Category Archives: Food

Saturday, April 18: Emergence

My personal pandemic program has always been to try to stay a week ahead (or at least a day ahead, in the case of Hallinan’s Liquors) of the curve. I never seem to quite hit that goal, as events move fast, but earlier this week I realized that it was time to start taking more risks and just getting out and doing some more normal tasks. It was time to venture out to Wegman’s once again… if only to see what it’s become. I don’t feel right about relying on delivery services, either, so this is going to have to be part of the program.

A Twitter friend of mine commented that his recent trip to my secondary Wegmans was like “the cantina scene from Star Wars” what with all the variety of homemade masks being used, and I found this pretty hilarious, and made me think my primary Wegmans might not be too much a bummer. I wish I could say that was my experience today, but it wasn’t.

It was a bummer.

Some people enjoy grocery shopping as a social thing, but that’s not me. However, Wegmans really was and hopefully still will be a pleasant place to shop. It is the wonderful people who work there who have always made it that way. (On the extremely rare instances you are served by someone who is in a bad mood or is making mistakes, one’s first impulse is to call the store and ask, “Is there something wrong with [name of cashier]? Is he doing okay?”)

Today, I sinned against the Snow God and went out quite early to do some major shopping. I planned ahead, bringing a fresh surgical mask from my dwindling box (as I don’t have a comfortable cloth mask yet that doesn’t look it was taken off a dead Tusken Raider), wearing boots that I would take off in the entryway, and reminding myself I’d need to take my coat off too before coming inside. Hand sanitizer in the car? Check. And I was off to drive to the store, trying to avoid a whole generation of streetwalking robins whose babies this spring will grow up not knowing what a car is.

I was expecting to find a line of socially distanced people waiting to be admitted into the store, but it was probably too early. The only sign something was different was a big “ENTER HERE” on one side, and a sign reassuring customers that carts had already been sanitized. Other than that and stickers placed on the floor advising everyone to stay a cart apart for safety, there was… nothing inside the store designed to control traffic flow. Wegmans is not interested in one-way aisles. Fortunately, 90% of the people inside were doing a good job of staying apart.

What’s hard to get used to, what truly seems un-Wegmanslike and surreal, is the silence. No one talks. There is no chatting. People hardly look at each other (too busy being avoidant). Most people are moving around purposefully with seriousness. Wegmans is no longer a place where you want to linger.

Our officials and experts, as recently as last week, were still soothsaying about the supply chain (“Plenty of food! Nothing to worry about!”) We now know that’s bullshit because we’ve learned about how presumptuous our supply chain really was about mankind’s dominion over the earth. You wonder what else they don’t have a handle on.

Apparently boneless chicken thighs are an extremely popular item, because when you walk into my Wegmans, the first thing that greets you is a single portable freezer where reduced-for-sale meat is on display, and they are selling individually wrapped chicken thighs for $1 each. This is apparently being done to preserve the illusion that there are ample boneless chicken thighs for all, or to make sure everyone gets at least one. But why are boneless chicken thighs so scarce? By the time you get back to the real meat area of the store, and see there’s almost nothing but bulk packs of chicken, and that there is an unusually large amount of bone-in chicken thighs, you get it: There aren’t enough workers to take out the bones at the processing facilities, or else maybe Wegmans lost the sourcing battle to Kroger’s.

There are also now packs of chicken with generic wrapping, labeled “Born/Hatched, Raised, and. Slaughtered/Harvested in the U.S.” I think this phrase must have been on all chicken in the past, but the labels were better designed to keep that in the background. If we’re going to still eat chicken, I guess we consumers now have no excuse not to know where it comes from.

Other than the toilet paper and hand sanitizer that may never actually return, my Wegmans seemed reasonably well-stocked. Workers had masks and Plexiglas shields. (Most of the customer’s masks seemed to be bland paper surgical masks, like mine.) My cashier seemed cheerful, though she lowered her mask to talk to the cashier in the next aisle… in the way that teenagers do when they know they aren’t probably aren’t going to die from this thing.

I was in and out of there pretty quick, and had found everything I needed. Back at the car, a moment to carefully take off my mask and store in a plastic bag for disposal at home, and to sanitize my hands, and I was out of there. It felt more like a spacewalk than I had imagined, though, and I would never feel like doing this sort of thing once a week. I hope Wegmans can work it out and I hope they can adapt to the new normal (and more convenient days are ahead, I’m sure).

In normal times, when I’m in Wegmans parking lot, hoping I can get out of the traffic and get home quickly, I indulge in imagining the past, when Wegmans was one of George Geddes’ elaborately drained farm fields.

After my many years of studying Fairmount’s history, growing to understand its cycles of transformation over 225 years and more, I began to feel I could apprehend the faint shape of its future, of a way of life that would one day be going on here, probably within 30 years. That’s a topic for another day’s long post. But I will say that this future seems both very different (and somewhat disturbing) and logical. Current trends and past patterns both pointed toward this future; but I still couldn’t understand what could possibly happen to create conditions for these changes even within three decades. (Another world war, fought far away, didn’t seem like quite enough to do it.)

What kind of discontinuity, what dislocation, would dislodge this current way of life in Fairmount and create room for this future to happen? I wonder no more.

Tuesday, April 14: Bigger than our stomachs

It’s Day 28 of “home confinement,” and I can’t stop thinking about food. Not to eat, right now. My taste in food is as awful as most of teenage America’s taste in music, so I’m pretty content with what I have. It probably comes from a lifetime of camping and discovering you forgot to bring such-and-such (“All we have is Walmart-brand trail-mix dregs? Delicious!”) You eat what’s in season, and what’s in season right now are Substitutions.

I’m just thinking about — dreading, really — the inevitable return to Scary Wegmans. Half-empty shelves, Plexiglas, cashiers who are afraid to work. By the end of this week, I will probably go back, because Instacart workers really are on strike, and even if you can schedule one, it does feel like crossing a picket line. I am personally happy with my emergency stash of supplies and could easily live on the junk that I have; but it’s hard to get older people to do without the things that they want and need (milk! they must have milk), and it’s hard to explain what the gig economy is to some of them. All they know is that “someone” will go get the groceries for them and bring it to their door.

I also can’t stop thinking about getting outside. This is mainly due to the stubborn hanging-back of spring, not so much due to the disruption of everyday life. I’d love to go to the Regional Market or to Hafner’s except that… everyone else will be dying to go there too, which means almost nobody will get to go there. Mostly when I go outside now it’s to re-deliver delivered groceries to relatives who are too afraid to interact with a delivery person. I wonder if I should get in my car and drive out to Elbridge for my favorite spring country drive in the hills — in the mystical land of no-coronavirus (I think they’re lying), and maybe see if there is a convenience store untouched by calamity.

Since I’m obviously not going to stop thinking about food for the time being, I wonder if the restaurant and food-supply-chain shakeup means that the future restaurant experience will no longer be about paying high prices for ridiculously piggish amounts on your plate. I realize that at high-end restaurants that’s not what you get; but at chain restaurants, the gargantuan portions would always turn me off. You were paying for food you’d never be able to eat. There must have been something ingrained in the wrongness of the way we eat (and serve) in this country — the same wrongness that has manifested in milk dumpings, armies of now-unemployed restaurant staff, “rape rooms” in the establishments of famous restaurateurs — that also resulted in those inedible giga-platters.

One small blessing of being Upstate is that, although individual businesses are suffering, it’s not like our cities had huge restaurant sectors. I think it is safe to say that a substantial percentage of restaurants in the big cities are never going to reopen. Did we maybe have too many of them? Should everything have really been such a big constant party?

But it’s also fair to look at the big-box grocery stores, too. Wegmans is so big and wonderful that even Brooklynites were lining up for hours to get a glimpse at this “department store of food.” Is this model of food delivery also up for a reappraisal? Should restaurants be able to pivot? Should we have more farmers’ markets and suburban bodegas exclusively supplied by local farmers?

Astonishingly, the neighborhood next door to me does have a suburban bodega (although it isn’t called that). Located smack in the middle of a quiet suburban street in Westvale is the Terry Road Market, which has operated for at least fifty years if not more. When I was a kid, I regarded the Terry Road Market with fascination. Not only could you buy food right on your street, but they were the only place where you could buy Wacky Packs. Why didn’t Fairmount Hills have something like this? In the era before the coming of Wegmans forty years ago this year, we had Loblaws, which technically you could walk to, but most people drove to. (And today I still wonder, why hasn’t Wegmans killed them yet? Our local Wegmans is just two or three blocks away.)

Some have speculated that people will want to cook more in their homes, but the main reason I don’t really cook much (and tend to live out of the microwave or a bag) is because my kitchen is small, old and terrible. (I’d really rather cook outdoors, it’s that bad.) It’s a home improvement that I have been putting off because of the dreadful complexity and expense, though I know I have to do it. And this reminds me of my pet peeve about the usual concerns about urban food deserts: a part of the reason why poorer people don’t cook is because their kitchens suck. Because their housing sucks. Bring them all the fresh affordable food you want, but if they have no place to prepare it… it’s a problem.

And so the food issue just keeps unpeeling like an onion. It is bigger than just the availability of food, and food experts knew this already, but suburbanites are just coming to understand. We aren’t on the privileged outside after all (or shouldn’t be): we’re just stuck in the middle between city and country, and right now, we are very much like cattle safely enclosed in our pens, wondering about feeding time. We can at least take the privilege we already have and try harder to be go-betweens among past and future.

Wednesday, April 8: Essentials

This morning, for almost the first time since CNY officially “had a problem” with coronavirus and everything went sideways, I woke up feeling depressed. Not because of the weather (which, blessedly, may be rotten for the next few days, keeping people inside), but because I suddenly started wondering what was going on at the local Wegmans. My only eyes on the outside world now — aside from very occasional trips to a relative’s apartment to deliver her groceries coming by delivery to my place — come from imagination.

(I also have a link to Onondaga County’s 911 call logger, which I am tempted to click on every time I hear sirens. What’s happening? What’s on fire now? etc. But so many of the logged events seem to merely be “Suspicious.” I can relate.)

I haven’t been to Wegmans for almost three weeks. I imagine shelves still mostly empty, social-distancing tape marks on the floor, nervous shoppers trying to avoid each other (“Oh! I need to look at that very important nose hair trimmer in the next aisle, if you’ll excuse me”), and cashiers behind Plexiglas, trying not be scared. My mood is also fueled by reading about Wegmans’ corporate reaction to the pandemic and employee safety, which apparently hasn’t been really what one would hope from a company that proudly says “Employees come first, customers come second.”

It’s permitted, not recommended, and certainly not promoted. That’s essentially the Wegmans stance on employees wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, the company dropped a ban forbidding workers from wearing masks on the job. Internally, there has been a deafening silence in the days since. I can’t speak for all employees, but I have not received an email about the new policy. Nor is there a posting about the change on employee bulletin areas in the breakroom or next to timeclocks at my store.

It’s really not good.

As the proprietor of the blog Wegmaniacal rightly says, Wegmans isn’t just a grocery store, it’s a key part of the Central and Western New York religion. And they’re not going out of business. But just in case we thought we were immune from the creeping sense of disappointment in our country that other people are experiencing across the U.S. (“we’re far away from and better than all that”), this news about Wegmans is going to disappoint a lot of people here who, all in all, have lost a lot of things to believe in over the past decades. We thought they were… better than that.

At the same time, I can’t stop thinking about the Regional Market. And the paradise of market stands all along Ridge Road. And those Red Norlands I used to grow next to the garage. Maybe I won’t go to Wegmans so much as I used to. Or maybe things will go back to normal. But my twin obsessions lately have to do mainly with county and regional government, and food. Kind of surprised about the “food” bit. (It’s not like I’m going hungry; but I’ve heard that some local med students — essentials-in-training — are going hungry and even living in their cars.)

I once had a thought that all civilization would be so much better ruled if disabled people were the only ones allowed to become president. Maybe every government, in addition to the usual types who get elected, need to have a Council of Essentials to legally have their say. We had this form of democracy here in the old days — the Haudenosaunee form of government, where there were chiefs, but also Essentials (the women, who raised the children and planted the crops) who had final say over serious matters and could remove a bad chief.

At least, companies and corporations could stand to have such councils. I believe we used to call them unions. Wegmans doesn’t like unions. Most of us thought this was just a harmless detail and not really relevant because Wegmans was just so nice to its employees that it didn’t really matter. But much like you can’t conceal the sound of a growling stomach, it’s possible that we can’t ignore this noise either.

(Late update: After intense criticism, Wegmans announces they have secured some masks for their employees.)

The bakery that time forgot

Harrison’s on West Genesee (across from Sacred Heart) is 60 years old this year. There is simply not much to the place, and there never has been. It’s basically a small lobby with three glass cases filled with goodies. Nothing else seems to have changed since (what I imagine it was in) 1949. Except now they are now offering ice cream, which seems mildly sacrilegious, but probably yummy too. Then again, Harrison’s was always yummy in a slightly sacrilegious way for me, because every family funeral took place at Giminski-Wysocki a couple doors down; and when I was a kid it was the place we went for “calling hours break.” Also, of course, it was where some of the food came from for the wakes. Sacred Heart Church is all mixed up in this dream too. Easter and babka, Death and halfmoons. The best halfmoons.

Taters!

This is the result of the Eva M. Walsh Memorial Experimental Potato Station, 2009.

I’m astounded at Mother Nature’s capacity to take my abuse. I honestly thought someone was screwing with my head when I dug these up, and had bought potatoes at the store and secretly buried them when I wasn’t paying attention (which was, like, all the time). I know potatoes are supposed to be easy to grow, but I’m just a serial plant killer.