Grocery therapy: Rediscovering the joys of shopping small

Where Wendell Berry found solace in the company of wildlife, I like to commune with my fellow cooks

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published January 4, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Vegetables and fruit in reusable bag at a farmers market (Getty Images/ArtMarie)
Vegetables and fruit in reusable bag at a farmers market (Getty Images/ArtMarie)

Because the early days of the pandemic were such a blur, I honestly don’t remember who gave me this advice (it could have been a friend, an Instagram caption, the host of one of several vaguely cerebral podcasts I had in rotation at the time) but one thing I’ve found to be increasingly true is that when life’s tragedies, small and large, start to compound and everything begins to feel just suffocatingly big — that’s when it’s time to make your own life small again. 

To get off Twitter, to unfollow and unsubscribe, to turn off the talking heads, even if for just a little while. It’s advice that echoes a favorite poem of mine by Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things,” which begins:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

When Berry is overwhelmed, he retreats to nature; these days, when I am overwhelmed, I retreat to tiny, locally-owned grocery stores. 

There are still so many flavors of independent grocery stores — the crunchy-granola macrobiotic health food store, the Mexican tortilleria, the specialty pantry a la Alison Roman’s First Bloom or Ina Garten’s iconic Barefoot Contessa — but in his book “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” author Michael Ruhlman details how we as a country moved relatively rapidly from the days of the neighborhood grocer to those of the big-box supermarket. In 1916, Piggly Wiggly changed the way we buy groceries permanently when they allowed shoppers to to pick out their own food and the development of the wheeled shopping cart soon followed. 

On August 4th, 1930, a 46-year old Michael J. Cullen opened the doors to King Kullen Grocery Company, which is largely regarded as the first supermarket because, according to the Smithsonian Institute, it fulfills “all five criteria that define the modern supermarket: separate departments; self-service; discount pricing; chain marketing; and volume dealing.”

A more modern, but perhaps mightier threat to the corner store than that of the supermarket is the dollar store. Every year, a thousand new ones open, and they are especially concentrated in rural stretches of the United States where access to grocery stores is already limited. Last year, Rigoberto Lopez, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Connecticut, found that when dollar stores enter these areas, independent grocery stores shut down. 

 On average, he writes, dollar stores coming into an area corresponds to a 5.7% decrease in sales at independent grocery stores, and a 2.3% increase in the likelihood of independent grocery retailers going out of business.“If two or three dollar stores come in, over time, this result will be magnified,” Lopez said in a December release from the university. 

Between the steady influx of dollar stores and the impending $25 billion mega-merger of Kroger and Albertsons, a coupling so massive the Federal Trade Commission has held special sessions debating just how much of a monopoly it would create, it’s a tough landscape for locally-owned groceries — which is perhaps part of why it feels increasingly essential to support them (and definitely why I keep meaning to bring back my short-lived personal newsletter, “market share,” which highlighted beautiful independently-owned groceries across the country). 

This is especially true when you consider how the average supermarket trip is now often just a collection of a tiny sensory nightmares: Waxy, plastic-wrapped produce languish in the oppressive, arctic blue-tinted glow of rectangular fluorescent ceiling lights; the relentless staccato chirping of the self-service check-out scanners, punctuated by the occasional, stern androidic reminder to actually scan all the items in one’s basket; pushing a cart with one wonky wheel through an aisle crowded with other carts with wonky wheels, their handlers idling nearby on their phones, blocking access to the jarred pasta sauce. 

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It’s easy to romanticize the small grocery in comparison. Growing up in the suburbs, I certainly always did. When I got my license as a teenager, one of my favorite weekend activities was driving to the healthfood store near the state college campus and wandering the aisles that smelled of fresh-squeezed juice and incense, partially to buy the one particular brand of chocolate-soy pudding I liked, but mostly to people-watch. 

On summer Saturdays, a farmer’s market was held nearby and it was always interesting to see shoppers come in to augment their bags of produce — with cans of coconut milk and scoops of bulk grains and blocks of firm tofu — and imagine the recipe for which they were shopping so methodically. It felt distinct from the overall energy of the big chain supermarket where my mom ran her errands and everyone seemed a little miffed while ticking items off their lists. 

The ability to shop deliberately, fawning over individual perfect peaches and carefully comparing two beautiful cuts of meat, is a privilege, of course. For many Americans juggling time and budgetary concerns, it’s also just not a practical option. When you’re pulled between your full-time job, your side hustle and your kid’s dance recital, why not load up a supermarket cart with as many groceries it can hold, get out and get on with your life? It doesn’t make sense to make several stops at various corner and specialty stores because none of them carry the one brand of applesauce your toddler will actually eat. 

But, in my desire to make my life a little smaller — an impulse that only seems to become more intense in the winters — I’m shopping smaller, too. 

These days, for instance, I’ve been leaning on a lot of Vietnamese dishes because I happen to live on a street with three beautiful Vietnamese markets within walking distance. Compared to the local Mariano’s, my favorite, Viet Hoa Plaza, is an unexpected sensory delight, from the aisle with a kaleidoscopic array of bright tea tins and puffy bags of dried mushrooms, to the crates of burnt-orange yams and light green cabbages, to the flock of pigeons that burst into a frenzy of beaks and wings every time the sliding glass doors open or shut. 

Their ingredients helped me attempt to mimic the cà ri gà, a coconut-chicken curry, from my favorite pho spot on the block. Plus, blessedly, they seem to play only instrumental music at a just-audible level (no realizing that your favorite song from high school has become supermarket music! Not here!). 

Where Wendell Berry found solace in the company of wildlife, I like to commune with my fellow cooks. I like shopping where my neighbors shop, seeing all the same people I see out in the park every morning with their dogs picking out ingredients for dinner, even if we only acknowledge each other with a smile or a nod or some of my very poor, broken Vietnamese. After years of being separated by social distancing and sickness, it helps me feel like my world is both smaller and larger — just in the way I like. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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