We’ve yet to announce the winner of our second themed essay contest, “Holiday Rituals,” but we couldn’t wait any longer to publish this hilarious and timely runner-up by Michael Moshan. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!
On the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, I offer to buy groceries for the four dishes my wife Shana and I (read: Shana) are to prepare for the holiday. “I’m going to Whole Foods in Union Square,” I say nonchalantly, hoping to impress my gourmand wife.
Outside the supermarket, a crowd has gathered. I am confused because it’s only 5 p.m. and there are people inside. I push my way towards the front so I can better glare at someone. “OK people form a line!” someone orders as the glass doors suddenly part. “This is insane!” I say to no one and everyone, moving forward like the free-range sheep I am. “Why do I do this to myself why?” sighs a stylish gay-looking man, smiling at me but speaking into his cell phone, obviously hitting on me. I grab a hybrid basket, the kind that can morph into a luggage-like device with wheels and an extension handle, and use it like a shield as I push forward into a violent sea of food and foodies.
Why do we do this to ourselves why?
Stupidly, I haven’t organized my shopping, merely cutting and pasting my wife’s email of ingredients and instructions and then changing the font and size so that her email fits perfectly onto one page. Also I have no understanding of where things are in this supermarket. Also, I don’t cook or have much experience with gourmet food except to eat it. I feel like a fish out of chicken broth.
I begin in the produce section where the aisles are too narrow to accommodate this kind of frantic shopping. Even Whole Food’s overly patient employees are unable to keep the neat piles neat. In the next aisle someone yells, “They’ve run out of sour cream!” A child is screaming while his father is bagging an enormous amount of mesclun salad. A man who looks homeless is moisturizing his hands and face. It’s not loot-the-store pandemonium but with one slip on an herbicide-free shallot, the whole place could erupt.
I consult my list and grab five lemons stacked gorgeously in front of a sign describing their quirky origin and noble growing practice. Then I catch the price; they’re hideously expensive. But there’s no turning back.
Looking for heavy cream next, I note raw milk, lactose-free milk, organic milk, buttermilk, soy milk–indeed every cream but the heavy kind. I am dumbfounded and dumb. I annoy everyone around me because I haven’t grabbed something and moved on. Eventually three customers approach with a Whole Foods employee who, on their behalf, is also searching for heavy cream. After she scans the milk section, she grabs a passing colleague, and asks, “Where’s the heavy cream?!,” trying to appear calm. The four of us wait breathlessly for the answer and then stampede to aisle three.
Next up: dried spices. Shoppers are everywhere, lurching towards spices, which are now disorganized. I am in the middle of the scrum searching for ground cardamom, something my wife has made up for all I know. OK, they only have whole cardamom. I am motionless–completely paralyzed. A sympathetic Whole Foods employee offers to see if they have ground cardamom in the back until a woman who looks like she might host a Food Network show says, “Get the whole cardamom. It’s much better that way, trust me.” Trust her? I thank her and grab the whole cardamom, then consider asking her to sign a release form to show my wife just in case.
Soon after I’m lost again, wandering around looking for crème fraîche, mostly because I don’t know what it is. It sounds creamy and fresh. Then I remember the heavy cream fiasco and dart to aisle three where one finds all creamy things lost. No luck. I ask a Whole Foods employee to point me to the crème fraîche. “What’s that?” he asks wild-eyed. This guy looks like he’s returned from the front lines. “Oh it’s like this super high-end gourmet fresh whipped-cream,” I say as if I’m just another “crème frexpert.” As of this writing, I have no idea what crème fraîche is or whether my explanation was close.
We deserve this. Having waited to do our shopping the night before Thanksgiving and gone to the most popular supermarket in the most populated area of Manhattan, we can’t claim surprise that we’re here in this mess of a place. We’re not victims. We’re the lazy, the procrastinators, the solipsistic and the clueless, gathered together in a hornet’s nest of culinary anxiety because none of us had the brains to think that this place might be crowded on the night before Thanksgiving. I feel ashamed. I miss Brooklyn.
After scoring the crème fraîche near the fancy salamis—about the last place I’d think to look— I’m done shopping. I cross a busy intersection and join an amorphous line near a pyramid of boxed tangerines outside the checkout lanes. “Is this a line?” I ask the woman next to me. “I think so,” she says, but she seems lost, distant. Finally entering the checkout lanes, I accidentally run my cart over the foot of a Whole Foods employee who’s directing traffic. We both apologize.
Ten deep, we are herded into colored lanes before an electronic board that—visually and verbally—instructs us to a numbered checkout register. “Register number three!” a voice bellows on the Green section of the board, prompting someone in the Green lane to head towards a register. I’m standing in the White lane and so I root for the White team, like summer camp color war, except here I’m an adult holding six pounds of butternut squash.
“Register number 11!” blinks the White section. I smirk at the sucker in the Blue lane and head towards aisle 11, but suddenly there’s a middle-aged man in front of me, holding a large cane used to aide blind people. “This place is crazy! Can I get a little help here?” the man asks. He is blind. And carrying groceries in this zoo of a place. He is the most courageous man I have ever seen. A Whole Foods employee leads him to register number 11.
Cut off, I find myself in a dead zone between the registers and the checkout line. I want to scream the words of the blind man: This place is crazy! Can I get a little help here?
“This way sir,” says the Whole Foods employee who helped the blind man, gently leading me to an open register. I don’t make eye contact with the checkout woman. I tremble as I pay.
When I’m home in my Brooklyn apartment, I tell my wife about the crowds, the produce section, the crème fraîche, the moisturizing-happy homeless guy, the Food Network host who vouched for whole cardamom, the courageous blind man.
“Wow,” Shana says, holding up a resplendent lemon.
Incredible, I think, she is impressed.