy shopping carts, and seemingly no peripheral vision. What I did find however was a momentary ebb in the surging stream of graceless bodies and like a thirty-year old finding their place in the cosmos, I took mine in this tiny but heavenly universe. With a grin on my face, I filled my basket with cabbage, mint, and strawberries. This was the honeymoon period. That point in a relationship when you have established a mutual affection and you can sail along for some time unhindered by the lurking past.
For Elat and I however, the future was looming. Once the immediate task was complete, I would move on, the flow of brawny woman would continue, and we would never see each other again. I held a bunch of lemon basil to my nose and took a whiff. It smelled like summer, and even here in California, the seasons don’t stand still.
When I was done with the produce section, I moved on to new sections, and new discoveries. They had canisters of halva, bags of dried flowers for cooking, Tamarind Paste, Saffron, Cardamom, and Rose Water Ice Cream, freshly baked challah and pita breads, they even had a music section. By the time I had made my way to the check out counter, I had learned a crucial lesson about companionship, you don’t have to overlook the flaws of your beloved grocery store in order to find love because, love means embracing those flaws, relishing them, and in my case mourning their imminent loss.
I suppose Francine’s depiction of grocery shopping as a spiritual experience, isn’t all that fare from my idea of it as love. Love has the potential to lift us up above all of the faults and defects of this life in order that we might realize the divinity housed in each and every imperfection. Simply put, love makes us better people, even when it is love of a grocery store.