Wednesday, November 30, 2005

intimate knowlege of...

I know way too much to be in this relationship. I have an intimacy problem: too much intimacy. Intimacy with organic produce.

Looking at my simple supper, the baby carrots are from Deep Roots Farm, in Vermont. I can similarly name the growers of the mostly gorgeous Boston lettuce, and the source of the Roma tomato. I know when they arrived at the organic grocery store where I work. I know the number of days I hauled them in and out of the walk-in cooler. I know why these vegetables were demoted to the “free” bin in the staff refrigerator. The chipotle ranch dressing gives a smoky kick at the end, which I love—that’s the one item I paid for in this dinner salad.

The stew is made with grass-fed beef and organic beef broth, both of which were pricey, but my employee discount comes in handy. The oregano, sea salt and thyme were practically free. Garlic and onions, well paid for, potatoes free. Red lentils thicken the broth, but they dissolve and no one knows of their presence but me. They cost pennies and impart a rich flavor.

Can I tell you a secret? I hate grocery stores—mine is a special exception. Prices of items go in one ear and out the other, or at least they did before. Now I know that the supermarket charges 75 cents more per pound for organic apples than my store, and I know because it’s my business to know, and because my store was short on apples when I needed to bake pies. I still hate the supermarket—that was my one trip since September. I love my little store, the sunlight streaming in the downtown windows and the funky music, depending on which staff person chooses it. I love the scent of the soaps near the cash register. I secretly love sweeping the amaranth grains off the floor with the big push broom.

Next secret? I detest dealing with produce. How can vegetables be so damned needy? I resent the rainbow chard for wilting and the bruises on the oranges, and the lettuces are like little neurotics, needing infinite care. Every item of produce is filed in its respective box overnight, me hauling it up and down, bundled in my sweaters in the big refrigerator. Every basket and bowl is washed, then the sinks and surfaces. And in the morning, wilty items are trimmed and soaked and primped, and it all starts again.

Now and then, though, some noxious produce chore makes me happy. Like today, when Kate tossed all the celery in the staff “free” bin, as it looked like it had been run over by a truck. I removed the outer layer of stalks of one bunch, intending to take it home, to find the celery hearts were quite sturdy and delicious, so I “redeemed” seven of the twelve pounds of formerly trashed celery. So no free celery today. I buy a bunch, instead, but take with it two free pounds of butter and some dated milk. And three chocolate-covered espresso beans that were “returned” by a customer.

I admit I have some reservations about bagging groceries, the one job I hoped to escape when I left my tiny hometown as an eighteen-year-old. I miss my work from last year, serving college students. I miss the prestige of a high hourly wage and I miss the way my schedule allowed me a few hours alone every day. That’s the downside.

But there is a third secret: it does not all even out in the end— even if I pay well for my food, I win, in every circumstance. It’s all such a gift, really good employers, really good meals made from really good ingredients at my intimately-known table. I toast my work life with a mug of hot cider, slightly past the “sell by” date and deliciously free.

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