Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shop til you Drop

When you move to a new place and don't have anything in your cupboards, not even salt or pepper, a big shopping trip is in order and was one of the first things we did after becoming Portlanders.  We headed to our local Safeway, a grocery store chain, and prepared for a shopping trip that rivaled an Ikea trip timewise.  Four hours later we had managed to spend about $100 per hour and dragged two huge grocery carts to the car and headed home to unload our 'starter' stuff.

Having worked in a grocery store in high school, I was never really put off by the sheer size of our supermarkets in the US nor the incredible amount of options we have available to us on a daily basis.  I was sort of a creature of habit and bought the same things each time I went to the store and rarely just wandered up and down the aisles seeing if I needed anything.  A grocery list goes a long way in making sure you don't just overload your cart with things you don't really need.  However, after living abroad and having much smaller grocery stores with drastically less options, going to an American supermarket was quite shocking when we decided to stock the kitchen.

We started off in the produce, which is set up to look like a local market - wood floors, cute displays with fruit and veggies and plastic bags and ties everywhere you look.  In Spain, you take your produce and put it in a bag and then place it on a scale and key in the number that is listed on the item tag where you picked it up and it prints out a sticker showing you the weight and total price of your produce bag.  In doing this, the check-out lady doesn't need to memorize a gazillion produce codes and she can just scan the fruit and let you put it in your bag, which seems to be the efficient thing for me but here it doesn't happen.  With a produce section larger than our apartment times like 5, it was quite overwhelming just to get the basics - fruits, fresh veggies and salad.  There was literally an entire wall of salad bags and containers.  We decided to determine if we wanted Classic Romane lettuce, Tender Greens, Harvest Salad, Southwest Style Salad, Spinach in regular or baby leaves, Mixed Salad, Deluxe Mixed Salad and more.  In the end, we just got what we had been eating at my cousin's house - a big plastic container of mixed salads that we knew would be good.  Joseba was quite impressed with the cross-merchandising that happened in the produce section.  Next to the carrots, the Ranch dressing was conveniently placed and so on.  Again, something that I wouldn't even have picked up on as I am so used to it.

Once we had conquered the produce section and had a good stock of fruits and veggies, we headed down every aisle just to see what we might need - dangerous!  Again, the choices were too much.  Just a plain tomato pasta sauce was like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Among the 'tradtional' Prego sauce that we got, we also could have chosen Marinara, Tomato and Basil, Roasted Garlic Parmesean or Roasted Garlic and Herb or a few more which you can check out here.  Please note that that link was only for the Italian Style sauces from Prego.  Should you want a 'Healthy and Delicious' or 'Chunky' sauce you are confronted with a similar amount of options.  We got the Italian Traditional, and it's tasty.  I don't imagine we will be changing again because the amount of stress of having to choose between something like 65 tomato sauce options is probably more than we can bear.

The same type of scenario happened in almost every aisle we strolled down.  We are used to one kind of taco soft shell in the Basque Country.  Here there were atleast 10.  Same with the soy sauce section.  Kikkoman is the only one I buy but here were a plethora of options that could have distracted me!

While having so many options, we were surprised to be underwhelmed by two sections of the store - the tuna section and the salad vinegar section.  Here it seems that everyone buys tuna canned with water, but that isn't even an option in San Sebastian where it is always with oil.  We had gotten used to buying tuna canned with extra virgin olive oil, but try to buy that here and there is maybe only one brand that offers it and at a ridiculous price.  We have since become water tuna consumers.  And, the salad vinegar - yes, there were a massive amount of salad dressing options - Ranch, Italian, blah blah blah, but the simple oil and vinegar that we are used to was much more challenging.  We love a nice thick balsamic vinegar but to our surprise couldn't find one!  Of all the 10,000 items in Safeway, a heavy and rich balsamic vinegar was not among them.  We settled for a more liquidy one that tastes delicious though.

We eventually made it to the famed cereal aisle.  When people come to America, they always remark on the vast array of choices that fill the breakfast aisle and it's true.  There are something like 275 different cereals to chose from, and sort of back to the tomato sauce dilemma but magnified, it becomes a stressful feat to find a cereal.  Not only are there an amazing amount of healthy options which I appreciate greatly (it had been hard to find a nice granola over there!) but the cereals that have cartoon characters adorning their boxes are somehow able to sell sweets as breakfast food.  Take for example, Cookie Crisp - a cereal that is just small chocolate chip cookies.  That's it.  A box of bit-sized chocolate chip cookies that if you pour some milk over becomes part of a balanced breakfast they state.  If cookies aren't your thing but you just have a sweet tooth, why not try the Cinnamon Toast Cruch or the Waffle Crisp, both loaded with sugar and I am sure not healthy in the slightest!  How are these cereals?

If we took all these sugar-loaded cereals off the aisles, I am sure the childhood obesity would drop pretty quickly, but obviously there would still be work to be done, namely in the cookie and chip aisles which have a selection not unlike cereal.  The one place that we really were shocked with the selection, I mean besides our eyes bugging out when we saw the cereal and chips, was the beer section.  Being in the Pacific Northwest, we are in a beer haven, and there are just as many choices for cold beer as there are for potato chips and in this arena we were happy!  We are trying to do our best to test local beers and here was our chance!

Another part of the massive store that we were tickled pink by was the coffee section.  We have an Italian coffee maker, that are ubiquitous in Spain but hard to come by here and we wanted some ground coffee for it, but couldn't decide on any of the hundred packaged choices.  Luckily, our store has their own coffee beans and you can ground them yourself and take home that bag of ground coffee!  We were delighted and made bags of caramel, french vanilla and double chocolate coffee to take home and try!

Another amenity of shopping for four long hours is the fact that almost every Safeway has a Starbucks conveniently located inside.  As we meandered up and down each aisle we snacked on a fresh donut from the bakery section (such stress choosing bread!) and a caramel macchiato!  It made the shopping that much better.

After spending a good 30 minutes in the spice aisle, 15 minutes decided which yogurts to try and trying to make a smart decision in the ridiculous amount of frozen pizzas, we pulled our two full carts to the check out to see the damage.  We had brought our own grocery bags - which included two Ashland Co-op cloth bags, various other cloth bags and an Ikea bag.  With the amount of things we bought though, we still needed some extra Safeway bags.

Here in Portland, all things are bagged in paper bags because plastic bags were banned last year.  Bringing your own bag is highly encouraged but if you don't, paper bags are available.  With all the groceries stuffed back into the cart bagged, we paid just under $400 thanks to the savings on our Club Card.  So, that averaged about $100 per hour in the store.

We now have a fully stocked kitchen and as time goes are finding that we need different ingredients and such but now our full kitchen really makes our place feel like home.