First posted April 5, 2020
The Grocery Chronicles are a compilation of observations and thoughts revolving around the grocery store. We live in interesting times. And what happens at the grocery store reflects a lot of what we are as a community and as human beings.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, I was musing over a peculiar case of hoarding at the office. We have a common kitchen. Folks have contributed plates and utensils. We have usually lacked for nothing – except forks. We used to have tons of forks, but then they mysteriously faded away. It became (and still remains) an office joke. Somebody retires and, voila, a fork appears! “Now I know who has been hoarding the forks!”
I did my part. I ran over to the Salvation Army and purchased a bag of about a dozen forks, all with green handles. Those forks did not disappear, but remained available for use for months. Then came the office Christmas Party. Keeping to our sustainability philosophy, we used all of our silverware and only supplemented it with plasticware. As is usual for large events, the utensils and plates all went into the dishwasher. Oddly, though, the forks suddenly disappeared.
The case of the missing forks is a small example of the psychosis of hoarding. We had plenty of forks until it was perceived that we had no forks. They were at the party, then stowed in the dishwasher. The drawer was empty. People opened up the dishwasher, took a fork and then never returned it. Forks are in high, consistent demand. They are essential. Once people detect something essential is not reliably available, they will keep it.
The folks I work with are almost all college educated professionals, great team players and often generous. But there is something in our human nature that is triggered when we sense that something needs to be grasped or it will be forever lost. Little would I know in the coming months how the case of the missing forks would extend itself into the entire community.
As tragic as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it has its humorous moments. Nothing has demonstrated that more than the run on toilet paper. This was before the lock down, people were still going to work. What is this thing about toilet paper? That question would then be repeated by news anchors and comedians, and it has since become fuel for silly postings on social media. My favorite photo shows guys sitting at a gaming table with rolls of toilet paper instead of chips.
There is absolutely no logical reason for a run on toilet paper. Even with the lock down in place, people can still go to the grocery store. Maybe there are thousands of people out there that have not yet discovered that the best way to get through an episode of diarrhea is a good magazine, some patience and a robust exhaust fan.
The shelves emptied in the soup section – but Fred Meyer had cases of creamy chicken soup on sale! On sale! And nobody would buy it! I am on a low cholesterol diet, so cream is out. But otherwise I can’t really see the difference here. The run on chicken soup also shows the grand tradition of treating the flu with chicken soup. Yet, remaining virtually untouched, were the ingredients of chicken soup: chicken broth, chicken breast, celery, onions and carrots. Sprinkle in some pasta or rice and you are done.
Ramen is the base ingredient of my lunches at the office. Needless to say, this was rather disappointing to see those barren shelves. I had to upscale my diet to Chef Boryardee.
What’s this? Everybody likes what I like? I purchase small cans of corn, along with black beans and Mexican diced tomatoes to make a tasty blend of vegetables to add to my ramen. What I thought was a bit peculiar was that a regular 10 oz. can of corn was readily available. But the small cans were cleaned out!
This is the first thing that makes sense. I don’t think this was a case of hoarding – simply a huge uptick in demand for a product that is marginally in demand. We have hardly had hand sanitizer in our home and we have recently added it to the office. What is really interesting, however, is how isopropyl alcohol has vanished from our shelves. Shows how inventive people are becoming. I imagine there will be a mass slaughter of aloe plants in the coming weeks.
This caused me to laugh! Could not believe it that potatoes vanished! This occurred as soon as the restaurants closed down. Potatoes are handy, versatile, and easy to prepare. Alas – had to give up on our weekly baked potato night.
Next to fall was rice. Juneau is blessed with a sizable Filipino community and they love their rice. So do I. Can’t say how disappointed I was that we all shared a taste for basmati rice. Bummer. For the first time in twenty years I purchased a box of instant rice. Only two large boxes were left on the shelf. I think it will take me another twenty years to get through one box.
Now this is insanity. Are that many people baking? Once the restaurants closed and people were stuck at home, what did they do with their time? What did the women in the 50’s and 60’s do with their time at home? They baked! My grandmother baked at least twice a day back in the 60’s, beginning with the morning’s biscuits. For her, baking up a cake or pie was second nature. So I have found it quite fascinating that flour is now in short supply. Even the local artisan bakery had to shut down because there was no flour! Meanwhile, there must be cookies baking in every stove in Juneau.
This was logical – so many hands holding a common object, the scoop in every bin. Probably explains why there was a run on bagged flour.
It is interesting how the grocery store is an important part of our social interaction. Juneau, being a “small” town, means you meet friends practically on every trip to the store. The folks who work in the store become familiar faces.
This debate has gone back and forth. I think there is a compromise now. Bringing your own bag is OK, but you bag the groceries yourself. That’s no problem. You can also use your own bags at the self-check-out.
People were getting some good laughs from the social distancing thing. Two carts meet at the end of the aisle. “You first”. “No, you first.” All this while keeping six feet apart. Remember the good ol' days when carts crowded the aisles and you had to wait for the lady with three kids climbing out of the cart to move?
That was my reaction when I entered Fred Meyer and saw that I was the only person without a mask. At least until I observed further back that about half the customers were not wearing masks. But I could detect some people glaring at me from behind their masks, as if saying “What kind of fool are you?”
Needless to say, my social media network is being dotted with design ideas for masks. I haven’t owned a bandanna in decades. My son loaned me one of his. Need to get one with darker colors to go with my cowboy hat, then put on my best Lee Marvin voice.
By Eric Niewoehner
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