I’ve always been concerned about what I eat, but not so much so that I didn’t think to myself “Body by Haagen Dazs” as I passed the Victoria’s Secret store in Bridgehampton with its “Body by Victoria” poster hanging in the window. Truth be told, I’m more of a Ben and Jerry’s girl and even more of a Purely Decadent coconut milk frozen dessert girl. It’s like ice cream, but healthy. Or so I tell myself when I’m polishing off a half-pint on the couch.
Even when I don’t follow through with my better intentions, which is often, they’re on my mind. Now that I have kids, I spend an amazing amount of time and energy thinking, talking, and worrying about what goes into (and comes out of) them. Pesticides, preservatives, Red Dye #40, too much fat, not enough fat, sugar, protein, cholesterol, mercury, PCBs, B.P.A., phthalates, nitrates, sodium, and all the things my rash-prone 1-year-old son could potentially be allergic to. The list alone is enough to make you neurotic. So I do the best that I can as a working mother to feed them mostly good stuff, even if they refuse to eat a fair amount of what I cook for them.
Why, I often wonder, will my daughter eat a stale Cheerio she finds in her brother’s high chair, but not try even one bite of a vegetable stir-fry? How long can she survive on primarily pasta products? Why does my son slurp up the organic puréed yams I buy by the jar, but refuse to eat the steamed organic puréed yams I make him myself?
Why is a bit of pizza dropped by his sister two days ago and inadvertently kicked under the radiator more thrilling than the freshly steamed and carefully portioned carrots I offer? Why does he put sticks and acorns in his mouth but refuse to open up for a bite of rice and lentils? And why, oh why, would a wooden toy accidentally dropped in the toilet be more palatable than that new variety of Earth’s Best jar food I bought to try to expand his flavor horizons?
For almost three years now, my most important excursion of the week has been to the grocery store. I take my role as guardian of family health, nutrition, and food budget very seriously, so I’ve refused to cede this task to my husband despite the fact that I return from every trip ranting.
The rant usually goes something like this: The aisles are too narrow to allow two carts to pass easily and are cluttered with stacks of paper towels and baskets of beach balls. There is no place to line up as you wait to check out, and no place to put your cart while you bag your groceries. The meat’s sell-by date is always the day you are shopping. The carts all seem to have been run over at least 43 times and don’t drive straight, forcing you to muscle them ungracefully across a potholed parking lot that hasn’t been paved since 1995. And the entryway is sometimes so obstructed with firewood, magazines, or beach shovels that you can barely get into the store in the first place. Do you want me to shop here or not?!
Now you know what my husband has to listen to every week on grocery day. “I could go,” he offers, while hearing me out for the 150th time. “It really doesn’t bother me.”
It bothers me that it doesn’t bother him. I am unrealistic about some things. I dream that we could suddenly, magically, have a grocery store as spacious and well apportioned as the Giant across the street from my brother’s place in Bethesda or the new Whole Foods in Lake Grove. (The managers of my local store of choice share that dream, I’m sure. In fact, its corporate owners have tried for better, but were shot down.) Yet stores that are too big overwhelm me with their windowless vastness.
The thing is, I really like grocery stores. Whenever we travel somewhere in this country or any other, I’m anxious to see the grocery stores and supermarkets. That’s weird, I guess. I enjoy good food. I love to cook and groceries are one of the few areas in which I allow small splurges even when almost every other luxury must be trimmed from the household budget.
Locally, I spread my shopping around. Ranting aside, the bulk of our staples come from the above-mentioned store with the best prices, the good sales, and the best selection of organic baby food. Meat I buy elsewhere, fish yet another place, certain fruits and vegetables from still another place. Eggs and chicken — Iacono Farm. And my favorite sandwich bread involves a trip west.
If I can avoid it, I do not take my almost 3-year-old daughter shopping. She asks for everything she sees on the shelves that has ever made an appearance in our pantry and usually wants to use the bathroom. As she is newly potty-trained, bathrooms are to her what grocery stores in other places are to her mother — a sort of tourist attraction offering a peek into the lives of others.
I’m thinking that if she has a role in picking out the food we take home, she might actually try something new — maybe even an uncooked vegetable. This year, we became members of the Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett for the first time and I’m hoping that Jade will embrace her role as harvester, that she will relish the opportunity to help cook some of the vegetables we collect, and that her culinary horizons will expand to include some of the good stuff she’s refused to try in the past unless it was cooked beyond recognition.
The first harvest day was Saturday and as we talked about where we were heading that morning, she asked me, “Mommy, the vegetables live in the zoo?” At the farm, as I told her to stay on the pathway so she wouldn’t hurt the baby vegetables, she wondered: “Those vegetables can talk?”
I guess we’ll find out.
Carissa Katz is an associate editor at The Star.