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Renegade Chef: Stalking the aisles at the grocery store

I have always wanted to work in a grocery store. I think it’s in my blood. My father began his career in the grocery business during the Great Depression. He worked for free at first, and was paid in castoff fruit and vegetables and damaged cans that had a 50-50 chance of containing either sustenance or salmonella.

But then the store owner, H.E. Butts, noticed how alert, adept and aggressive my father was (was I adopted?) and put him on the payroll. Dad soon became the manager and eventually owned his own store, O.P. Skaggs, in Worthington.

I was only 3 when my father escaped through the last grocery aisle and dragged us all up north to a broken down resort in Nowhere, Minn. Thus ended any chance I had of “growing into” the grocery world. The year was 1961.

More than 50 years later, I still enjoy going to grocery stores. I have to go down every aisle, no matter what. If I don’t need toilet paper, I still go down that aisle and squeeze the Charmin. I don’t have a cat, but I’ll head down the next aisle and check the price differential between Whisker-Lickin’ Vittles and Frisky Hair-Ball Reducing Liver Chunks.

It’s fun to people-watch in grocery stores. I might run into someone I know and spend a few moments laughing and catching up on things. Then again, I might see someone I know, but don’t like, and turn my back and pretend to be infatuated with the contents of a jar of Jiffy peanut butter.

I wear a disguise — usually black glasses, a fake nose and moustache — if I don’t want anyone to know I’m shopping in that massive, forbidden world known as the frozen food section. It is Groucho Marx, not me, who put five pizzas for $10 in the shopping cart, along with a jumbo-size bag of beef and bean burritos, a box of pork eggrolls and a 5-quart pail of rocky road ice cream.

The produce section is my favorite part of a grocery store. Here I can shed Marxism. This is where the healthy, cool people hang out. I can demonstrate my grace at bagging and twist-tying, my ability to poke avocadoes and prod melons. I can flaunt my knowledge of all things eclectic by purchasing items such as Swiss chard, fennel bulb and yucca root.

I can impress bystanders by flagging down an employee wearing a green apron and asking, with the trace of an English accent, “Would you happen to have any fresh lavender hiding in the back stockroom?”

The meat and seafood department can be intimidating. I feel like an elitist walking those aisles, touching flank-steak, fondling brisket and salivating over beautifully marbled rib-eyes and thick-cut, choice tenderloin. None of it is affordable to me.

Fish, such as walleye and salmon, can only be purchased on the installment plan. Shrimp, crab, scallops and lobster are available only to the rich. Even ground beef is pushing five bucks a pound.

The other day, I ran into the Dalai Lama in the meat department. He was surprised I recognized him because he, too, was disguised as Groucho Marx. I asked him how things were going in the mountains of Tibet and he responded, “Oh, you know — same old, same old — a yak yak here, a yak yak there, everywhere a yak yak.”

Neither of us could afford hamburger and there was no yak, but I solved everything by leading the Dalai Lama/Groucho Marx to aisle 3, where I introduced his holiness to “Minnesota Yak in a Can” — also known as Spam. He was happy and I realized — hey, I should work here!