Growing up, our mom worked at a grocery store. She got paid every Thursday, which was by far the most important day of the week, because Thursday was Food Day. She’d get her paycheck and go shopping after work, returning home a little later than usual with a trunk full of the week’s provisions. Invariably, I’d have my fat face pressed against the dining room window desperately waiting for her Silly Putty-colored Dodge Aspen station wagon to turn onto our street.
Before she finished backing into the driveway, we’d surround her car like starving hyenas around a freshly mauled gazelle. The lift gate’s springs were blown, so my job was to stand with my hands over my head, elbows locked, holding up what felt like 350 pounds of glass and steel while everyone else unloaded the brown paper bags that were filled with stuff that was really never even that good. As my siblings passed by me, I’d try to identify what was in the bags while screaming warnings at them not to eat all the good stuff. There was a handful of times where there would be a package of Oreos or Chips Ahoy, but we’d sniff those out immediately and, if they even made it into the house, the cookies would be gone within minutes. I specifically remember one magical day when a box of Cookie Crisp cereal was discovered in one of the bags. I’m pretty sure it was gone before the rest of the car was unpacked. But more often than not, if there was a rogue bag of cookies, they were godawful windmill cookies, and we’d give my poor mom hell for hours. (“Ma, why do you get these – they taste like cardboard!” “Because your father likes them!”)
We never had potato chips for the same reason I can’t buy them now – my mom knew she’d eat them. (I have no control. And I curse the monster who’s responsible for Cape Cod jalapeno chips. Damn you! Damn you straight to hell!) Lunch meat options were pimento loaf, Lebanon bologna, liverwurst, or deviled ham. At some point in time, we acquired a suspicious, oddly-shaped can of liver pate with peppercorns that sat on the shelf collecting dust for years. I’m guessing it was sold before the invent of expiration dates, so there was never a reason to throw it away. Because ‘this looks like cat vomit‘ wasn’t a valid argument.
Sugared cereals were banned, so the grocery bags contained some combination of puffed rice (which easily doubles as packing material,) Cheerios, Wheaties, Corn Flakes, or Grape Nuts, which I love but can no longer eat since my ‘the-crunchier-the-better’ mantra has compromised my poor teeth. However, my parents’ logic behind supplying only ‘healthy’ cereals backfired since I always piled at least three to four heaping spoonfuls of sugar on my ‘bland’ cereal. By the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, I was munching a slurry of 70/30 sugar to milk ratio. mmm crunchy milk…
Since we had little to no junk food, we had to be inventive. I wasn’t past pouring syrup on a plate and sopping it up with soft white bread. Kool Aid was a staple, and I’m pretty sure the directions called for more sugar than water. Chocolate chips were supposed to be for recipes, but they’re candy when there are no other options.
I couldn’t wait to grow up and have a family of my own so I could stroll through the supermarket selecting delicious products from the shelves and returning home to smiling faces so grateful for my thoughtfulness. They’d be delighted to help me unpack the many bags overflowing with all their favorites – and some new surprises they’d be eager to try. Every night’s dinner would be an adventure and, more often than not, would end with applause for the feast I had spread before them. But it’s not like that. No, it’s not like that at all. And don’t I now do the same damn thing my mother did, the only difference being that there isn’t one specific day each week designated to buying a trunk load of crappy groceries. Sometimes it’s two weeks. (“Ma, why do you get these rice cakes – they taste like cardboard!” “Because they’re good with hummus!”)