Grocery shopping in the 21st century has not evolved into anything less time consuming since the Supermarket was first invented by Michael J. Cullen in 1930 in Jamaica Queens, New York. I started working for King Kullen supermarkets as a teenager and continued through my twenties. I watched as these family-owned stores grew in the eighties into mega-markets. This is the same time when big hair, big clothes, and big cars were the all the rage, as was the way the supermarkets were going. They now were turning into these huge mega-stores that included bakeries, seafood departments, floral shops along with the usual deli and meat departments all under one roof.
It’s true what they say: “bigger isn’t always better”. Parachute pants AKA “Hammer pants” are a fine example of this. King Kullen did add a bakery department inside their stores in the nineteen-eighties but it could not replace the wonderful Italian Bakery around the corner from my childhood home. The bakery was called Everbest bakery. If I remember their slogan correctly, it was “everything tastes better with butter” or was it “everything is baked with butter” or something like that. All I know is it was good and there were all kinds of the best tasting baked goods. These bakeries, even here in New York, are hard to find now but I seek them out for their excellent selection of fresh baked goods.
Supermarket bakeries are okay. However, they are not outstanding. After a short time, everything starts to tastes the same. The bread and rolls are not the same quality as the old-fashioned hard roll I ate when I was a child. The Italian bread in a supermarket bakery tastes exactly the same as its rolls. Don’t get me wrong, I still purchase these items for what they are and I have a use for them but to me there is nothing that can compare to walking into a family-owned bakery and taking a deep breath. Buying top quality food was always a top priority for my mother. Places like A & G bakery in Deer Park or Dolci Momenti Bakery in Patchogue reminds me of a simpler time when you weren’t overwhelmed by the enormity of a huge building but instead you can focus on your senses and that fine aroma of cinnamon buns fresh from the oven. To me it is one of those aromas of childhood. Like the smell of pine on Christmas morning coming from the tree. Now, due to allergies and other various reasons I own an artificial Christmas tree and burn a pine scented candle for effect. It’s just not the same. Once again I digress.
The Supermarket has always had its meat department. Now here in the 21st century the family-owned meat markets/butcher are all gone too. My mother shopped at a place called Spot Light. I went with her occasionally when school was out. The cashier was the butcher’s wife and she would give me a penny from the register to get a gumball. Holy shit! Who does THAT anymore? Can you imagine the cashier at Kroger’s giving some kid a buck for a pack of gum out of her cash register? For one, the mother would have a cow and scream: “Don’t give my kid that sugary treat you bitch”! Then it would be a whole big thing…I digress yet again. Today, I still go to a butcher. This new place I found has that old time wonderful smell I remember as a child. It’s just missing the saw dust on the floor. This butcher shop is mainly a restaurant supply wholesaler, but they allow local customers to come in a buy there meat. The place is called Mathews and it even has my favorite number 10 size can (32 ounces) of Italian plum tomatoes for Spaghetti Sauce. This shop does have some great beef and chicken, but it has a lot more. Frozen seafood and some Greek gyro meat. Not to mention fresh eggs and other restaurant quality items. Best of all is friendly service. They treat everyone just like you are one of the family!
It is still important today to purchase only good quality food items for your family and yourself. Shopping is an art or it can be. Some people are good at buying clothes and dressing nice. I tend to spend my energy on buying more groceries and eating well then looking like I do. Just like clothes, name brand stuff is usually better than the store brand but not always. Somethings like cheese are unique to the brand. An example of this is mozzarella cheese. I have tried many brands over the years but I prefer getting Polly-O brand when it’s on sale. I even freeze what I don’t use right away because it is what like to use on my chicken parmesan and baked ravioli so it is always good for me to have extra on hand.
Produce too has always been in the supermarket. At least as long as I can remember. Some supermarkets have better produce then others, but no one can beat the local farm stand for freshness and taste, and you are also supporting your local economy by buying fresh from the farm. Besides that, I have read that eating local produce is healthier for you in terms of cutting down your allergies. As you eat more local produce and honey, the local pollen is absorbed by your body and this helps you to withstand those heavy pollen days when the local flowers and trees are in bloom. This is not a bad thing. This of course is not truly a medical definition but you get the point I hope. Local produce is good for you.
I do enjoy being able to buy vegetables out-of-season in supermarkets. I rarely buy fruit this way, as it is usually is tasteless, although once in a while it is nice to have grapes with cheese in the middle of winter. Buying produce locally while it is in season can’t be beat. To this day I still cannot buy a single peach from any place other than the farm stands on the east end of Long Island or I find them mealy and dry. While I’m all the way out there I might as well get a bottle of wine or maybe a case. This whole fresh fruit thing is why I make apple pies in the fall when the fresh apples are in abundance. Peach pie is perfect at the end of summer and blueberry pie is baked in spring…etc etc.
Another thing supermarkets sell is cold cuts from their deli counter. Most of the time these are mass produced pieces of cured meat and were terrible coming from supermarkets. Even back in the eighties, much to my surprise was the fact that my favorite cold cut company, BoarsHead, is not found on sale everywhere across the country. I distinctly remember my mother having to go to yet another store just to by the cold cuts in the Boarshead brand we all enjoyed. Even when my Aunt Betty and Uncle Harry moved to Florida in the seventies they ask us to bring down cold cuts and bread with us whenever we visited. We never had the money to visit Florida from New York often but when we could, my mother always packed as much stuff as far as bread and cold cuts as we could carry on the plane. At the time no supermarkets carried the Boarshead Brand and not every deli has this brand or sold it in sufficient quantity to keep it fresh so you had to pick and choose where you went to get it. The second item at these local deli’s were there “homemade” salads. Particularly the potato salad, cold slaw, and macaroni salad. I am always looking for ways to improve my own recipe for these salads to match the taste and flavor of the ones I grew up on in my local deli. If memory serves me and it usually does when it comes to food. These salads were always found to be the best in large German-owned delicatessens two or three towns away from where we lived. Yes, I too went there to buy cold cuts as soon as I was old enough to drive. Even our pickles came from a specialty store because we were just so dam fussy. That place is no longer in business and we all miss that Sterns family store terribly. Now I know where I get it from! Uggg! I’m crazy!
Fish to me is also a summer season food. I don’t know why, but I guess it stems from when I went fishing here on Long Island or out to dinner by the water. We used to have the best calms and scallops around until we polluted the water in the Great South Bay. Now I have to get stuff from as far away as Maine or Alaska. I don’t even fish much anymore but I used to love it. My taste and pallet for fish has increased too, especially with the addition of Sushi. Sushi is one of those things I don’t make myself and leave that to the experts. I do really try and make more fish, but no one will eat it. Partially during the spring I like eating fish grilled. The fall however is a good time to try and fry it. So I think I need to make more Fish and Chips or fried flounder or even fried shrimp. I buy this all at a local fish store in Amityville. Something about a fish store being right down by the water makes them seem more authentic and fresh even though everything arrives by truck these days.
I think since I started writing this article I have lost track, I cant remember the total number of stores my mother used to travel to, to buy our weekly groceries. Even our beverages were not purchased at the local supermarket, which was call Food Fair back then. For that stuff she travelled to a place called the Beverage Barn two towns away in an opposite direction from anything else just because it has the best prices on beer and soda. They even helped load up her car because she was in her late fifties early sixties buying multiple heavy cases of bottled beer.
I am looking forward now to the fall months if only for its abundance of apples and Oktoberfest Beer of course. So go shop. Eat as local as much as you can and buy those name brand things you love when they are on sale. Don’t limit yourself to only shopping at the super-mega market, rather take some extra time to patronize your local shops, you’ll be happy you did!
The Drunken Chef (Russ)