Beyond Alpha Beta
Okay, I confess, visiting regional grocery stores is one of my traveling passions. If, whenever and wherever we’re visiting, someone says, “I need to run to the grocery store, anyone want to go along?” I’m the first to raise my hand. “Me, pick me!” Here’s why.
As a kid growing up in California, I loved going to the Alpha Beta grocery store with my dad, the family shopper. Mom’s job was doing up the long, detailed list and planning meals. Dad really liked to shop for the groceries and I’d tag along with him as he fulfilled Mom’s culinary expectations. Each store aisle had its own delights. The fragrant garden of fresh produce varied considerably from the coffee and cereal aisles while the chill of the frozen foods and ice cream section had me hurrying past the glass windows hanging onto Dad’s cart. Sometimes I got a dime to put in the gumball machine, a bonus I always hoped for.
As I got older and life spread out a little, I found myself drawn to further investigating the delights of grocery stores beyond the Alpha Beta. When traveling in Minnesota to visit extended family there is the Red Owl with that big bird staring at you from the parking lot sign. There, the displays of sausages and local cheeses make me gasp with delight. Also available is genuine wild rice, harvested by native tribes, to purchase and take home. I acquired some great recipes from aunts and cousins who know just how to cook the stuff.
When my late in-laws lived in Florida we’d haunt the Winn Dixie. Oh, the fresh fruit! Wonderful citrus-y smells of oranges and limes. Melons and mangoes galore. Seafood all over the place. And that little tingle of being near the ocean and fun times. Break out the pink flamingos and sunglasses!
Last fall it was the Piggly Wiggly on the Isle of Palms connector near Charleston in South Carolina. All five of my sisters and I were together for our first ever ‘sisters away’ trip and since we’d rented a condo with full kitchen privileges we needed supplies. As we waltzed through the big glass doors the first thing I saw was the pumpkins. Oh, I’d seen plenty of pumpkins before – grow them in fact – but these were different. Initially I thought they were fake so I examined the display. In amongst the hay bales and scarecrows sat real pumpkins all right. But these had been polished to a high shine. What a pretty idea.
We picked up some goodies like great barbecue and Whoopie Pies then headed for the checkout. And there I saw – brown Piggly Wiggly grocery bags. Paper. With handles. How fun was that? I was so used to plastic and plastic that was getting thinner with each re-cycling to boot. I made such a clamor about them the amused cashier asked if I’d like a few. I grabbed two extras besides the ones we had for the groceries and guess what? I still have them. I can’t bear to use them for anything – my brown paper bags with handles sporting a cute little pig in a butcher’s hat. No way am I going mess them up by filling them up. Maybe I’ll leave them to my grandchildren or try to sell them on e-Bay.
Our travels last summer took us to the western part of the country to visit number two son, where we ventured into Albertson’s to pick up items for the blueberry pies I’d make with my granddaughters. In the last aisle before checkout we discovered Umpqua ice cream in dark red cartons with the chief in full headdress on the front. So cool. Marion berry jam and Tillamook cheese were among our other discoveries. There’s sure good eating out that way.
In mentioning regional grocery stores, I can’t leave out the Mom and Pop’s. Did you ever walk into one that you came upon while traveling some back road somewhere? Inside are wooden floors, old fashioned posters on the walls, cramped, narrow aisles, and a penny candy display. And there’s only one cash register. I love them. Somehow all the eras of the past come rushing in as the floor creaks underfoot and you spot the ice cream case that you know has been there for fifty years or more. Yeah, the one where you reach way down inside for a Fudgesicle. Somewhere in the back there’s a small storeroom and a single toilet for employees only. Tucked into the corners are products you either didn’t know existed or haven’t seen in years. There might even be an old pay phone on one wall. I feel akin to the American Pickers when we happen upon one of these quaint and charming establishments. I fear they are a dying breed, but deep down I hope as many of them hang on as possible.
I know this isn’t a glamorous passion and I can’t quite explain why these stores draw me so. But it has enriched my life to be able to explore the places where my fellow Americans shop for daily needs and to imagine how they might live. I applaud the differences in product selections, the enticing displays of local produce, the sometimes quirky cashiers, and the occasional brown paper bag for a souvenir.
These are among the things I’ve found beyond the Alpha Beta and I think Dad would approve.
Image: Free Digital Photos