Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Adventures at ShopRite, Mattering, and Vegetarian Pot Pie

I'm a Friday night grocery shopper.  After the dinner has been eaten, the dishes are washed, the kids are clean and in bed, I head out into the darkness to scavenge what's left at the store.  I like Friday nights for two reasons: first, I buy supplies to cook during the weekend so we have leftovers to eat during the week, and second, it's really a much saner time to shop than, say, Saturday morning.  And because it's a little less crowded, I tend to see--and occasionally even talk with--the same staff each week, who are stocking shelves and bins with bananas and onions and juice.

Except that last week, it was the day before a snowstorm.  I'd prepared myself for a crowd, but never had I seen anything like this.  You'd think we were preparing for the nuclear holocaust, the way the lines to check out snaked through the aisles, to the back of the store.  Over the PA system, Sue, one of the managers, periodically apologized for the wait, and reassured people that all cashiers were working, and that they'd try to get us all out as soon as possible.

Knowing that it was fruitless to speed my way to the checkout, I loitered a little longer than usual, talking with Steve in produce about his solution to prevent squirrels from eating bird food (Tabasco sauce.  "Do you know how much the good stuff costs?" he demanded, indignant), making small talk with people in the deli section who were needlessly criticizing the speed of the guys behind the counter, and looked over my list, adding a few things I'd forgotten.

One of the things on my list was sidra, Spanish hard cider that my father used to get for Christmas from a bodega in Union City, along with assorted bricks of turrón.  I'd found it in ShopRite for two years running, much to my surprise, since New Jersey grocery stores don't sell liquor.  This year, it was nowhere to be found in the imported foods section, or at least, not that I could tell, among the cans of Goya beans and Maria cookies and guava paste.  I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips.  Maybe someone had gotten wise to the alcohol content?

A bit farther down the aisle, someone was unloading a cart with new things from the back.  I figured I'd take a chance and ask, feeling a little badly, given that they were clearly swamped.

"Say it for me again?" he asked, kindly, when I told him what I was looking for.  I repeated the word, and explained: "It's basically like sparkling cider.  My father used to get it every year around this time; it's ... " (I feel somehow silly saying this) "... it's part of my heritage."

"Let me find out," he said.  "You go on and shop; I'll find you."

You'll find me? I thought, dubious.  It was bedlam; I decided I'd never see him again. 

A few minutes later, he did actually find me, shaking his head as he made his way around the other shopping carts.  "I don't think we have what you're looking for," he said.  "Did you check the ciders?"

"Yes," I assured him.  "But this is ... well ... ever so slightly alcoholic."

"Huh," he sniffed.  "And you got it here?"  I nodded.  "Someone wasn't doing their job."

"You're probably right," I agreed.  "Hey, thanks for looking."

I finished my shopping, and headed to the checkout, where the lines were now only halfway to the back of the store.

I didn't think much more about it, until I went back to the store this week, enjoying the relative quiet, reclaiming my shopping night.  He appeared out of nowhere, and it took me a minute to place him.  He, however, knew exactly who I was.

"Did you ever find your cider?" he asked.

I was flabbergasted.  "No, I didn't," I confessed.

He nodded.  "I found out that ours is imported from Spain.  Not exactly the same, but for a buck ninety-nine, worth a try, maybe?"

I laughed.  "Yes, worth a try.  Hey ..."  I faltered.  "Thanks for remembering."

"No problem," he said, grinning.  "Happy Holidays."

"You too," I said, putting the bottle in my cart, waving as I scooted away.

There was so much to unpack in that conversation.  The astonishment I felt at being remembered, especially from a busy night when the store was full of faces and requests.  The kindness of a stranger going out of his way to learn something about a small thing that was important to me, and seeking me out to tell me later.

I was talking with an old friend this weekend, who commented that coming from the place she went to college, mediocrity was considered akin to failure.  If you weren't winning Nobel Prizes, or writing the next Great American Novel, or curing cancer, or steering a Fortune 500 company, your life might as well be over; anything less than exceptional was unacceptable.  She's since come to realize otherwise, and said that she wished she figured it out much earlier, so she could have saved herself from a complete breakdown.

I used to think that way about success, too, at least, as it applied to me, even though I didn't go to school at one of those fancy brand-name places.  And yet, when it comes down to it, our lives are made up of many more ShopRite moments than they are the moments that find us creating the kinds of earthquakes that measure 8.5 on the Richter scale.  The same goes for blogging.  Sure, we get a post that goes viral.  Maybe we get hundreds of comments (not that this has ever happened to me).  But this is how I want to be remembered: not necessarily having published books that hundreds or even thousands of people read, or even building a program that has a legacy for my institution or my field, but mattering to individual human beings, one at a time, like one does in ShopRite.

How do you make people, even the ones you've never met, feel like they matter?

Vegetarian Pot Pie
adapted from Vegetarian Times
This could be a good alternative main dish for the vegetarians at your holiday table.  It's not terribly fancy, but it's hearty, and savory, and just the right kind of warm.  It would pair very well with Spanish sidra.

4 c. vegetable broth
4 c. water
1 small butternut squash, peeled, chopped 
1 lb thin-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large bunch spinach, well washed and coarsely chopped, or 3/4 c. frozen spinach
1 t. salt
1 1/2 c. frozen corn
1 1/2 c. cooked chickpeas
1/4 c. olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/3 c. flour
1/2 t. dried rubbed sage
1/2 t. dried thyme
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. milk
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

Bring the broth, water, squash, potatoes, and salt to a boil in a large pot. Cover, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the spinach and corn. Cook for three minutes more. Drain the vegetables, reserving the broth. Stir in the chickpeas.

Heat oil in the same pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute for about 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Add the flour, herbs, and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly pour 4 cups of the reserved broth into the pot. Cook until the roux thickens, 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the milk. Return the vegetables to the pot and mix; season to taste with salt and black pepper. Allow to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 375.  Pour the filling into a 9x13-inch baking pan.  Gently roll out the puff pastry to the size of the baking dish and place over the filling, pressing around the edges to seal. Score four diagonal lines into the puff pastry, and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the top of the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
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  1. Great story. We have 5 supermarkets in our tiny town. (It's ridiculous: all we have are banks and supermarkets and nothing else useful.) I loyally only go to one of them (well, really two of them for specialty items) exactly for that type of treatment. I remember the employees and ask after their lives, and they remember mine. Sometimes I write letters to the headquarters of the supermarket chain just to tell them how much that means to me as a customer. Those tiny moments which make me feel connected to the world at large.

    I hope the other cider was a close-ish fit.

  2. Love this post.

    Happy holidays. Stay warm, my friend.

  3. Lovely story. People scorn my local Safeway but I find the staff there similarly helpful. I'm sure the fact that you stop and chat to the staff on all the other Friday nights helped him remember you after the snowstorm.

    And "sidra"; it's been a long time since I've heard that word, and it's bringing back ... feelings. Good feelings, I think....

  4. Remembering things about them, asking them about things that are important to them and their lives. That's how I'd like to think I show people they matter to me. And you? I am so glad your write about these moments, and that I am a witness to your words. A new post from you was a great gift this morning. xo

  5. Oh, you matter to me. SO much.

    <3 <3 <3


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