I have an appointment in the Nearest College Town this afternoon, after which I'm going to go grocery shopping.
What will I find today? Maybe a bag of interesting organic granola. Maybe a can of white clam sauce, or packet of mole'. Maybe some spendy pet food for the fur-chilluns. And of course I can't forget a couple of pounds of good coffee.
I'm not going to a big-box supermarket. I'm not going to our food coop, or to a specialty-foods boutique.
I'm actually heading about a half-mile down a dirt road, next county over, to an Amish-run discount foods store.
We started shopping here maybe a year ago; we'd heard that it sold mostly outdated supermarket rejects, which didn't interest us, but finally one day we stopped in out of curiosity. What we found was a clean and tidy little store that carried, yes, a lot of old grocery items (signs around the store alert shoppers to this) -- but also a lot of perfectly good merchandise, including fresh cheeses and cured meats. Interestingly, much of the items in stock are organics -- the same brands carried by the food coop. Ethnic specialty foods are also plentiful -- and, again, not all past their sell-by date. The store sells bulk brand-name laundry detergent and fabric softener too -- just bring in an old bottle. Prices are all drastically reduced.
So if you can picture grocery-shopping America as a big aquarium, merchandisers sprinkle their wares on top of the water...what doesn't get picked off their keeps falling down, down, down, until it hits stores like this, in the hinterlands.
For us it's a challenge to find bargains here. I make sure to bring my reading glasses so I can discern the tiny date information on boxes, bottles and jars, and we both spend lots of time inspecting the goods. We've gotten some incredible deals; a couple of weeks ago, for instance, we scored on specialty organic dog and cat food, both well within their sell-by dates, for half off the list price. The store's havarti cheese is considerably less than it is at the nearest supermarket. Awhile ago we hit the store on coffee delivery day, apparently, and were able to buy several pounds of decaf "boutique" coffee, again at half off the normal price.
Shopping in such a venue requires patience, attention to detail and the flexibility to accept that whatever delicacy one finds on the shelf on a given day is a gift; to take it and enjoy it and not expect it to be there again. (I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.)
It's also quite a circus of characters, and of character itself. About half the clientele seem to be people like us -- savvy middle-class shoppers hunting for a bargain while enjoying a jaunt into the countryside. The other half are people who look as if they need every penny they can save; for whom this store isn't just a rural novelty but a real godsend. It's also interesting to note shoppers' comfort levels in engaging with the young Amish women who staff the store -- some are polite and friendly; others seem afraid or resentful. We sometimes catch a whiff of xenophobia; frowning shoppers mumbling to one another about how they're somehow being taken advantage of. We sometimes wonder what those Amish girls think of the lot of us English -- our relative loudness and assertiveness and occasional public crudeness; behaviors which, by the way, aren't exclusive to poorer shoppers. Especially when other customers in the store are being jerks, FT and I feel a certain responsibility to be especially courteous and friendly to the staff; even if they think we're weird, at least we're nicely weird.
Wonder what I'll find today?