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(post, Harriet Fasenfest)
So I’m looking through the paper this morning, and I discover yet another invitation to get a “personal shopper.” This is not a new concept; those with the resources can have a fashion slave shop the racks for them. I understand the appeal, 'cause I hate clothes shopping, but then I have another approach: I just don’t go. I guess if I loved new clothes, had disposable income, and had a shopping phobia, I would hire a personal shopper. But then, that's about fashion and clothing and expendable cash for expendable goods. What I have been seeing and reading about lately is having a personal shopper for your food: someone to go down the aisles for you. Great, I still understand. People are busy, people have better things to do, people want to put their big leisure-deserving feet up in a hammock (I think that was the message implied in a recent ad I saw). So here, too, I get the motivation, but I want to add something to the mix. After teaching food preservation for the past three years, I've heard lots of stories from lots of people about why they want to learn the craft. These days I've been hearing a new tale: “I would love to never go to the grocery store again.” Now I TOTALLY get that. I hate, hate, hate going to the grocery store almost more then clothes shopping. Just why is that? I think it has something to do with all the subtle and not-so-subtle marketing hubbub I am prone to see and intuit as I walk the aisles. But I am very sensitive. I feel assaulted no matter where I shop, even sometimes at the farmers' market. Harsh, maybe, but true. [%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Grow, glean, and can your own food."] Actually, sometimes I think I am a culinary empath picking up all the emotional, political, and social yada-yada-yada attached to food in its journey from soil to market shelf. Seriously, shopping can scare me. Feeling and thinking about all the agendas, the self-driven purpose, the “I’m the coolest box of cocoa,” or “I’m in the smartest, sharpest, greenest, package,” or “Pick me up at the last minute 'cause your kids are going to scream,” or “Walk all the way to the back to get your milk so you will see all this other stuff,” or “We’re local, we’re fair, we care,” is damn near deafening. I hear it all and it makes me wince sometimes. Honestly, I get in and out as fast as I can. Some of it is good and true, and I know that. Local jobs with fair wages and benefits are nothing to scoff at. But then what I tell folks is if you don’t think anyone (and I mean anyone) in the grocery business does not know whether you, as a shopper, will walk left or right when you enter a door or where the impulse buying is best or how to set up your shelving or what to place where for maximum sales, you are crazy. Fact is, knowing all that stuff is big business. There are consultants who help design stores for just those reasons. There is a science and “best practices” to marketing food, which I suppose makes sense if you are in the business of marketing food. But for me that effort, along with all the other weirdness that goes into the truth of agro-business today, makes grocery shopping a nightmare. So you would think I would be a prime candidate for a personal shopper — but I’m not. Just because I wouldn’t have to go to the store doesn’t mean it won’t still be weird. In fact, it would be weirder. Shopping the aisles over the Internet, having someone pick out, pack, haul, and drive my groceries to me, would actually plunge me into greater despair. I think I am one of the few folks I know who has never ordered anything over the Internet and, too, who feels guilty when they get their bags taken to the car (unless it is a sunny day and I think the kids would want to escape outside for a while — I would). So what's the solution for those of us who don’t ever want to go into a grocery store again and don’t think a personal shopper is the answer? Well, it isn’t really about making life easier and clearly not for everyone. However, given the number of folks I’ve been meeting harboring the same revulsion as I, the solutions don’t really need to be easy. They need, rather, to answer to a higher power. No, I'm not shopping with Jesus, although if they could get him to sign some books, I'd be there. No, the answer, like most things I’m into, is about going backwards to a time and system with fewer degrees of separation. I’ll offer you the list even though you know it. More than likely, I’ve seen most of you at the bulk bins way before they became side dressing in our “shopping experience.” So let’s review: Plan menus and stick to them. They're a time and waste saver. Create systems. Monday, bread and stock. Tuesday, yogurt. Wednesday, granola. Etcetera. Use leftovers. Roast chicken becomes chicken for sandwiches becomes chicken salad. Make your own stocks, yogurts, and fermented veggies. They're really good and really easy to make. Eat more grains and legumes. (Diet for a Small Planet, anyone?) Buy in bulk. Packaging is nice, but it is still embodied energy. Grow your own food. Lettuce, tomatoes, basil, garlic, kale, and leeks would be a good start. Focus on a few that can be used during different seasons. Go to farms with friends. It's better for the budget. Support CSAs if you need more produce. Buy produce in volume and in season. Freeze and preserve the excess. Glean. There's plenty of fruit everywhere and it makes great butters and sauce. Preserve. Tomatoes (lots), applesauce, apple butter, and frozen berries would be a good start. Which is to say, start slow, adding only what your family likes and can eat in a reasonable amount of time. * Shorten your hours at the office or quit your job if at all possible. Well, that’s another post, but I mean it. Now, all this will not keep you out of the stores entirely, but it will make you less tethered to them. It might even give us pause to consider how we turned grocery stores into the new commons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into friends I never see anymore. It’s definitely nice to see them, but kinda sad that that’s the only place I do. It certainly is another example of why shopping scares and depresses me. It has taken over as the primary social experience of our lives. So if you’re like me and lots of others I am meeting these days, rejoice. There are new, if not easier, ways to go about feeding yourself and your family. And if it’s all the same with you guys, I’d rather visit at the hoedown. In fact, we Portland urban homesteaders are planning one this summer. You don’t have to give up the grocery stores to join us, but if the idea of a hoedown sounds even vaguely good to you, I wager you’ve already got kraut on the counter.