During the first few months of Covid-19, I was living at home in suburban Ohio with my parents. I only ever went two places: hiking, and the grocery store.
The grocery store was expensive, and the one that I’d grown up visiting. As a kid I used to count the lobsters in the tank each time we went shopping, so I could figure out who’d gone missing. Now, in the early, most fearsome weeks of the pandemic, I brought home reports from the store like a grizzled war correspondent. No toilet paper or yeast or soap or seltzer. Another time, no eggs. The next time, no tortillas. Also, a puzzling run on Cascade detergent that never abated, even when the other staples came back in stock.
The flour came back: First just whole wheat, then the regular kind too. Soon it was spring, and the mandarin oranges my mom loved had been replaced by fat strawberries. In the produce section, the mood remained tense. Customers maintaining social distance waited impatiently for their fellow shoppers to just get on with it and select some mushrooms already. We danced around one other by the broccoli, glared at the occasional maskless deviant.
It was strange to experience interpersonal stress and empty shelves at the store when I’d always associated grocery shopping with a reassuring sense of abundance. My friend K. once said that whenever she didn’t know what to do with herself, she wandered the aisles of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, the famously affordable mecca where big wedges of nutty Tuscan cheeses go for $2.99. K. loved to take in the bounty: pale green gooseberries, apricot-steeped IPAs, wrinkled black olives, flaky croissants and sesame-studded bagels nestled into their drawers. It’s like going to church, she said, and I knew just what she meant.
A few months before Covid hit, I’d finally joined the food coop. During my once-a-month work shifts, I descended into the coop’s tiny basement to twist together plastic bags of oolong tea leaves or chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. I liked the autonomy the coop afforded its workers; it was up to us to imagine the different portions different kinds of people might want, and offer them up accordingly. What of the pregnant woman whose morning sickness can only be abated by dried mango? I would think to myself, piling slices into an enormous serving. But then what of the dried-mango addict, trying to taper? For him, just a few would suffice.
The coop has since canceled mandatory shifts for members. And like a lot of people, the pandemic has made me newly conscious of the workers who keep shelves stocked and lines moving. I try to shoot waves of gratitude toward them as I navigate the aisles back in Brooklyn, still marveling at the coop’s variety and comparative cheapness. My spice cabinet has expanded to include $1 portions of zaatar and star of anise. On an impulse I picked up an 80-cent bag of rose-petal tea, which I can barely taste but turns the contents of my mug pale pink. I have pupusas in my freezer, harissa nestled with the soy sauce and Tabasco among my condiments. It’s exciting to be able to afford to toss groceries into my cart this way; it must be how people with second homes in the Hamptons feel.
While I’ve always enjoyed grocery shopping, what I like best about it right now is that it’s one of the few remaining and consistent ways to imagine happy events in the near term. Maybe that can of condensed milk will transform into lemon bars that I’ll tote to a socially-distanced picnic. Japanese eggplant on sale is the perfect excuse to finally try roasting them over the stovetop burner. I pick up a package of coconut popsicles, imagining myself eating one dreamily on the fire escape while the sun goes down.
The pandemic has taken away plenty of things I used to look forward to. But meals continue to happen every day, and why not make them hopeful? Even buying spices is an act of faith in the future. They sit in cabinets for so long. The next time I use that bag of zataar, perhaps we’ll be living in a different kind of world.