MY FATHER'S GROCERY STORE JONES
Rip Ruhlman loved to eat, almost more than anything else. We'd be tucking in to the evening's meal when he'd ask, with excitement in his eyes, "What should we have for dinner tomorrow?" Used to drive Mom crazy. And because he loved to eat, my father loved grocery stores.
In my youth, two grocery stores operated less than a mile in either direction from our house in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland: Heinen's on Chagrin Boulevard and Fazio's on Van Aken Boulevard. Both were family-owned, open six days a week. Union laws forced them to close on weekdays at six p.m., the time my father stepped off the train from work, so Saturdays were the only time he could satisfy his grocery store jones. Mom went back to work once I started kindergarten, and I don't recall her ever setting foot in a grocery store through the rest of their twenty-two-year marriage. That was my father's territory. And to my father, grocery stores were the land of opportunity.
Look at all this food! All the flavors! All the frozen appetizers! Such opportunity for pleasure! So many new items to try! Kiwi! What's that? The snack aisle! Diet Pepsi! Orange Crush!
A whole range of processed food appeared in the early 1960s, just as my parents started their marriage and had me, their only child, and items such as these were always on his list: Space Food Sticks, Cap'n Crunch, Tang (a synthetic form of orange juice), and Carnation Instant Breakfast. Milk and eggs, of course. Always pretzel rods for the jar in the den by the television set, which had knobs for changing the channel and adjusting the volume. Nuts, how he loved peanuts! An endless supply at the grocery store. Along the back aisle, the meat cases, oh Lord, the opportunities for ecstasy: veal and sausages and pork! Rack of lamb! And of course the beautifully marbled rib steaks (his favorite cut). The white button mushrooms in produce that he could sauté in butter and slather on top of that steak, which hed lovingly grilled over charcoal (bought at the grocery store), which was lit with lighter fluid (bought at the grocery store), and into which he nestled Vidalia onions (grown as early as the 1930s, but new in Cleveland grocery stores in the 1970s) wrapped in foil with a pat of butter, and which would become charred and tender and sweet after an hour in the coals. Steak and a baked potato with a Vidalia onion was a beloved staple dinner of my youth. And always a salad. Heads of iceberg lettuce (this and a few sturdier greens were about the only salad options available through the long winters) were stacked into pyramids in the produce department. Five or six different bottled dressings were available to pour on that lettuce (back then, our choice was Wish-Bone Italian).
He bought pounds of Granny Smith apples, one of about five varieties to choose from, which were a part of his apple-a-day, broom-ofthe-system regimen. He would proudly eat the entire apple, seeds and all. (When I tried to do the same, my babysitter told me that a tree would start growing in my stomach. What a scary but thrilling idea!) And carrots, bags and bags of carrots all year long. He loved carrots so much he ate them throughout the day. Dad routinely reached inside his suit jacket, mid-conversation in the hallway of the ad agency where he had become creative director, took a bite of a carrot, and returned it to his jacket pocket. To the bewilderment of new hires at the agency.
He would gladly deposit a few Rock Cornish game hens (a new offering, bred by Donald Tyson in 1965) into the metal shopping cart, with its one wobbly wheel, and eventually a box of Uncle Ben's wild rice for my mother, who loved to roast the hens stuffed with it. If he and Mom were entertaining, he'd also grab a package of the mysteriously named "chipped beef," a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, and a bottle of "cooking sherry" for my mom's "party chicken" recipe. (Combine all in a casserole dish, more or less, and bake till the chicken is rock solid; serve with boxed wine or a Gallo "Chablis." The party-chicken dinner would be followed, long into the laughter-filled Saturday night, by Rusty Nails and Stingers and cigarettes in the living room, a fire crackling on the hearth.)
And the holidays — grocery shopping times ten! Dad stuffed the cart with giant Hershey chocolate bars and cartons of Whoppers to fill my Christmas stocking. He ordered from the supermarket the turkey for Thanksgiving and the rib roast for Christmas (but not the green beans, Campbell's soup, and canned onion rings for the traditional green bean casserole, which was the domain of Aunt Barbara, who shopped at the Heinen's on Green Road). At Easter he picked up a leg of lamb, butter-flied by the helpful butcher, and garlic he would sliver and stud the lamb with, and black pepper and dried rosemary for seasoning. I would not see or even recognize the existence of a fresh herb until I was an adult living in New York City. Before then, if a recipe called for an herb other than curly parsley, it meant opening a small jar, usually containing something once green but now grayish, and held in a wall-mounted rack (a 1962 wedding gift to my parents, every jar but the tarragon untouched since the rack was mounted).
The tarragon — that was well used, for the béarnaise sauce to spoon over the filet mignon that Dad had wrapped in bacon and grilled. Béarnaise sauce — Mom's purview, composed mainly of butter whipped into egg yolks, flavored with minced shallot and dried tarragon — was my family's version of holy water. Dad and I watched Mom making Julia Child's recipe, or rather spectated, because she brought the making of béarnaise to the level of entertainment: The more butter, the better, but add too much and the sauce would break, the thick emulsion collapsing into soup; no one understood why. Mom insisted on giving the sauce a sporting chance to break and so always added more butter, to our alarm and excitement. Bam! Gasp! Cooking could be entertainment. The sauce was seasoned with tarragon vinegar, which for all we knew was distilled from the tarragon plant itself or simply dispensed from metal kegs that had arrived from the tarragon vinegar factory somewhere outside Oakland. In other words, we had no idea at the time how or where vinegar was made or what it was. In those days, we had little inkling how most of our basic pantry items were created. None of us could have explained that vinegar was fermented from alcohol or that the quality of that vinegar was directly related to the quality of the alcohol. All we knew for certain was that tarragon vinegar came from the shelf of a grocery store.
The butter that went into that béarnaise sauce must be mentioned. Oh, how Dad loved butter — as much as he wanted awaited him on the supermarket dairy shelf. Any conduit for its entry into his mouth sufficed: boiled artichokes, snails, lobster, bread, it didn't matter. The man felt a kind of ecstasy when ounces and ounces sluiced down his gullet, nutritionists be damned. At the time, butter was considered bad for you. As were eggs. In the 1960s and 1970s, nutritionists, and in 1977 the US government, warned us that all fat was bad for you (thus the popularity of margarine and the creation of dubious concoctions such as I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!). And eggs, regarded for thousands of years as a nutritious staple of the human diet, were determined to be heart attacks in a shell, the evidence of human history notwithstanding.
But my father wasn't going to let a nutritionist or a magazine article tell him he couldn't have eggs. "Malarkey," he would say. Dad was the one who showed me how to make a broken-yolk fried-egg sandwich basted with butter and eaten on Wonder Bread generously smeared with Hellmann's mayonnaise and served with a glass of milk. All available thanks to the grocery store — and only the grocery store at that time — one long block from our house in either direction. You couldn't buy this stuff anywhere else. "We're out of butter? I'll run to the grocery store and get another pound," he'd announce. "And another dozen eggs." It almost seemed he loved to have forgotten an item on his long lists — another excuse to be in the grocery store.
Chicken legs were a go-to staple of weeknight dinners — chicken had become increasingly prevalent in the 1970s, though it wouldn't overtake beef as America's preferred protein until about 2012 — baked with honey and orange juice, served with frozen green beans thawed on the stovetop and a box of Minute Rice (the par-cooked invention of the 1940s).
The grocers' union mandate that Cleveland supermarket hours must end at six p.m. on weekday nights prevented working families from food shopping Monday through Friday. (Mom had become a buyer for Higbee's department store on Euclid Avenue and thus was something of an outcast among married women in our provincial suburb, so she couldn't shop during the week when most married women shopped. This was the beginning of a cultural shift, the rise of the working woman, that would help transform our food supply and arguably the quality of the food we served our families.) Hunter-gathering by necessity happened on Saturdays in Cleveland. So, in the 1960s and '70s, Saturdays at the grocery store meant lines and lines of shoppers, their carts overflowing, clogging the aisles all the way to the meat department at the back of the store. As a boy, I would join Dad and ride in the cart till it became too full and then push the second cartful when the first overflowed with the week's food. And then wed load up the car — an invention that proved to be critical to the growth of the supermarket — for the short haul to our suburban colonial to stuff the refrigerator and the back pantry with our booty.
Before the grocery shopping even began, my father spent at least an hour on Saturday morning at the ledge demarcating the kitchen from the breakfast nook, hand pressed to his forehead, the other hand pressing pen to paper. Here he created the shopping list, a week's worth of food, on one of his ubiquitous legal pads. He peppered me with questions about what I wanted, the Quisp cereal or Frosted Flakes, the Pepsi Light, the Tab for my mom, and what for dinner? What did I want to eat? "You can have anything" — oh, the bounty! This was how our world worked.
Throughout my life the supermarket had it all. Endless food to feed our family of three and the countless friends my parents loved to cook for.
After my parents' divorce in the mid-1980s, Dad lived alone in our house; by this time, the grocery store provided a variety of Lean Cuisine entrées and other frozen specialties, which he loved for their convenience, portion size, and calorie count. Long gone, at least from our household, were the Swanson's TV dinners in their sectioned aluminum trays and Stouffer's potpies that took thirty minutes in a preheated oven. The microwave oven, introduced in the late 1960s, had become a kitchen necessity by the 1980s — another invention that changed the way many American families ate.
My father stocked the kitchen with chickens and baked potatoes and, as time went on, fresh green beans. I would roast that chicken for us when I, a young adult, returned from New York City to re-gather myself and try to find my way in the world. By then, the mid-1980s, we ate in the dining room — a reflection, I like to think, of our growing appreciation of sharing a well-prepared meal — rather than in the overly lit breakfast nook where we ate when I was young and where, throughout my childhood, I found Dad in the morning. Without fail, he would be drinking a mug of black instant coffee and smoking a Lucky Strike (both grocery store purchases, of course) before it was time for him to catch the train to the Terminal Tower downtown and make the fifteen-minute walk to his office at 1010 Euclid Avenue.
This was how we ate. We took it for granted.
Millennia ago, before grocery stores, finding enough food to eat was the single daily business at hand. When civilizations took root, in part because we learned to cultivate food and create food surpluses, the business of the family was to put up food, to preserve it to keep the family from starving during the winter, because the grocery store (not to mention the car to get to it and haul the goods back) did not exist.
Instead, families farmed (and even most non-farmer families grew and raised some of their food through the 1940s), and they dry-cured pork loin and shoulder and belly and back fat, poached and cooled duck in its own fat in a way that would preserve it for years, and preserved fruit to eat throughout the winter.
But there, on Norwood Road in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I watched my dad struggle not with spearing a wild hog in the brush, or cutting a slab of pork belly hanging in the kitchen, but rather writing a list of items to pull off a shelf or remove from a case in the grocery store, our community's shared pantry. This was the food that would keep our family alive and thriving — all available with a convenience unmatched in human history. We had gone from tribes hunting food, gathering it, preserving it, joining in the work of it, protecting it, and then sharing it in larger and larger communities to, thousands of years later, isolated families on suburban streets gathering our food from a single forty-thousand-square-foot store once a week and bringing it back home to eat by ourselves.
The grocery store had become our food surplus, that fundamental mechanism that allowed Homo sapiens to stay in one place and to form communities.
Most of these stores at the time were family-owned, except for the A&P, which in the first half of the twentieth century was loathed, as much as Walmart would one day be, for decimating Main Street, USA. The A&P grew to the size it did (the biggest retailer in the world at one point) by increasing volume to drive prices down. Most of the family-owned supermarkets in Cleveland had only a couple of options to increase their volume. They could open more stores, but without a central distribution center, a warehouse, they would essentially be creating stand-alone businesses rather than efficient chains. Most didn't have such a center. So instead they merged with other family-owned stores — the Rini's with the Rego's in Cleveland, for instance. But by the 1980s, an era of widespread mergers and acquisitions, they were forced to sell out to large multinational companies. Fisher Foods, begun in Cleveland in 1907 by the Fisher brothers, merged with the Fazio family, then merged again with the Stop-N-Shop chains (Rini's, Rego's, Russo's) to form Riser Foods; too much debt and other issues forced them to sell to Giant Eagle. The locally owned Pick-N-Pay became Finast, then sold to the Dutch conglomerate Ahold. By this point only behemoths could offer economies of scale, and the resulting low prices, to lure the customer looking for ever-cheaper food.
And another major cultural shift had begun that threatened grocery stores: More types of retail businesses began to sell food. Convenience stores had been around for decades in some areas of the country, but they began to mushroom in the latter part of the twentieth century and would eventually offer produce along with a tank of gas; drugstores began to sell milk, eggs, and other foods; and eventually, by the 1990s, Costco (1976) and Sam's Club (Walmart's 1983 creation) had a nationwide presence. All these places were beginning to sell food, of varying quality and costs, that was once the sole provenance of the supermarket.
The final marker of the food retail conversion from grocery store to supermarket to our modern, fragmented food retail system came in 1988, when, like the big kid doing a cannonball into a crowded swimming pool, Walmart entered the grocery business with its first Supercenters, which added groceries to their other nonfood offerings. Walmart instantly became the world's biggest grocer. Of its total net sales of $482 billion last year, Walmart stores in the United States accounted for $298 billion. According to its 2016 10-K filing with the SEC, 56 percent of those sales, $167 billion, came from selling groceries. Add Sam's Club grocery sales to that and Walmart's total sales of groceries last year were $202 billion. The nation's largest supermarket chain, Kroger, with its 2,600-odd stores, is a distant second with sales of roughly $110 billion.
Walmart's grocery revenue, its sales of lettuce and frozen dinners and eggs, beats those of other industry giants, such as General Motors or AT&T. Walmart alone took more than one quarter of all the dollars we spent on groceries. Inevitably, more discount retail stores, such as Target, set up grocery sections in their stores. Everyone, it seemed, was getting into the food business.
Key players in this fragmentation were the niche grocery stores that had begun rapidly expanding in the 1990s, such as Whole Foods Market (opened in 1980, now doing $15 billion in annual sales) and Trader Joe's (1967, about $9 billion today), followed by newcomers such as Sprouts Farmers Market and Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, hoping to cut in on sales at Whole Foods (dubbed "Whole Paycheck" by some for their comparatively high prices).