Culture

Churchman Comes to the Supermarket

Trader Joe's
AP

My wife does virtually all the grocery shopping without me. There are many reasons for this. Typically the activity happens during the day, when I have obligations towards my employer and the Continental Pool Lounge. I also hate making shopping lists or any other lists that aren’t "Top 10 Pre-’67 Rolling Stones B-Sides." You get dirty looks if you smoke in front near the carts. But the most important reason is that I don’t like going to Trader Joe’s, where about half the foodstuffs consumed chez Walther are purchased.

If you are living in rural America, or even one of the civilized metropolises—Oklahoma City, say—you might not know much about the California-based company. Consumer Reports has called it America’s best supermarket chain. Its demographic is, roughly speaking, people who like Whole Foods and share the tastes, preferences, and basic cultural assumptions of its customers but would like to spend less money than a trip to Whole Foods would entail. The vegetables at Trader Joe’s are "organic," whatever that means. The eggs are cage free, which I support as an ex-vegetarian. It’s the kind of place where, when you walk past the pillar covered on four sides with people’s photos of their pets—"Old Town Dog All Stars"—you see a banner proclaiming "Mango Joe Joe’s: Welcome to the Summer of Mangoes!"

This extraordinary variety is possible because with a few exceptions—mostly alcohol—all the products at Trader Joe’s are store branded. This means that Trader Joe’s sells about 50 times more products than the grocery stores of my youth in about a quarter of the space. When you only have to make room on the shelves for one kind of ketchup instead of Heinz and Hunt’s and Del Monte and generic and so on, you have a lot left over for Spinach, Fontina, and Garlic Chicken Sausage.

I’m for the variety. What I can’t stand are the other customers. Our local branch in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, is the kind of place where it is common to see four grown men in shorts stop and chat together.

"Oh, hi!"

"Heeeello."

"Oh my gosh."

"WOWWWW!"

They proceed to talk loudly about bicycles for at least 10 minutes, blocking the aisles and smiling with that cheerful obliviousness that only childless upper-middle-class white people have. This is not going well for me. I’m already on edge because on my way in I saw another adult male specimen of Homo sapiens in lime green spandex ask one of the clerks for water for his dog, whom he had presumably just taken by cycle. I want to say something rude to these people, but I have to move on because my infant daughter and I are getting stuff for a proposed barbecue. The first thing on my mental list is a case of Coors. We scan the alcohol shelves. All the beers have quaint packaging and names like "Hoptimization." I ask the clerk whether the Banquet Beer is in stock.

"No, we don’t have that, I’m so sorry."

This guy, with oversized black glasses, weird hair, and a voice tedious with enthusiasm, is a pretty typical specimen.

"Do you have Coors Light or Budweiser?"

"No, sorry."

"What would you recommend for a good old-fashioned American barbecue?"

"I really love the New Belgian Heavy Melon."

Next are the chips. Usually I’m a Lays Barbecue man, but I like to think of my taste horizons as fairly wide, extending as far as Utz Southern Sweet Heat all the way to Lays Kettle Cooked and, when fancy strikes, even plain Ruffles. Today it looks as if my choice will be between Veggie and Flaxseed, Quinoa and Black Bean, or Sweet Potato. I almost settle for "Reduced Guilt" popcorn before deciding we don’t need snacks after all.

The meat aisle feels safer. I am a little put out by the fact that there is no hot Italian sausage, but it occurs to me that Safeway doesn’t usually stock it either.

We end up leaving the store empty handed and ordering takeout instead. The next day I am sent back on a solo mission. I can’t put my finger on it, but something feels different. My nerves aren’t fraying, and my blood pressure feels like it’s within normal limits for someone of my exercise habits. I don’t feel the urge to smash my cart into the display for Wasabi Roasted Seaweed Snack.

Then it hits me: This is a Monday afternoon. People (other than me) are at work, and the only other customers are women with baby strollers. Even the staff is marginally more tolerable. Call me crazy, but I could swear the quotient of visible tattoos and unsightly piercings is at least 50 percent lower today. I am experiencing the store under roughly the same conditions as my wife. I cheerfully fill my cart, make small talk with one of the moms, and sample some of the mango juice—it’s not bad—before walking back through the snack aisle without scowling at the Parsnip Chips or the Lightly Salted Green Bean Pieces. It turns out they do have barbecue after all: two kinds. Even the display with five shelves of different kinds of Luna Bars doesn’t put me out.

And I realize I don’t actually hate Trader Joe’s. The truth is, I like quinoa and barley and farro and scones and frozen mushroom turnovers and imported smoked salmon and buffalo jerky. My mother didn’t allow us to have caffeine at home when we were kids, but if Trader Joe’s had existed within 800 miles of our house, I guarantee I would have been salivating over the giant glass bottles of pink lemonade as radiant and pure as liquid quartz and the sparking grapefruit juice and the blood-orange Italian soda and the thousand varieties of non-Popsicle brand popsicle and ice-cream sandwich. This place is Xanadu.

My wife isn’t going to believe it when I beg her to let me buy the groceries next week.