Harriet’s list

Better than a personal shopper

June 25, 2008

So I’m looking through the paper this morning, and I discover yet another invitation to get a “personal shopper.” This is not a new concept; those with the resources can have a fashion slave shop the racks for them. I understand the appeal, ‘cause I hate clothes shopping, but then I have another approach: I just don’t go.

I guess if I loved new clothes, had disposable income, and had a shopping phobia, I would hire a personal shopper. But then, that’s about fashion and clothing and expendable cash for expendable goods.

What I have been seeing and reading about lately is having a personal shopper for your food: someone to go down the aisles for you. Great, I still understand. People are busy, people have better things to do, people want to put their big leisure-deserving feet up in a hammock (I think that was the message implied in a recent ad I saw). So here, too, I get the motivation, but I want to add something to the mix.

After teaching food preservation for the past three years, I’ve heard lots of stories from lots of people about why they want to learn the craft. These days I’ve been hearing a new tale: “I would love to never go to the grocery store again.”

Now I TOTALLY get that. I hate, hate, hate going to the grocery store almost more then clothes shopping. Just why is that? I think it has something to do with all the subtle and not-so-subtle marketing hubbub I am prone to see and intuit as I walk the aisles. But I am very sensitive. I feel assaulted no matter where I shop, even sometimes at the farmers’ market. Harsh, maybe, but true.

Grow, glean, and can your own food.

Actually, sometimes I think I am a culinary empath picking up all the emotional, political, and social yada-yada-yada attached to food in its journey from soil to market shelf.

Seriously, shopping can scare me. Feeling and thinking about all the agendas, the self-driven purpose, the “I’m the coolest box of cocoa,” or “I’m in the smartest, sharpest, greenest, package,” or “Pick me up at the last minute ‘cause your kids are going to scream,” or “Walk all the way to the back to get your milk so you will see all this other stuff,” or “We’re local, we’re fair, we care,” is damn near deafening. I hear it all and it makes me wince sometimes.

Honestly, I get in and out as fast as I can.

Some of it is good and true, and I know that. Local jobs with fair wages and benefits are nothing to scoff at. But then what I tell folks is if you don’t think anyone (and I mean anyone) in the grocery business does not know whether you, as a shopper, will walk left or right when you enter a door or where the impulse buying is best or how to set up your shelving or what to place where for maximum sales, you are crazy.

Fact is, knowing all that stuff is big business. There are consultants who help design stores for just those reasons. There is a science and “best practices” to marketing food, which I suppose makes sense if you are in the business of marketing food. But for me that effort, along with all the other weirdness that goes into the truth of agro-business today, makes grocery shopping a nightmare.

So you would think I would be a prime candidate for a personal shopper — but I’m not. Just because I wouldn’t have to go to the store doesn’t mean it won’t still be weird. In fact, it would be weirder. Shopping the aisles over the Internet, having someone pick out, pack, haul, and drive my groceries to me, would actually plunge me into greater despair.

I think I am one of the few folks I know who has never ordered anything over the Internet and, too, who feels guilty when they get their bags taken to the car (unless it is a sunny day and I think the kids would want to escape outside for a while — I would).

So what’s the solution for those of us who don’t ever want to go into a grocery store again and don’t think a personal shopper is the answer? Well, it isn’t really about making life easier and clearly not for everyone. However, given the number of folks I’ve been meeting harboring the same revulsion as I, the solutions don’t really need to be easy.

They need, rather, to answer to a higher power.

No, I’m not shopping with Jesus, although if they could get him to sign some books, I’d be there. No, the answer, like most things I’m into, is about going backwards to a time and system with fewer degrees of separation. I’ll offer you the list even though you know it. More than likely, I’ve seen most of you at the bulk bins way before they became side dressing in our “shopping experience.”

So let’s review:

  • Plan menus and stick to them. They’re a time and waste saver.
  • Create systems. Monday, bread and stock. Tuesday, yogurt. Wednesday, granola. Etcetera.
  • Use leftovers. Roast chicken becomes chicken for sandwiches becomes chicken salad.
  • Make your own stocks, yogurts, and fermented veggies. They’re really good and really easy to make.
  • Eat more grains and legumes. (Diet for a Small Planet, anyone?)
  • Buy in bulk. Packaging is nice, but it is still embodied energy.
  • Grow your own food. Lettuce, tomatoes, basil, garlic, kale, and leeks would be a good start. Focus on a few that can be used during different seasons.
  • Go to farms with friends. It’s better for the budget.
  • Support CSAs if you need more produce.
  • Buy produce in volume and in season. Freeze and preserve the excess.
  • Glean. There’s plenty of fruit everywhere and it makes great butters and sauce.
  • Preserve. Tomatoes (lots), applesauce, apple butter, and frozen berries would be a good start. Which is to say, start slow, adding only what your family likes and can eat in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Shorten your hours at the office or quit your job if at all possible. Well, that’s another post, but I mean it.

Now, all this will not keep you out of the stores entirely, but it will make you less tethered to them. It might even give us pause to consider how we turned grocery stores into the new commons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into friends I never see anymore. It’s definitely nice to see them, but kinda sad that that’s the only place I do. It certainly is another example of why shopping scares and depresses me. It has taken over as the primary social experience of our lives.

So if you’re like me and lots of others I am meeting these days, rejoice. There are new, if not easier, ways to go about feeding yourself and your family. And if it’s all the same with you guys, I’d rather visit at the hoedown. In fact, we Portland urban homesteaders are planning one this summer. You don’t have to give up the grocery stores to join us, but if the idea of a hoedown sounds even vaguely good to you, I wager you’ve already got kraut on the counter.

There are 15 comments on this item
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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 25, 2008 at 4:44 PM PDT

I’ve been thinking about these issues, too, and have come to something of a different conclusion. I like going into a supermarket where someone has clearly been working hard to make sure I enjoy my shopping experience (and therefore buy more stuff).

But I shop every single day and often spend only five minutes inside. Whenever I’ve had to do a 90-minute mega-shop, I’ve felt enervated, wrung out, used.

Clothes shopping, though, I am totally with you. And I tried internet grocery shopping and was bored.

2. by Caroline Cummins on Jun 25, 2008 at 5:06 PM PDT

i think it’s the fluorescent lights, man. they make me feel tired as soon as i step inside the big sliding doors.

3. by sj.breeze on Jun 25, 2008 at 7:02 PM PDT

Can’t help it, I love grocery stores. But then, I’m also hyper aware of the marketing and try not to pay attention to it much.
Oh, and I also preserve my own food from our kitchen garden and I only work three days a week, so I suppose I’ve struck a healthy balance between the two opposites...

4. by Fasenfest on Jun 25, 2008 at 7:42 PM PDT

Yeah, I think a balance is definitely important, and scale. It seems if the store is in anyway in scale with my own human form -- not too big and rambling, I’m okay. If there are not too many products and a purveyor reasonably informed about them then that, too, makes it worthwhile. But I guess it is just the sheer volume and hyper aware ethos of some stores that makes me feel a little had. But that is me. Like I said, I’m very sensitive to all of this.

5. by Hélène on Jun 25, 2008 at 8:07 PM PDT

I went with ‘quit your job’. I could not handle this anymore. I mean how can you take care of 3 kids, go to work, have a husband that is gone half of the year for work, do all of the household chores etc. I left work 4 yrs ago and did not look back. My kids are now 18-16-14 yrs old and thank me all the time for making good meals, being there with them. I still don’t love to go shopping but I do have the time.

6. by Fasenfest on Jun 26, 2008 at 7:19 AM PDT

I mean to post more extensively on the job quitting because I know the decision to do so is complex. I also know how many folks cannot imagine or afford to do so by any means. Still, I make the case that we threw the baby out with the bath water when we got to thinking the only way a person validates their personal worth is through the market place or in a “career” or profession.

Like you, I realize how much valuable work and purpose is to be found within the home. And if we are to begin tending to our gardens, homes and family with any measure of unhurried focus then I think a re-evaluation of priorities is on the horizon.

I’m glad you found meaning and appreciation in your decision and am heartened by you willingness to claim it publicly. You know, we are all yet a little sheepish about any decision that smacks of homemaking. Not me - I’m out (or in) and proud.

And finally let me be clear. I ain’t talk’n no Martha Stewart invention here. This is an activist act, a clear and decisive effort to get off the grid of traditional economic systems. But I’m also saying there is a pride to a house, garden, family and community well tended. I guess I’m imagining a world somewhere in between social re-evolution and clean, line dried sheets.

7. by Meadowlarkgurl on Jun 26, 2008 at 10:44 AM PDT

I’ve always wondered about the statement “the only way a person validates their personal worth is through the market place or in a “career” or profession”

Huh? Am I really that messed up that I missed that line of thinking? I go along fine and then I read something like that line and am floored. Am I missing something in that there is an entire line of women who don’t feel they have value unless they have an “important” job/career? I mean, maybe that’s so in New York City or somewhere similar, but in Portland? Even in Bend? (well, Bend... that I might see)

That’s so odd... I actually have a so-called “cool” job (I produce Outdoor Tv and Radio) but I simply don’t care. I only work because the husband says I need to, financially. It pays the bills but it’s not who I am. I am the crackpot woman who’s trying to learn to can and prepare for peak oil and figure out how to get more sun (there goes another tree) in my garden. I am not the TV producer. Yuck. Truth be told, I’m not even a very big fan of tv. :(

So, I guess the real question is whether this “self worth” issue referenced above is truly that pervasive or if it’s something we just think everybody ELSE is feeling?

Do any of you personally KNOW a lot of women who feel that way?

8. by Fasenfest on Jun 26, 2008 at 4:38 PM PDT

Hi Snowbug, I like your question. I do not really know for sure how many women or men (and I was not gender specific in my post) get their worth through their work only I do think many would have difficulty saying they stay home to manage the home. Hell, I do at times and I have worked outside the home for most my life. When folks ask me what I am doing these days I have to resist the instinct to say something important. When I do say I’m just staying home and making a home they look at me funny - really. Yeah, I teach food preservation but not more then 20 days out of a year - not exactly a taxing work schedule or something I should call a career. Still, I find it difficult to keep my response simple.

But I have another barometer for you, ask your husband how society treats folks who make that choice -- not so much as it applies to you but to him. Would it be beneath him? And why? Ask your friends. Consider what folks might feel if their sons or daughters said they wanted to choose a life of home tending in lieu of a career. As I said, some of it is about financial necessity, some of it because of true interest in whatever field we choose, some of it is about a natural proclivity and value for academia. I understand and respect all of them. I am only saying the field of home tending is not the pride inducing choice it once was. And it is very unfortunate that it was always steeped in gender specifics since I do not think it is restricted to gender. There are those who are good at the skill set of making a home, tending gardens, making meals etc. etc., and those who are not.

So cool for you that you do not know anyone that would be the slightest bit apologetic if they were not working or doing something “important”. I’m just thinking you might investigate the matter further and consider what it might be like if you didn’t have that cool job. If it would not ever feel it a little beneath you to stay home exclusively I salute you. You are more evolved them me but I’m trying.

9. by Jenmadejamwithyouonce on Jun 26, 2008 at 7:37 PM PDT

It’s funny because I always love your pragmatism in your writing and have had similar gross/horrified feelings in the grocery store. No matter which one it is in the spectrum. The worst for me is when I have a full hand basket and I encounter friends at the store. This isn’t the same at the farmer’s market for some reason (maybe because we all have that feel good “at the farmer’s market” thing going for us?) I just hate people seeing what’s in my basket. I work for a local and I’d say considerate food distributor and I’ve had a customer of mine get angry at me and call me out for having bought froot loops for my visiting niece (who valiantly ate everything else of food value I’d placed in front of her and wanted something she felt was normal to her mouth.) So when I see people at the store, oh god help me if I see them looking at my basket. I just don’t think I can answer another “why did YOU buy that.” The pressure to be not just food conscious but food saintly in ones decisions can be a great irritant. I do like seeing all the different kinds of flour and grains making their way out of the health stores and into bigger markets, love canning and pickling. But I can’t say I’ve divorced my kitchen of all convenience items.
In summation I’ll be looking over your list for a while. It’s good, it’s honest, and I want to pull away from a lot of these dependencies the supermarkets really sucker a lot of us into.

10. by anonymous on Jun 26, 2008 at 8:03 PM PDT

I’m so glad you highlighted the fact that homesteading, hometending, homemaking, whatever you want to call this political movement is NOT gender specific. I hope you write more about this. I think there is some haziness as to what this re-evolution (as you term it) is all about. I don’t think it’s just about either parent staying home to nurture their children and their families. I don’t think it’s just about traditional roles or a yearning for nostalgia. If I understand where you’re going, you are really living a life re-imagined, of what sustenance means, of what production means, of what home economics means, of what responsible living, community building, HOME MAKING means. For BOTH men and women. It can be seen as radical, and it’s not for everyone, but I’m glad you’re leading the charge. I’m not there yet. I respect your choices and I respect that you respect our choices. And I love that you are willing not just to offer an alternative lifestyle, but a whole new world order.

11. by Fasenfest on Jun 27, 2008 at 7:07 AM PDT

Morning Jennifer,
Please understand that everything I ever write about is more about a learning curve and process then dictate. I hate when I feel pressured to be anything more then I am when I am. We shift and move to authentic changes when we are ready and when we can and not when “someone is looking into our basket”. To be honest, I could care less what someone thinks about what I buy or when I drive or what I wear etc., etc., etc. Generally I like to give myself plenty of room to be myself. And I find compromise is huge. I certainly can’t be all the things I want to be.

Finally, I can assure you that you can find me on the couch watching American Idol eating a bowl of sugar frosted mini wheats from time to time. Oh yeah, I buy them for my son but somehow they make it into my bowl (and ass don’t you know). So please, please, please don’t think I am going to ever turn a nose up to a froot loop or anything else in anyone else’s basket. I distain absolutism and think it can cause an unbearable weight on our efforts. Besides, my experience is that moral pedestals just insure a longer fall.

12. by Fasenfest on Jun 27, 2008 at 7:37 AM PDT

Dear fellow gender bender,

I have too much respect for the work involved in tending a home and garden and yada, yada, yada to think only one particular class or gender has the talent. Having worked hard outside the home most my life and, being given to fairly complex thinking and projects, I can only say that staying home and setting up a garden and managing a system within the home that is in keeping with my ever emerging concepts of home economics is HARD. Certainly it is not for everyone.

So why would I think only one gender could do it? Sorry, that is a rhetorical question. I know why. It is because we have separated it along gender lines but I believe it has been a very long time since that has made any sense. So yeah, the revolution, evolution, whatever is upon us. We see it everywhere and I am only saying it is time we start thinking about taking our homes and the running of them as a model of sustainable systems. In the end, economics is about the production, distribution and consumption of limited resources. If global economics has turned that into a huge unmanageable (and damaging) loop then the trick for me is to offer a counter punch; one that is as small as possible - like walking outside my back door to pick my food and working on restoring the soil that bares it. It means so many other things as well but my point is - it is hard work and NOT gender specific. Maybe one person in the family or community can or wants to do it or everyone but someone really should otherwise our homes become drop points and loading zones; always out of sorts.

Really, I don’t know all that this thing can become but I have been thinking about it. I do think serious conversations need to be had about the function and value of home tending. I think there is much to discover there and besides, I hate serving up my politics on a dirty dish.

13. by Meadowlarkgurl on Jun 27, 2008 at 8:10 AM PDT

I totally said that wrong... my point wasn’t that I have a cool job but am so evolved that I could care less, it was that my job is often considered cool but I HATE working. All I ever wanted was to be a wife and mother but I have a husband (and his family) who feel like I should ‘contribute’. Which, DUH, I guess IS exactly what you’re talking about. But I always figured it was a financial thing, rather than a value thing.

I’ll have to ask my friends. I really thought they were like me and wanted to be home but society made them work. I am known to be a bit dense at times though, so I’ll have to do some more research on that.

And you know, it really isn’t evolved... I just don’t like people enough to care what they think. Luckily, I have a husband who is concerned enough for the both of us ;)

Good column, thanks for something for me to pester my friends about.

14. by Chris on Jul 10, 2008 at 9:50 PM PDT

Hey, Harriet--Got the kids to sleep early for once and have some time to catch up on the blogs. I do know women...moms of young children, right here in good ol’ Portland...who do not value staying at home. I know even know moms who do stay at home, but do not value the work involved in truly making a home. It’s all drudgery, to be avoided and never given that much thought. I find myself given a lot of thought to homemaking. I feel like I’ve been on this quest for the past several years to figure out just how in the world my Granny did it. She kept a simple but complete home, canned gobs all summer long, washed dishes by hand, did her wash by hand (with one of those crazy wringer things) which she hung out to dry. She did all this work, yet she still found time everyday to sit and visit with the family, friends, and neighbors that called. Why, with all the “conveniences” of modern life, do we not have time for each other? Why don’t more of us say, “Enough!” to all the extraneous demands on our time that prevent us from forming relationships that nurture us and bring meaning to our lives?

My husband tells me it’s time for bed. More later. Looking forward to tomato-time!

15. by Fasenfest on Jul 11, 2008 at 4:17 PM PDT

Hey Chris,

You know what I think? People still want all the stuff that keeps them too busy. I’m not sure why. At least I’m not sure why they want some of the stuff they do. I bet granny didn’t. I bet granny didn’t know from lattes and Last, Mid, Early, First, Second and anything in-between THURSDAYS. If she did work outside the home she probably wasn’t spending it on $160 dollar jeans (which by some standards is cheap). She and grandpa probably didn’t know from micro-brews or, rather, called it moonshine and brewed it themselves. In fact, everything seemed to be done closer to home and that was/is the biggest difference. People stayed home with family and friends to socialize because people stayed home to work - at least more so. They tended land, homes, children, family farms and community. We just don’t live that way anymore even though some of us are trying. And that is why it is isolating at times.

Even though it appears things are changing, folks got pretty busy with lifestyles that reflect an attention to things that might have seemed silly to granny. Hey, maybe granny would seem silly to them. But I’m with you, finding our community in the face of all this is a little tricky. But, like you, I’m looking forward to tomato time and there is some noise going on about apple picking and pectin making. I bet you’d be in on that as well.

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