I'll admit that I have a romantic notion of what is often thought of as the European/urban way of shopping, eating and keeping food. This involves owning a very small refrigerator and shopping almost daily for fresh ingredients, often on foot. It's contrasted by the American/suburban style of shopping, eating and keeping food which involves pushing a cart the size of a bathtub through acres of grocery aisles, then driving home to cram them into a refrigerator roughly the size of my first apartment. (P.S. I know that there are large, acres-of-aisles-style grocery stores in Europe and I know that there are people in America who shop every day on foot. In general, though, I think the categories still apply. Please, illuminate me in the comments if you disagree.)
While I like the aesthetics of the romantic way of food shopping (pretty totes, fresher ingredients, built-in exercise) the truth is that I don't often practice it, at least in its pure form. My usual style is a hybrid of the two, based on location and refrigeration. I live up a hill, nearly a mile from the nearest decent grocery store, so food shopping everyday just isn't practical. And while I don't own a car, I do have a rather large refrigerator in my apartment so I often find myself enjoying the convenience of borrowing a car once a week to load up on groceries. Meanwhile, my romantic side has had to make do with trips to the farmers market where I can load my pretty totes full of fresh produce and walk my vegetables up the hill, feeling virtuous and vaguely European. And sweaty.
When my refrigerator broke down recently, I got a glimpse of what a more full immersion of my romantic version of shopping, eating and keeping food would be like. A hastily purchased plastic cooler and a several blocks of ice became my refrigerator for the better part of a week. It basically had just enough room for a small container of milk for my morning tea, a jar of Best Food's Mayo and a few slices of cheese. And some eggs. It was a challenge, true, but not an impossible one.
In fact, I rather enjoyed my temporary European/urban lifestyle. While in some ways it was inconvenient, in many ways it did me good. Walking to the crappy bodega a few blocks from my home got me some much needed exercise, for instance, and helped morph my opinion of it from crappy to semi-crappy. I ate deep into my pantry's back shelves, got creative with jars of artichokes and cans of roasted tomatoes, rediscovered the joys of a vegan stir fry.
I often wonder about the seduction of convenience, how we are drawn to its charms and promises but end up handing over more in the exchange than we realize. We often give convenience the highest priority without examining what we really want and need our lives to be. We assume that inconvenience is a negative aspect but in fact it's just a state of mind, based on our priorities. If fresh produce and good exercise are a priority, then a walk to the grocery store several times a week is not inconvenient, it's a pleasure.
My now enormous seeming refrigerator is back in service. I surprised myself a little by not rushing out to my favorite grocery store* to stock it to its usual levels. And while I'm not going to shop everyday (I seriously just can't), I kind of wish I could. I don't want to give up this glimpse into what for me is a more sane and balanced way to live my life. I'll be moving soon and top priority, over many other conveniences, will be finding a place within walking distance of a good grocery store. I may not be in Paris, but I can sure act like I am!
*Berkeley Bowl, if you must know.
Update 10/19/2014: My, but this was a popular post! I think if I wrote it today I wouldn't call it Shop Like a Parisian because, as a few reader's pointed out, this way of shopping isn't just Parisian/European and these days Parisians don't necessarily shop this way anyway. Still, the title refers to a cliche we all pretty much know and so I suppose it gets the message across.
Today I live in a different place, where my dream of being close to my markets has been realized. I can walk one block to the farmers market on Sundays and ride my bike to Trader Joe's any day of the week. I can also ride my bike to a fancy food hall that has separate vendors for meat, fish, produce, bakery, etc. If I'm careful with my pennies, I can occasionally shop there as well and really live it up.
I still think a lot about modern convenience and its trade offs, about our busyness and choices and the questions all of this raises: What do we value? What have we given up for convenience and is it worth it? What's the most important thing and do we live our lives according to it?
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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in April, 2012. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.