She enjoyed scanning other people’s groceries during checkout, her eyes flitting back and forth from the pile of foodstuffs partitioned ahead of hers, or those that followed her. Whether by force of habit or voyeuristic fantasy, this pastime of hers was to read into what the person or family liked to consume just by looking at the items awaiting checkout on the conveyor belt. How many other people have this curiosity, she wondered. But really, what else is one to do while waiting in line to purchase one’s groceries?

Grocery purchases rank as one of the more mundane life activities. Practically everyone has to do it. Even so, she found fascination in its ordinariness. No two parties bought the same items, ever. However, the ones buying in bulk caught her eye. It must be the visual repetition: of the same item lined up all in a row, awaiting payment. She once found herself behind a family who had, among other things, thirteen two-litre bottles of vegetable oil. Another man bought multiple packs of only two types of TV dinner (Salisbury Steak, and Macaroni and Cheese, she noted). Then there is the dog or cat owner, with stacks and stacks of can food for the pet. Having been away from the States and particularly, Price Costco, she forgets that sometimes people, and especially large families, work best by stocking up. Since she no longer owned a car, nor a huge American refrigerator, her purchases were limited to a backpack and two cloth tote bags.

Sometimes she observed racier purchases. Once she stood in front of a man who had just a few select items: a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, coupled with two packs of condoms. Now this, she thought, was a man of confidence! He looked harried and anticipatory, and she was glad to finish paying for her groceries in order to get out of the way of his hot date.

Looking at her own pile, she imagined others could guess what she was about to consume. It might be a vegetable curry made of eggplant and tomatoes, brown rice, onions and a small packet of red lentils to be turned into dhal. Or beef burritos, with a packet of mince beef, ten tortillas, soured cream, a bottle of salsa, a wedge of cheddar cheese, tomatoes, accompanied by a small head of lettuce. How about a mushroom risotto with a crisp green salad, with thick-sliced beefsteak tomatoes and a fresh-baked baguette? When she felt partial to a good pasta meat sauce, she adhered to the same recipe that required another packet of mince (taking advantage of the “two for one” sale), plus a packet of smoked bacon, at least four cans of crushed tomatoes, a bag of plum tomatoes, fresh basil, and maybe a back-up package of pasta. She mused over the choice of penne, fusili, or spirali. Sometimes, the mood for lamb chops took over, which she enjoyed with carrots, and French beans, topped with a fried egg over rice, and steeped in brown gravy.

Something that noticeably set her grocery load apart was the lack of pre-processed foods, and no snacks or sweets. Though, if you asked her, she would say she’s terribly fond of pastries, but when it comes to buying éclairs, custard tarts, ice-cream, Coca Cola, and cookies, like an amnesiac, she forgot to walk down those aisles. She was a “main course” kind of girl, and dessert was considered an item others brought to her dinner parties, or she to theirs. No ready-made meals appear either – she wasn’t facetiously trying to be snotty nor was she overly self-conscious about her food choice. She just appreciated controlling the cooking of her meals, and the flavours created by the spices in her cupboard. Actually, there was one exception to the rule: she had a failing for frankfurters, throwing caution to the wind when it came to understanding ingredients in the sausage filling. But overall, the entrees she cooked tended to be modest, fresh, and well-balanced. Some might say she ate a rather Spartan diet. She just didn’t enjoy buying more than she could comfortably consume without hoarding.

Her light-hearted observations took on a different tone when, one time, she stood in line with her friend. Their selected groceries were lined up, rocking backwards and forwards whilst making the usual slow, jerking progress towards the cashier. She whispered her pastime interests to him, making him bend down to listen, “I like to check out people’s groceries at Check Out.” Behind them stood an older woman, who had emptied her basket of goods onto the conveyor belt. There weren’t many items, but it was clear that each item, down to the single bottle of beer, was for a serving size of one. A colourful box caught her eye: it was a roast dinner for one. The cover picture showed a plate containing 2 slices of roast beef, 3 pieces of roast potatoes, gravy, a Yorkshire pudding, and a few pieces of carrot and cauliflower – all within a box no bigger than a cheesecake. What a discrepancy, she thought, since she associated roast dinners with Sunday group celebration and a stupefying abundance of food. Sunday roasts by nature require a certain amount of energy, effort, planning, and execution. From the purchasing of a good joint (beef, lamb or pork), down to the piping hot, delicate creation of roasted potatoes, and gravy made from drippings, a well-cooked roast dinner demanded timing, skill and attention. The smell of an impending feast would permeate to all corners of the house, and when mother gave the all-clear, the family gathered in the early afternoon, around a set table. She could never control murmuring an appreciative, “Oooohhh!” when mum brought out the roast itself, sat on a carving tray, juicy and meaty, and smelling great. Oftentimes, she went back for seconds of meat, and most definitely to nibble on roast potatoes. It was encouraged, nay expected, that one eat until one could eat no more during Sunday roast, then contentedly pass out on the sofa afterwards.

But what of this box? Alone, it did not scream family. It did not speak about the hearth-like warmth an oven creates from hours of usage. There was no mental image of a caring person bustling about the kitchen, cooking up a warming, solid, and filling meal. There was no sharing, and even less delight. The box spoke of practicality and nostalgia. A combination like that only underscores a certain level of bleakness. Whatever was contained inside that box was destined for the microwave, and merely a dinner for one.

Erica, 34, London UK

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