"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." -Richard Dawkins

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Fresh Market

There was a place, back in Arizona. A place where magic happened. Called AJ's Fine Foods, it is a paramount to grocery stores, an altar to food. A few months into my engagement to my husband, he brought me there for the first time, as if revealing to me the Hope Diamond or some equally exquisite treasure. My husband has always known precisely how much I adore food. I'm not about to go calling myself a gastronome or gourmand, but in that I know the difference between a chiffonade and a remoulade, a miripoix and a gastrique? Yes. I know food. I love it.

AJ's was a bit of a place where dreams come true. If you could imagine a Tiffany & Co. for things that are edible, you will have found it. Produce stacked in precision-perfected pyramids, "the one place," I always said, "where you look at a tomato and see its true potential." Polished wood floors and ambient light showcasing shelving, marching in tidy rows to offset the flamboyant beauty of all of its imported, luxury and local products. Coke and Huggies were relegated to the bottommost shelves by the floor. After all, these are probably an afterthought to anyone shopping here. Besides, how could you even think of such things with all these other choices? AJ's actually had a boulangerie. No shit. This place put Hannaford to shame, Wegman's, Safeway. I'd never seen anything like it.

And although AJ's was frickin' gorgeous (pronounced gor-jwa, for those Mia Michaels fans out there,) it was also well outside of the realm of financial responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility, Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, and I'm telling you, with great packaging comes great price. So we did not shop there often, and usually for one or two things only, like a bit of sushi or sorbetto.

In time, another place called Fresh & Easy opened up a block away from our house. It was enough to assuage me from wanting to go to AJ's, and it was enough to keep me from wanting to travel the fifteen minutes to Trader Joe's, and it was enough to keep me away from WalMart. It was a different sort of little beast, but I liked it and its prices and its croissants and its muscadine dessert wine. A lot.

Needless to say, upon moving back to Halfmoon, and knowing my choices were The Man, Kind of Expensive, Really Expensive, and Cost Prohibitive, I was a little bummed at my grocery choices. Then I got a heads up from Christina over at Cutest Kid Ever, telling me this crazy new grocery store had opened about ten miles south of here (at 9 & 155 in Latham,) I was on that. I mean "The Fresh Market" sounds like Fresh & Easy, right? Was there a chance?

Uh. No, not really. On our drive home from visiting my grandmother in Voorheesville, we decided to stop. We were already on 155 and we planned to go there eventually anyway, so it seemed logical. Still in the throes of their grand opening the day before, the place was a mob scene, and we were greeted by a gentleman slicing up local peaches for our tasting pleasure. Under-ripe, yes, but still so sweet. Ro was delighted.

I looked at Zack as we walked up to the doors and said, "This place looks like AJ's from the outside."
"I doubt it's the same," he replied.
Then we went inside.

LAWD, there it was. The wooden floors, the dramatic spot-lit tomatoes, classical music and the knee-weakening smell of warm cinnamon sugar wafting from the bakery. Heaven. I was in foodie heaven. I could already feel my wallet trying to claw its way out of my purse.

Here's where I admit to my dear readers that I'm not doing so well financially: "We still have $7 on the EBT* card," I said. "Maybe we can pick something out." Zack, of course, was gunning for the paninis, I was eying the gorgeous fruit pies, and my daughter, ever the cool one, was saying, "SHUSHI, MAMA. Let's buy some of these ones!" (*Yes, that's Food Stamps. You heard correctly.)

Claiming on the website to seem European, the market offers a subtle warmth from wood and lighting, lending it an old world atmosphere.

I started photographing violently, trying to look important, everywhere there was something awesome to see. Morels. Yeah they were fifteen dollars, but seriously, morels. I was actually expecting to see truffles. There were no truffles, but if you know of any other type of mushroom, it was probably there, just waiting for soup or pasta or some other beautiful dish to waltz its way into.

 Everything was just a little bit fragrant, intriguing. Was it the lighting? Oh, probably. Would I normally be drawn to 2/$5 organic avocados? No. But those looked really nice and all super eager to be transmogrified into a gorgeous bowl of peridot-green guacamole.

I found I was not quite as impressed with the produce here as I always had been at AJ's, but maybe I was just spoiled. I had, after all, spent the past weekend perusing local farmer's markets, basking in the splendor of local produce. There was a lot of local to see here, too, though. I smiled to point out the fact that they carried Lloyd Spear's honey, which Ro had tasted twice that weekend. There didn't seem to be as much care taken, either. At AJ's there seemed to be a love for the gifts of the earth. A gentle hand given to each pluot arranged in each big wooden bowl. Here, things were a little more Price Chopper slapdash.

The gorgeousness of spices in packets, only a mindset away from open air markets in the streets of humid India or enchanting Marrakesh.

Their selection of beers was good, but not what I was expecting from a shop of this caliber. It's still Price Chopper, while not as shiny, that actually has the most awesome selection- from local microbreweries as well as imports. Listen to me. I love beer. But I probably will not be buying it from this place. With prices comparable to AJ's and a distinctly subdued selection, there's simply no reason to waste my time in this aisle other than to remark that Ommegang's Witte comes in 4-packs and that's pretty rad.

So I continued on, taking note of their beautiful bulk bins, not as impressive as those we used to frequent at Sprouts in Mesa, and their selection of medicinals and HBA, including what appeared to be every Burt's Bees product being currently manufactured. This not being a co-op, I didn't presume to be able to find my mama cloth here, but being surrounded by seven thousand people, (none of them appearing in these photos, see how good I am?) I wasn't about to be all, "HEY, you got cloth pads in this place?" either. My husband might have died. Okay probably not.

The fragrance from these bins of coffee was enough to die for. I honestly wanted to crack one open and stick my whole face in. ...No worries, I didn't.

We had paused to taste some subtle and nutty parmesan that a woman in a white apron was hacking straight off of the massive wheel with a chisel. (Hardcore!) Then something dawned on me.
"What if they don't take EBT cards?" I murmured to Zack. Of course, in my shame, I was afraid to just ask. I mean, what's a girl on food stamps even doing in a place like this, anyway?
"Why wouldn't they? It's a grocery store." He replied.
I looked around a bit apprehensively. "They take them at Quik-Trip in Arizona, but not at Stewart's here. There's a chance. Let me go ask."

I found myself adjacent to a managerial type lady, she was nice! Excited to be talking to me before I even opened my mouth! (Which is great because I'd just tried some garlic-herb chevre on a garlicky flatbread and I'm pretty sure she wouldn't like me after...)

"Hi!" (I put on my awesome face for this confrontation.) "My name is Ali and I'm a local blogger. I'm covering the opening..." (Okay, it wasn't entirely a lie, I was definitely already planning this post as I spoke.)
"Hi Ali!" She said, and smiled. Oh man, I liked her. She was super nice.
"I just have one quick question, do you take EBT cards here?"
"We do not."
(Do not look crestfallen. Pursue. Journalism!) "Are there any plans to offer that service in the future?"
"No, I don't believe there is. Additionally, I don't think we'd be eligible by law, I'm not sure about New York, but I know in several states we'd be disqualified because we do not carry baby products."

Riiiiight. Food stamps, better for families, less good for food snobs. Logical. Understood.

And so we left with nothing but the taste of chiseled parmesan and the bitter, crap economy on our tongues. We liked what we saw though, and I'm sure someday we'll go back again. (Underground dinner club, anyone?)

1 comment:

  1. It's easy to forget how good we have it here in AZ grocery store-wise. I'll remember to be more thankful the next time I walk into a Sprouts or a Fresh & Easy.

    I think it's odd that I've never actually been to AJ's. I've always wanted to go check one out, but I've never lived anywhere close to one, and have always been too lazy to drive long distances for food that I can't particularly afford. Someday I'll go see the pretties...