Friday, October 06, 2006

Trade Off

There’s an article in the Washington Post food section this week about Trader Joe’s. The author had tried one of the D.C. area stores years ago after listening to his California friends rave about it, and decided it wasn’t worth it. Now that they’d opened one in his D.C. neighborhood, he was ready to see if maybe he’d been mistaken about it (to end the suspense, he’d decided he had been).

I too explored Trader Joe’s when I first moved near one. Prior to that I had been in one once to buy mascarpone cheese, which at the time I hadn’t been able to find anywhere else (now, of course, the mascarpone is next to the American slices in most grocery stores…OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s much easier to find now than it was in the early 90s).

Trader Joe’s, for those not familiar, sells largely packaged foods. They have a little meat, a little produce, some decent cheese, but mostly they sell frozen foods and pantry items, along with fresh bread and a little dairy. According to the article in the Post, they carry products based on availability directly from the suppliers, which means that products may come and go with no warning at all.

When I lived in the D.C. area, I too had friends who raved about Trader Joe’s. One particularly enthusiastic group was the mothers in my son’s playgroup. Many of them were devotees of organic and minimally processed foods, and Trader Joe’s frozen products often fit those guidelines.

I tried to love Trader Joe’s. I really, really did. I bought frozen pot stickers, and organic cookies, and whole grain crumpets, and soy nut butter (BIG mistake there). When my son was born and started eating solid foods I offered him spring rolls and frozen fried rice and various other products. There was nothing that he (or I, for that matter) welcomed so enthusiastically that I felt I had to rush out and buy more.

And it was so expensive. A quick trip for a couple of things still set me back $35. And that was in addition to our usual grocery bill. A really extensive shopping trip there could be upwards of $50, and none of the things I was buying were in any way staples or “critical” recipe components. In fact, the only thing I did find there that I couldn’t find anywhere else (at the time) was almond meal. Now I can find almond meal in any of three grocery stores near me, so I don’t need Trader Joe’s for that.

As I think I’ve prattled about before, I love going to the grocery store, and at one point we used to go to two grocery stores to fulfill our comestible needs. One was the “primary” store, and the other was a supplementary store that filled in where the primary store fell a little short (our particular brand of cat food, a breakfast cereal my husband really liked, etc). So to add a stop at Trader Joe’s meant that our grocery shopping trip was over two hours. This, I think, was what really soured me on Trader Joe’s. It was a third stop, it didn’t really offer me anything my other stores couldn’t, and it added extra time on to our trip. And, it seemed, that extra 20 minutes or so was the space of time in which my then-infant son went from grouchily tolerating this whole grocery store thing, to protesting in a very loud, insistent voice that it was time to go home, dammit.

If I could have gotten something different and wonderful, or gotten better [fill in staple item here] than I could have gotten at one of my other two grocery stores, I might have been more enthusiastic. Somehow, even though I’m a grocery store fanatic, the allure of Trader Joe’s eludes me. This actually saddens me somewhat, because I always want to love grocery stores. I love knowing that on a day I’m feeling grouchy, or fat, or uninspired, I can go to a grocery store and feel like I’m taking a step in the right direction—I can buy the ingredients for a really great meal, or some healthy snacks to make me feel like I’m making a change for the better, or some new ingredient that I remember having read about in one of my cookbooks that I can experiment with.

In the case of Trader Joe’s, I feel like we’ve kind of let each other down. However, since the nearest one is a 35 minute ferry ride plus a car trip away from me, my guilt is somewhat moderated. I couldn’t go that far for a third stop, no matter how terrific the store was. Perhaps like the Washington Post columnist, someday I’ll meet up with Trader Joe’s again and find my opinion has changed. But until then, I’ll just remember that I really tried, and they really tried, and it just must not have been meant to be.

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