My wife and I were in the grocery store the other day. Calm down. Calm down… I know those of you that know me well are already gasping ‘oh no, the poor, poor woman’. For the rest of you let me back up and say that I have a bit of a reputation. I love going to the grocery store. It all starts with the fact that I like eating… a lot… so duh, taking me to the food market is like handing a compulsive gambler an all-expenses paid trip to Caesar’s Palace or parking an alcoholic at McSorley’s Old Ale House with an open prepaid bar tab or taking Trix The Rabbit to the General Mills cereal factory or bringing a Klu Klux Klan member to an Alabama white sheet factory outlet sale or… you get my not so subtle drift.
I know you already think I’m a freak for loving the grocery store drudgery that most folks despise but it’s not just the menu planning for my next few yummy meals that I like. There is an awful lot of fun you can have in the market. Really! My absolute favorite is playing the What Are The Creepiest Items On The Shelves game. As you do your regular shopping you search out the gross stuff they regularly stock.
Beginners to the game can practice at the Asian market where it’s easy to spot nasty stuff like bottled chicken feet, canned sheep organs or an egg carton filled with balut. But once you are experienced, it becomes quite the art picking off the oddball stuff quietly lurking in your regular grocery store. My favorite is still the Hormel can of Pork Brains In Milk Gravy I spotted next to the Vienna sausages in a North Carolina Harris Teeter store. The suggested recipe on the can is for ‘brains and scrambled eggs’ where the first step listed on the label’s ‘suggested serving’ recipe was to “drain brains”. Like you hadn’t already done that is you were choosing to eat that.
Now the second step to this game is the mischievous part that really drives my friends crazy. I tend to take those creepy items and surreptitiously slip them into the shopping cart when no one is looking. Then I see how long it takes till they are discovered. Nothing amuses me more than getting all the way to the check-out lanes before the multiple tubes of anchovy paste, cans of potted meat food product, mega-size packs of adult diapers and slabs of raw liver are found. I don’t care if I have to be the moron running around the place putting them all back at the last minute; I’m laughing the whole way.
Unfortunately for me, my wife is wise and many years ago she broke me of that game when we shop together. Oh I could still slip stuff in the cart without her knowing but she is very, very talented at the art of revenge. Although she has never done it yet, I could see her not letting me put the crazy additional stuff away, paying for it all and then torturing me with it ages later when I least expected it. Five months from now I don’t want to be served a livery anchovy pasted potted meat food product birthday cake and an accompanying wrapped mega box of adult diapers. I might be crazy but I know not to mess with those more patient and cunning than myself, especially when I share a bed with them.
So yes, I was on kinda good(ish) behavior with my wife the other day in the grocery store. We were somewhat near each other as I was doing my usual every aisle stroll and drool while she was being her more typical purposeful ‘follow the list’ goal and destination oriented shopping self. I lost track of her when I discovered something on the shelf that made me stop in my tracks. “STRAWBERRY SPINACH” I exclaimed out loud to no one in particular. A memory of childhood hit me. A food memory.
The last time that happened was years ago when I was sitting in an old fashioned deli restaurant with my buddy T-Bone. I looked on the menu and saw Stuffed Derma. A flood of memories came back to me. The minute before I saw the item on the menu, you could have quizzed me for hours and I would not have been able to come up with the name Stuffed Derma or recalled it even existed. But seconds after reading it, a memory deep down inside my skull was triggered from when I was a young boy. I clearly recalled the smell of it but not the taste. More importantly it reminded me of a vague long ago era that ended when I was young and moved out of the New York house I grew up in. It felt very far away, almost like a past life.
I’m pretty sure it was a very rare occasion that my Mom served Stuffed Derma, or Kishke, an Eastern European Jewish dish traditionally made from matzo meal, schmaltz, and spices in a natural sausage casing usually served sliced with a deep rich gravy. Occasionally it will also contain various minced organ meat. It might even have had been a restaurant or deli that I had it when I was little. I do not really recall any exact time but the memory trigger took me back to a long gone time and place in my life. An era I know by feeling versus actual detailed events.
As I ordered the stuffed derma, T-Bone looked at me with a combination of disgust and curiosity, which is a very common experience for me. At best he was amused by the name, fascinated by my reaction and ambivalent about the taste. I cannot say I loved it or would order it again any time soon but I adored that it unlocked and released a hidden memory from deep within my skull that I never would have otherwise retrieved. What else is locked away in my noggin? What else have I presumed lost forever but is really lurking buried away in my brain like a hidden file folder slipped under the others in a messy overstuffed file cabinet just waiting to someday to be discovered.
Not quite as buried was my memory of Strawberry Spinach. OK, it’s really red cabbage salad, but when we were kids my Mom served it all the time and called it Strawberry Spinach in an effort to make it sound more appetizing to us kids. I’ve certainly had it more recently than stuffed derma but it’s been decades and I definitely never made it myself…ever. I was hoping it would cause another Stuffed Derma experience and flood my world with old memories of simpler long ago times. In this tough depressing year I’ve had, I could use a little of that.
I’m not sure if my wife thought I was playing the What Are The Creepiest Items On The Shelves game when she saw me slip the big jar of Red Cabbage Salad into the cart. Actually she reacted more to the name Strawberry Spinach then the cabbage itself. Since I grew up hearing it, I had never really thought literally about that name but I guess it does sound kinda gross. Mom did a better job with her Hamburger Hot Dogs name for ground beef rolled in a tube and put on a hot dog bun.
The big jar of Red Cabbage Salad sat in the pantry for a few days until I could not wait. Wanting to be washed over by a flood of warm cozy memories and transported to an easier long ago time, I grabbed the jar and opened it. I took a big sniff but got nothing. I grabbed a fork and slipped out a big red drippy mouthful. Expecting warm fuzzies, I instead got a mouthful of yuckies. Gross. It was horrible. It felt like a victory that I got it down versus spitting it out. No wonder I have not eaten that slop in 30 years.
Although many try, they say you can never go back. In the case of Strawberry Spinach… I don’t wanna go.