Since starting this challenge, I’ve started to feel a lot of negative emotions when I go to the grocery store. My first week, after I failed to find any plastic-free cheese, I felt genuine panic about my no-plastic commitment. On visits since, I’ve not only felt that same anxiety, but I’ve also started to feel some anger about the lack of choices I have about whether or not I’ll be served up some unexpected plastic with my purchases.
One major example is this: I’ve started asking for my meat to be wrapped in paper when I visit the deli counter, and every person who has helped me has willingly obliged my odd request. However, when the deli person actually picks up the chicken breast or smoked turkey to slice and weigh it, he or she uses plastic sheets: one to lift the meat from the case, and a second to keep the meat from touching the metal scale. This is a sanitary step—I understand the necessity here. It would be a huge time-suck to wipe off the scale every time after weighing a hunk of meat. But even though I understand the practicality, it still makes me a little frustrated. Am I really avoiding plastic if it’s used to help me obtain my purchases, even if I don’t bring that plastic home with me? No, I’m not, I guess. This makes me feel helpless. I could try to stop buying fresh meat altogether, but then my carnivore husband might divorce me.
So, visits to the grocery of late have been a little unpleasant. That was until this past Monday afternoon. After work, I headed over to Gene’s Deli, a local grocer in my neighborhood, my dorky red canvas bag swinging at my side. I entered the store with no grocery list and no set agenda. Typically, when I make a visit to the grocery store I haven’t been in several days, so I feel pressure to buy a week’s worth of food. Since beginning this challenge though, I’ve been better about going to the grocery store more often. I realize even as I type this that I’ve been more committed to planning my meals and cooking at home these past three weeks.
Certainly, the lack of pressure to fill a cart contributed to the happier feeling I had when going to Gene’s this week, but something else sort of unexpected happened. I just sort of “browsed” around, sort of like I was shopping for clothes, not merely going aisle to aisle to check items off of a list. I walked to the upstairs level of the store (that’s actually quite a happy place with lots of light and airiness) and wove through the aisles. I stopped and picked up products just to look at them, seeking those not in any plastic. I started considering foods I might buy in the future, many I haven’t tried before like jams and canned fishes and boxes of enclosed pastas.
I came across some mustard in a glass jar that genuinely looked delicious, and I decided to buy it even though it was $5, an amount I’d never before been willing to spend on mustard. Because I now can’t freely buy anything that tempts me, such as yogurts and plastic-sealed raviolis, I’m feeling more adventurous—seeking out alternatives for my diet and stepping outside of my normal eating routine. But our food budget also has a little wiggle room because I haven’t been buying as much at the store…I’ve been trying harder to buy less meat (that often winds up in the freezer ) and fewer vegetables (that will wilt in the crisping bin). Buying a little less food also seems to mean buying less plastic overall.
As I continued to tour the store, I started to feel like I was playing a game—seeking out the hidden plastic-free foods, building new future meal ideas. I actually smiled to myself when I found a glass container of Giardiniera…a condiment I love on sandwiches, but have never thought to buy for my daily use. So, I put that in my cart, and slowly ventured on.
Instead of getting cheese from the pre-packed section, I decided to order some from the deli. Sure, I had the plastic-sheet predicament, but I picked out some jalapeno cheddar that the kind Gene’s lady wrapped in paper without judgment, and I’ve loved this cheese all week. I really feel like I wouldn’t have ventured out to try it had I not been forced to look elsewhere, for food options free of plastic away from the refrigerated section.
These revelations have brought me back to my childhood. I remember my Grandpa, who lived in a small town in Colorado called Pueblo, visiting the grocery store at least once a day. Sometimes in one sun-up-to-sun-down period, he would drive to the grocery store three times. He loved going, and my brother and I loved going with him. He would take his time, often just grabbing one item that my Grandma had requested, and he would chit-chat with anyone willing to give him the attention. It was fun—hearing him tell bad jokes to strangers or store clerks whose names he knew without checking their nametags. There wasn’t a rush or massive pressure. There were lots of trips for small-quantity purchases.
My grandpa’s father, my great-grandfather, owned his own grocery store in Nebraska, and he instilled in my grandpa a deep love and respect for good food. I still remember how proud my grandpa was one Christmas to buy my parents a really expensive package of orange roughy. He was so excited Christmas morning to reveal the fish, I expected he’d gotten my parents a new car.
I suppose, aside from the socializing, my grandpa loved going to the grocery to revel in the possibilities of food, survey the colorful produce, smell the roasted meats. He appreciated being near food. I felt a little of that same feeling this past week during my visit—more attentive to what was around me, pausing to pick up a jar of rhubarb-apricot jam, feeling honest-to-god excitement to be buying Giardiniera, actually attuned to the incredible cornucopia surrounding me in Gene’s.
I hope I start to make my grandpa’s sort of shopping a habit, going more frequently and buying less. I want to keep cultivating that happy, excited feeling. I feel some renewed positivity that, in shopping this way, I can start to accumulate fun condiments and unique dry goods over the next year that will make my panty at home more exciting—and I can start to stockpile those that don’t come in plastic.