How it Was and Is by
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1950’s East Lansing

Maybe my mother did not have the shopping gene or never shook off the Depression and Protestant ethos, but she seems to have passed that shopping ambivalence on to me.

It was, of course, my mother’s job to do the grocery shopping. And the cooking.  Her three daughters would follow her down the aisles of the A & P, pushing the grocery cart, hopping on the lower level to get a ride, mostly bored while she scrutinized the choices and we were absorbing home economics lessons subconsciously.  She cooked from scratch.  Had a list. Always bought the whole chicken and dismembered it at home—a better bargain.  Disdained canned vegetables but stocked up on frozen, especially in the Michigan winter when fresh was scarce and expensive. She collected S & H Green Stamps.  The brown paper bags were folded and later, one fitting inside a second one and the edges carefully folded over twice, used as garbage bags in the wastebasket. Milk still appeared in the two-way box next to the kitchen door.

Dacca

When we moved to East Pakistan, the food shopping was done by Jaharbuks and Kabat, who cooked and served our food.  I imagine they bought the chickens and vegetables, the oil and spices at local farmers markets—we never went there ourselves.  My mother would still bring us along to do other shopping errands, which mostly meant going to “Newmarket”, just over the railroad tracks on the edge of downtown.  After choosing a boy as “chokidar” to guard the car, and passing the beggars at the gate, we entered the concrete triangular mall with tiny shops that lined the walls on either side of the central passageway.  That lane between the shops was unroofed and it was often sweltering in the heat.   Fans inside the stores barely moved the air.  Small business all:  tailors, fabric and sari stores, housewares, beauty supplies, stationery and school supplies, hardware, decorative metal and woodwork, furniture.  No chain stores, no supermarkets, no shopping carts.  This was where Pakistanis of some means and expats like us would shop.  Pickings may have been slim at times, but we had them.

1960’s Maryland

Back in the States, some years and several job changes later, I remember trailing behind my mother in the massive Giant food store in suburban Maryland while she mused about how she never thought the day would arrive when she could just go down the supermarket aisle and pick up what she wanted without worrying about the budget.  And yet, here she was, in the middle of an obscene number of choices and abundance, picking up fancier cuts of meat and Keebler Fudgesticks and reflecting on the realities of our changed socioeconomic status.  In truth, food shopping was still a chore for her, just like clothes shopping, maybe any shopping.  Maybe my mother did not have the shopping gene or never shook off the Depression and Protestant ethos, but she seems to have passed that shopping ambivalence on to me.

1970’s San Francisco and Seattle

When I left college after two years to find my way, I ended up in a Berkeley apartment with a friend, looking for work and really shopping for myself for the first time. We would walk down to the Co-op on Telegraph and Ashby, becoming acquainted with odd cuts of cheap meats (breast of lamb??) before discovering the Food Conspiracy—for two dollars we got a weekly box of seasonal fruits and vegetables.  That was our menu for the week, which could be challenging when we didn’t recognize the fennel or rutabaga or bok choy that sometimes appeared.  There were a couple of memorable weeks when we had to get creative for everything potato—mashed, baked, fried, sliced.

Living in group houses and grinding through medical training meant lots of shared cooking and shopping, lots of stir fry and attempts to eat lower on the food chain.  I figured out how to bring finger foods and yogurts to work in my trusty lunch box.  In one house, enthusiastic roommates built bins for bulk grains and staples which attracted the roaches.  A lizard intended to catch the roaches met its fate at the paws of the cat before we gave in and called the exterminator.

2020’s Penticton

After becoming partners in the 1980’s with someone who likes to cook and shop, I gladly traded those responsibilities for the cleanup duties.  When COVID hit, the grocery stores opened at 7 a.m. for a designated seniors’ hour (reality check—we qualified!), and we took turns donning masks and quickly going down the one-way aisles, keeping our distance, lists in hand.  Although online shopping soared, we didn’t use it for food and didn’t order much takeout either.  Now the supermarkets, farmers markets and organic food stores, plus all the amenities of a town of almost forty thousand people are open again. We have mountains of reusable grocery bags and a sophisticated recycling scheme.

Out of some mix of stubborn adherence to the old ways and illusion of principle, I try to support the local farmers’ markets, local artisans, and local businesses.  In the grocery stores, it is often possible to identify which produce is local as well. Despite the ease of mail-order, I still do not have an Amazon account (so sorry Retrospect—haven’t supported you by ordering through your link). Of course, Sally does, but I cling to my self-righteousness. And while the online financial world can make life easier, it also rankles me to have every purchase tracked by debit and credit cards, frequent user cards, e-transfers, QR codes, receipts sent to e-mails or texts, let alone the aggravation of the advertisements that appear on the phone or computer. It feels almost subversive to pay in cash, or to send a check in the mail– which is not always even accepted.  And woe to those without smart phones or bank accounts or plastic.

The better news is that as I move into the late years, I am in the phase of trying to declutter and simplify and have ever less need to shop.

 

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Thanx Khati for another glimpse into your life around the world when even mundane shopping trips were a cultural experience!

    I somehow don’t remember food shopping with my mother, she was a very efficient gal and most have had that all worked out herself even before the days of Instacart. But I have sweet memories of shopping with her in department stores , and also remembering arguments we had there, altho now who can remember over what!

  2. Jim Willis says:

    I love how you track your life’s journey via the various methods of shopping used along the way, Khati. How we relate to food says a lot about our lifestyle stages. Your Berkley chapter sounded like a lot of fun. I went nuts in the 70s, living in Texas and trying to emulate Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Went so far as to buy a replica of his Pontiac Firebird, with a screaming bird tattooed all over the hood., got a CB radio and became a road warrior with the handle, “Brown Bear, C’mon, C’mon good buddy..” That story has nothing to do with shopping, but when you mentioned the 70s, the memory kicked in.

  3. Jim Admin says:

    You got it! A major beer run.

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