How to Find Gratitude on Aisle Four

I love food. Exhibit A is my expanding waistline. Notice I didn’t say I like to eat . . . even though I do. No, I love food. I love everything about food. I like growing food. In late summer I’ve been known to picnic in my garden, washing fresh veg and drinking from the hose. I love killing food. Freshly caught trout, gutted and thrown from the stream into a hot iron skillet is wonderful. Birds and other game are a lot more work but are still delicious. I love cooking food. Finding a new recipe, or simply taking what’s in the fridge to create something unique, is an exploration to rival Lewis and Clark. I love cleaning up the kitchen after a meal. Many people think that particular trait is weird. First of all, I have done time in an industrial-sized kitchen. No household mess can scare me. I’ve had to do cleanup duty after feeding 2,500 people. But to me, it is all about preparing for the next meal. Cleaning up the kitchen is like repacking your bags on a multi-destination vacation. You can’t continue on to your next adventure unless you restore order to the chaos.

One of my favorite things about food is the grocery store. I do most of the shopping at my house. My wife hates shopping, especially at the megastore. I, on the other hand, love it. Growing up, my sons joked about me getting lost every time I ran to the store for some milk. Even if that’s all I bought, I’d still be gone an hour. I am old enough to remember life before the invention of the megastore. Yes, we had personalized service from the corner grocer. But selection was limited, and the only fruit and vegetables one could get in the winter were apples, lettuce, and carrots. The entire contents of the corner grocer would hardly fill one aisle of today’s superstore.

The first thing I love about the store is the people. Next to an airport, or mall, a grocery store is one of the best spots for people watching. One can get a much better feel for fashion, attitudes, or the state of our democracy in a grocery store than in 100 phone polls. I watch parents interacting with their children. As a teacher, I find this especially informative. The higher the number of parents who get mad at their two-year-olds for acting like two-year-olds, the greater the need for community-wide parental education. These are the same people who get mad at dogs for acting like dogs. What are they supposed to act like? Zebras?

A game I play with myself is figuring out the hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Taking after our ancestors, people act out different roles of acquiring food at the store. The hunters zoom around pushing their carts with serious looks on their faces. They swoop down on their prey like a leopard attacking a gazelle. Then they are off to the next victim. And they shoot angry looks at anyone who gets in their way. Who usually gets in their way are the gatherers. These people cannot believe there are so many varieties of beets. And they have to carefully examine the ingredients on each can to compare and decide which one is worth carrying back. The whole time they are oblivious to any other shoppers, and when more than three of them are on an aisle, it’s best to just come back when they are done since they never notice you and move out of the way. The farmers start in the produce and meat sections, finding out what is most fresh and on sale. Then they build meals around those items. This necessitates frequent changes in direction and revisiting aisles much to the consternation of the hunters. Cart crashes and angry looks follow.

It’s the anger I don’t understand. I see a lot of it in the grocery store, and it amazes me. People in general, and Americans in particular, are living in the greatest time in human history. For the first time in four million years, more people die from too much food than starvation. Stop and really think about this fact. Even many of the poor people in this country are overweight. And don’t bother trolling me about diets, hidden sugars, trans fats, organic food vs. factory food, or any of the sidebars. None of these facts changes the amazing abundance and variety of food we have available. The early civilizations built temples to store the food and praised their deities for excess crops. The greatest kings and wealthiest men in history didn’t have access to the riches found in one megastore.

And yet having to spend 1 ½ hours getting food for a whole week is too much of a headache for some people. Do they not understand that even 100 years ago people spent 50-60 hours to raise a fraction of the foodstuffs available today? And we should all call out the people who can’t pause their oh-so-important phone conversations to acknowledge the poor cashier who is trying to serve them. Hey cell phone talker—the cashier you’re disrespecting represents thousands of people who pooled their efforts to feed your family, and you can’t be bothered to hang up and say thank you? If you do that in front of me, you’ll hear about it. Because I can say what the cashier can’t.

I understand that marketers and politicians spew fear and discontent at us 24/7. It’s how they get our money and our votes. But Americans need to perform a little reality check. When you go shopping, take time to stop and smell the bread. All fifty kinds. Sixty billion of our ancestors and four billion of our fellow Earthship travelers would trade places with us in an instant. Stand at the head of Aisle Four. Soak in the sights. Relish in your choices of relish. I guarantee a much better shopping experience.

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