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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Shopping for Fresh Food in the “Supermarket” Age

Once upon a time, there were no supermarkets in America. No Walmart Supercenters, no Costcos or Sam's Clubs, no giant chain retailers who sold everything from meat and dairy products to paint and automotive supplies all under one roof.

In fact, there was a time when consumers didn't even walk the aisles making their own selections. In the “old days” of my grandparents' youth, people went to neighborhood markets with shopping lists and it was the job of the store clerk to retrieve items from shelves and stockrooms and bring them out to be tallied and tied up and carried home. In many instances, the merchant delivered the purchases to the customer's residence.

Self-service grocery stores and chain grocers began popping up in the early twentieth century. These early establishments were not quite the “multi-mega-marts” of today. Although they boasted a variety of dried, canned, and packaged products, most carried only limited selections of fresh meat, dairy, and produce. “Supermarkets” with meat, produce, dairy, and bakery “departments” didn't really catch on until after World War II. (It is believed that Albers Super Market, a Cincinnati grocery store opened in 1933, was the first business of its kind to use the term “supermarket.”) Such places were, of course, considered hallmarks of a modern, progressive society. But were they really? They were more convenient, certainly. But were – and are – they better than the “old-fashioned” way of food shopping?

Let me take you back to my hometown in the '50s and early '60s. You “kids” under forty will get a kick out of this.

We had five grocery stores in our little town. Two were gleaming new “supermarkets” and three were plain old-fashioned grocers that had been in business for decades. The supermarkets were awesome places. Neon signs outside and bright fluorescent lighting inside practically screamed “modern age.” Glistening steel shopping carts traversed aisle after highly-polished aisle of what had to be everything you could ever want. Teenaged boys in aprons and bow ties worked there bagging groceries and carrying them out to cars parked in capacious lots adjoining the huge block-and-steel-and glass edifices. The biggest thrill for me were the cool “automatic” doors. I drove my mom nuts jumping on those rubber mats that “magically” opened the doors.

The three “old” grocery stores were small, cramped places. Dimly lit and wood-floored, you mostly carried your purchases in hand baskets. The few shopping carts the stores boasted could barely negotiate the narrow aisles. One store was located in the heart of “downtown” and the other two were among groups of neighborhood businesses. There were no parking lots. You just parked on the street in the closest space you could find. And, of course, there were no “automatic” doors.

And yet, that's where my mother preferred to shop.

Maybe it was because, despite having family members employed at the supermarket, nobody there ever called her by name when she walked through the “automatic” door. Nobody personally helped her find things and nobody offered suggestions of which product was best suited for her needs. Mom didn't drive, so maybe it was because she could just call the little store in our neighborhood and they would collect and package her order and have it waiting for me when I arrived with my Radio Flyer wagon.

We shopped those stores mostly for dry goods. There was a meat market in town. Sure, the new supermarkets had meat, but everything there was wrapped in plastic and seemed so......untouchable. The meat market had been around for years. The butcher knew everybody and always had an amazing array of fresh cuts of meat displayed behind the glass of his sparkling white showcases. You took a number and waited your turn. It wasn't usually a very long wait, and the butcher was always friendly and helpful. You pointed to what you wanted and he picked it up and let you get a good look at it before he wrapped it in white paper. Call me crazy, but it was a more personal way of buying food.

Same thing for produce. The grocery stores had fruits and vegetables, but the produce you bought from roadside stands or from the backs of farmers' trucks was so much better. Fresher and cheaper, too. And you knew where it came from. Of course, we also had a backyard garden that provided a lot of our produce. I remember spending an awful lot of valuable playtime shelling peas and snapping beans. But, otherwise, we bought produce from local sources whenever we could.

You could go to the store for “store-bought” bread, but most people preferred one of the town's two bakeries. I guess it would be called “artisanal” bread nowadays. We just called it “bread” – and it came sliced or unsliced. You could order what you wanted in the morning and the baker would have it ready for you in the afternoon. My grandfather was on a salt-restricted diet and one of the bakeries produced special “salt-free” bread for him. And, of course, the bakery was the only place to go for cakes and cookies and pastries. Mom baked a lot herself, but when she didn't have time, the bakery, rather than the supermarket, was always the first choice. It was just better product. And besides, the place smelled so heavenly!

In those days, we didn't buy much milk at the grocery store. We had an insulated box on the porch. Twice a week – way earlier than I usually woke up – the milkman would come from the local dairy and deliver whatever fresh milk, butter, cream, cheese or other dairy products Mom had ordered. We knew a lot of the farmers who produced the milk and the dairy that processed it was right on the edge of town. There was never a question about freshness or quality.

As much as I would like to see a resurgence of this type of shopping, there are some aspects I don't see happening on a big scale. For instance, I don't see the supercenter giving way to the corner grocery store. But while all things old may not be new again, a few are. Very slowly, new generations of Americans are rediscovering what us “old fogies” once took for granted. From small towns to big cities, people are beginning to figure out that convenience and low prices do not necessarily equal good quality. They are rediscovering local fresh food markets, and farmers markets are leading the trend.

According to industry figures, there were only 1,755 farmers markets listed in the United States about twenty years ago. The latest USDA numbers count 7,864, with a 9% increase between 2011 and 2012 alone. After years of living in or near big cities, I once again find myself enjoying life in a small town. There is a farmers market in my town, two elsewhere in the county, thirty within about fifty miles of my house, and nearly two hundred across the state. These are figures that would have been unimagined a decade or two ago. But more and more people are rediscovering the amazing freshness and quality of food that comes from just down the road as opposed to food that has been stored and shipped in from across the country or from a foreign land. And the friendly local people who sell you the best seasonal products they have to offer are also knowledgeable about those products. Not only will they tell you all the whens and wheres about what they sell, they often have a lot of good ideas about how to utilize their produce. Find more information and a farmers market near you at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/farmersmarkets

I'm fortunate that my little town also has a great, family-owned meat market. As a result I have not purchased the first ounce of meat at a chain supermarket in years. The meat at the market is fresher, better quality, and less expensive. And the guy who owns the place knows me by name. We chat for a few minutes whenever I go in, he makes invaluable suggestions and he ensures I get exactly what I need. And if he doesn't have something I want today, he'll get it for me by tomorrow. To be fair, if you shop at a higher end supermarket, there may be an actual butcher “in the back.” If so, get to know him. If not, find someplace that has such a person. I once went to a supermarket near my in-laws' home looking for some ground pork. They didn't have any on display and the guy in the dirty white coat putting packaged meat out on the shelves told me they didn't have any available. When I picked up a package of pork shoulder and asked if he could grind it for me, he said, “No. We're not equipped to do that.” That's the price you pay for “convenience.” Beyond that, you'd be surprised – and sickened – by what happens to some “supermarket” meats. The man who owns my local meat market used to work for one of the supermarket chains. Trust me. Go find a reputable butcher.

Once again I have the luxury of having two bakeries in town. They don't carry the variety of baked goods that the busy establishments of my childhood offered, but what they do have is far superior to any of the stuff embalmed in preservatives and entombed in plastic on supermarket shelves. Of course, like my mother, I bake at home. I almost never purchase “store-bought” bread and you simply can't compare my wife's fresh-from-the-oven cookies with the little preserved hockey pucks you buy at the supermarket. But if you really lack the time – or ability – to bake at home, it's worth the effort to seek out a real, honest-to-goodness bakery. Emphasis on the “goodness.”

I used to think the milkman was forever relegated to the pages of childhood memory. But there are dairy services in some cities that keep the home delivery tradition alive. A little Internet research found such services in Pennsylvania, Minneapolis-St Paul, and in the San Francisco Bay area. And artisinal dairies are cropping up all over, offering wonderful fresh cheeses, butter and other dairy products. Plastic processed cheese and chemical spreads can't hold a candle to real cheese and real butter. Even if there's not a milkman bringing it to your door, the good stuff is definitely worth going out of your way to find.

I can already hear the screams of protest. “You gotta be nuts! I don't have time to haul my tookus all over town like that!” I know, I know. Shopping the “old-fashioned” way isn't convenient. That's why we, as a society, stopped doing it. It's much easier to buy your meat at the same place you get your tires and it's faster to be able to pick up your milk and eggs where you go for gasoline. But is it better?

Food is the fuel upon which our bodies operate. It contains the elements essential to good health and longevity. I never cheap up on food. I'll drive used cars and wear department store clothes, but I refuse to put cheap, preservative-laden junk in my body for the sake of saving a few pennies. Would you deliberately put watered-down gas in your high-performance car? I once had an Oldsmobile with a big ultra-high compression 455 cubic-inch engine and a 4 bbl carburetor. It ran on nothing but Sunoco 260 premium gasoline. My sister borrowed it one day and kindly filled it up for me before returning it. Only she filled it with regular gas from a cheap off-brand station. It took me weeks to get that car running right again. Your body operates on the same principle, and if you have to take a little extra care, spend a little extra money, and go a little out of your way to find the “premium” fuel it requires, so be it. One fill-up may not hurt you, but a steady diet of cheap fuel will send your body straight to the junk yard.

So go to the supermarket for your basic stock pantry items. But whenever and wherever possible, buy quality fresh products from farmers markets, meat markets, fishmongers, dairies, bakeries, and other local sources. Even if it's not “convenient.” Shopping fresh and local is more than just a passing fad; it's a step “back to the future” to a way of life whose time has definitely come again.

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