4/23/2004
 
Last night the Balham Sainsbury’s supermarket, just a stones throw from my house, re-opened after two weeks of refurbishment. Still a bit high from the success of buying a non-stick wok for just four quid at Woolworths, it was a logical step to get some stir-fry-type-vegetables and a few of those little sachets - you know the ones, they have lemongrass and soy, and often oyster sauce (but being a vegetarian I ignore that, what’s a little Oyster sauce between friends?) from the supermarket.

Inside it’s chaotic. People are behaving as if they’ve never seen food before. Shoppers are tossing packs of shrimp into their trolleys like Britain is about to hit a recession and all that will be available for the next few months is oat bread and water. I notice that there are gay silver and orange helium balloons on every aisle and at the help desk two tired-looking assistants are pouring glasses of champagne for a mob of shoppers who have paused their frantic shopping to get a bit tipsy and toast the health of Mr and Mrs Sainsbury.

I walk past two of the Store Managers and hear one say “It’s going pretty well” in that understated, offhand way that really means “It’s going pretty well because I’m not dead from the stress, even though I started at 5 o’clock this morning and the baby wouldn’t stop crying until two and why, oh god why didn’t I order more shrimp?”

I weave my way through the sea of trolleys and baskets to the Fresh Produce section.

I’m usually quite a snappy shopper but when it comes to vegetables my consumer metabolism slows to a crawl. “I need onions” I think first, because absolutely everything I have ever cooked begins with a diced onion in oil. I can’t find the onions. In my head I have the supermarkets of two countries. I know where the onions would be in New Zealand; near the pumpkin. It’s a strange fact but the British don’t eat pumpkin. They feed it to cattle. In New Zealand pumpkin is roasted and made into thick soups with a native root vegetable called kumara. Just as a note they don’t sell kumara in Sainsbury’s either. Perhaps if they did I’d find the onions. Finally, after walking around the aisles with that despondent “they were right here” look, I see them out of the corner of my eye. But as I swoop on them, I discover they are organic onions.

I have a theory about organic vegetables; they have been created to mock me. It’s just a theory. There you are, buying food that’s both full of iron and high in dietary fibre, and then you glance over at the Organic section where you see butt-ugly fruit and veg smeared with soil laughing at you and their less nutritious, pesticide drenched, genetically engineered cousins. I’m all for looking after the planet and worshipping the temple that is my body, but not at three times the price! I consider it a class divide. The poor eat vegetables that make them deformed and the wealthy eat deformed food that hopefully won’t.

I finally find the onions and choose one that is the perfect size. I squeeze and pluck and poke my way through the rest of the vegetables I need, except for mushrooms. They have been hidden. I wish I had a map. And a glass of champagne. But luckily, as soon as I’ve given up on ever finding funghi I find them tucked round the corner, towards the checkouts. They are very awkwardly placed because everyone is trying to get past with their laden trolleys. I manage to retrieve about three closed-cup shrooms in a bag before allowing myself to be taken by the tide.

The check out girl looks warily at me.
“I already bought the wok” I explain, holding it up to show that I'm not smuggling a crate of Coco Pops in the plastic bag without paying for them, nearly whacking a Granny with my sudden wok-related movement.
“How’s it going today?” I ask the girl.
She smiles wearily.
“It’s pretty mad. I can’t wait to finish.”
I nod knowingly.
“I bet it’s been a long day.”
She can’t find a barcode for the broccoli and so pages one of the Managers.
“I only started ten minutes ago” She says, before we wait silently - fifteen people in the queue behind me, glaring - for the Manager to arrive.

 

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