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The Enchanted Aisle

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One of the strange side-effects of motherhood is that, when you finally have the opportunity to take a much-needed break, you’re too tired to think of anywhere interesting to go.  Nine times out of ten, I end up at the local market.  It’s not as rewarding as an afternoon at a day-spa but neither is it the snooze-fest you might imagine.

Unless you’ve taken up residence under a large, comfy rock, you’ve probably noticed that supermarkets have undergone a radical transformation.  Unforgiving gray cement floors have been replaced with blinding white tile.  Dreary exposed pipes have been exchanged for cathedral ceilings dotted with flood lights.  Aisles too narrow to circumnavigate are now as wide as the Interstate.  Each segment of the store is clearly identified by charming wooden signs, lettered with flowing script.  Products that once rated a cramped corner of one shelf now merit their own departments.  Our local markets have become the grocery equivalent of theme parks.

In the old days, when my dear grandmother trouped to the store, she brought along a large, square, wire shopping cart of her own.  There were two big wheels on the back of the cart and two pointy wire legs on the front, capped with rubber tips, so as not to skewer any passing grandchildren.  It boasted a tall, metal handle for convenient dragging across broken sidewalks.  And it was collapsible, to provide for easy storage in the back of her pantry.  The deep, rectangular basket offered more than adequate space for her days’- or weeks’-worth of groceries.  This was well before the advent of the warehouse store so she didn’t need room for five-pound jars of peanut butter or 80-piece chicken-wing specials.  No, her faithful, personal food-hauler was all that she or any other mom of that era required.

Today’s shopping carts are more suited to Bugs Bunny Land than Land O’ Lakes margarine.  An alarming number of these transportation devices feature large, red plastic car or fire-truck facades, complete with decorative wheels.  (Just plop your young’uns behind the yellow steering wheels and watch them mimic all the terrible habits and road-rage that they have observed in Mommy & Daddy.)  Slightly older rugrats are presented with adult-style carts, scaled down to child-size.  (These are infinitely convenient for ramming precarious fruit displays and/or unsuspecting siblings.) Other shopping carts are as broad as double-wide trailers—minus the ubiquitous tornadoes.  These come equipped with two seats and four leg-holes in the front shelf and their basket areas seems to contain a square acre of storage space.  My own market, undoubtedly responding to the “down-sizing” trend, also offers half-sized adult shopping carts for less ambitious expeditions.  Given this wealth of choices, it is now easier to choose a family car than to pick out the right shopping cart.

Adding to the excitement of each supply-seeking excursion is the fact that food is no longer divided into the mundane categories of our childhoods.  No longer does one purchase protein from the Meat department.  Instead you visit a rotating carousel of beef labeled “The Meaty Go Round.”  You find milk, butter and eggs in a section known as “Knott’s Dairy Farm.”  Apples and bananas can be found in “The Produce Playground.” And the breads and assorted fresh-baked carbohydrates are located on the “Cruller Coaster.”  (We disdain the pathetic Europeans, whose breads and cakes are relegated to mere bakeries and whose meat is displayed in bland butchers’ windows.) Every supermarket is a microcosmic expression of our Era of Excess.

When did edibles become so incredible?  When did provisions become so prolific?  When did rations become so… irrational?

Further contributing to the carnival atmosphere, unnaturally cheerful employees roam the store, dangling mouth-watering samples before our drooling lips.  In their starchy white shirts and checkered aprons they bear more than a passing resemblance to the wacky humanoid characters who wander Disneyworld and Legoland.  Few can resist the Siren Song of the Sample.  Numerous friends have sheepishly confessed to making a meal out of the plentiful offerings at our local big-box store.  Who needs a sensible salad for lunch when you can dine on mini-hot-links, tiny pizza squares, quarter-granola-bars and Dixie cups overflowing with noodle casserole?  Four-ounce shots of the latest diet-shake-liquid-meal-replacement provide your daily dose of health food.

The auditory aspect of the experience has evolved too.  Irresistibly upbeat pop music is pumped through the structure, building excitement like the overture to a Broadway show.  Everything in the surrounding environment screams, “Be happy!  Be hungry!  Spend your way into a carbohydrate-induced-coma!”

Oddly, when my kids were small, they appeared every bit as amused purchasing foodstuffs as they did riding a funfair attraction.  My younger son spent every visit skipping, diagonally, from tile to tile as I trudged up the cereal aisle.  My older son was endlessly entertained by the process of opening and closing glass freezer doors—trapping his younger brother between the frosty glass and the frozen pizza was simply an unanticipated bonus.  Surreptitiously sneaking cookies into the basket was as much fun as any arcade game.  And, at the conclusion of each excursion, they would scrutinize the checkout register screen as if studying the score of a particularly exhilarating Laser Tag game.  When my tab went above the $100 mark, they would cheer and announce that “This is the best show ever!”  (Our impending poverty was apparently a source of hilarity to them.)

So let me give you a tip.  The next time that you’re looking for an affordable getaway for you or the kids, drag yourselves to the local supermarket.  It’s every bit as colorful and entertaining as Coney Island.  Besides, a week’s worth of chow still costs less than one day at most parks and seasons’ passes are not required.