Friday, April 23, 2010

A Different Kind of Grocery Store

Grocery stores are some of my favorite places on earth.  

There are the mom-and-pop corner markets in New York City, shelves stocked with goods reflecting the ethnicity of the owners.  There are the mega-markets filled with generic and recognizable boxes and cans.  There are the big box stores and the local chains and I love them all.  

I've always liked pushing the cart through the store.  When I was small, Associated Foods had kid-sized carts waiting next to the grown-up carts... waiting there just for me.  I don't remember filling the basket with groceries or emptying it at the checkout counter but I can still remember how the ribbed black rubber felt under my hands as I steered it, very very carefully, up and down the aisles.

Now, G'ma likes to leave her walker in the car and lean on the grocery cart.  It makes her feel mainstreamed, as if she's fitting in with the crowd, just as I did when I was 5.  I try not to dwell on the sad piece.....

There's a reassuring familiarity to grocery stores.  Milk and eggs and bread and meat are around the edges, which makes running in to get the necessities an exercise in tunnel vision if impulse purchases are to be avoided.  Hellmans Mayonnaise is Best Foods Mayonnaise west of the Mississippi (a fact which is true if somewhat bizarre) but for the most part, noodles are noodles and soups are soups.

Unless you enter another world entirely.  And that's what Seret and I did last month.  The sign at LeeLee's Oriental Market preceded the opening of the store by many months; we locals began to wonder if it was a ruse.  There were no grand opening banners nor local radio stations broadcasting from the parking lot but one day I noticed cars parked in front of the doors and deduced that they had actually arrived.  Not being a very adventurous cook, I needed Seret's presence to motivate me to cross the threshold.

It's a big, bright box store with very wide aisles.  There is a Vietnamese restaurant in one corner and take-out Asian BarBQue in another.  A jewelry store occupies the southern corner and a travel agency is right beside it.  I'm not describing storefronts facing the parking lot.  I'm talking about actual independent businesses housed within the confines of LeeLee's Oriental Market.  We weren't in a grocery store.  We were in a neighborhood.

And what a neighborhood it was.  There were no familiar products on the shelves.  Instead we saw

Now, perhaps the squid is a well-loved fellow in the Orient, but here in Tucson it's probably not the brand name designed to cause a cowboy to salivate.  

There were many varieties of eggs, some with little chicks nestled inside the shells.  The stocker wanted to be sure that we understood what he was trying to tell us, which is why he brought over the English-speaking manager to explain the contents.  We were grateful, and we moved on to something somewhat more palatable as well as unusual:
We're still wondering why the yolks are bright orange.

There were aisles of bamboo umbrellas and chopsticks in every hue.  There were brands of paper goods which were new to both of us, and there were delicacies we'd never imagined:

 But my favorite part of the neighborhood were these packages, nestled right up beside one another.  Honestly, I didn't move them to photograph them.

If the couscous can get along together, why can't we?