Ann does most of the cooking at our house. She’s good at it. Versatile too. Haute cuisine to plain fare and most everything in between.
I start fires. I’m good at that. When I step out in the snow to bring in wood, Vulcan himself shows up to takes notes.
Being able to start a fire was something I, like many boys, felt compelled to learn. In advanced stages, it had to be accomplished in the rain with only two matches. So now, starting a fire is second nature to me.
I didn’t know Ann’s mother, a Kuerstner, but by all reports, her sauerbraten and noodles and other German offerings were excellent. I did know her stepmother, a Thibodeaux, and I testify that her crawfish etouffee and gumbo would make you consider moving to that Bayou Teche country she came from. Ann’s growing up in those kitchens plus years of professional food experience as a young adult give her a sense of food preparation that is, like my fire building, second nature.
But there is a difference. Ann is passionate about cooking. I’m good at starting fires, and I’m sure it’s a great pleasure to observe me in action, but I’m not passionate about it.
An aside here. I can cook a little myself, and I enjoy doing it. I take a turn now and then, say, when God instructs me to bless His people with my specialty, pinto beans. Making a pot of beans may not sound like much of a culinary accomplishment, so I offer this more impressive exhibit: one time I conducted a class in bagel making for the American Junior League of London. I make these points so that it will not seem that after I start a fire or two, I just lollygag around in my undershirt reading the racing form, profaning the former monastery that is our home.
I add value to our domestic arrangements in another way, too. I do a majority of the grocery shopping. I rather enjoy it. In some ways, it’s like a game.
Ann makes a list, and it often contains items I don’t know much about. Sometimes I haven’t even heard of the thing she wants. That’s educational the way Scrabble is. Who doesn’t like Scrabble?
The game aspect becomes more pronounced when something on the list is unavailable and I take a chance on a substitution. Is imitation vanilla extract the equal of the pure form? Since I don’t use either kind in my beans, I don’t know the answer to that. Cell phones don’t work inside the Price Chopper, so I’d have to go out in the parking lot to call Ann and check. That’s a lot of trouble, even during summer. It’s severely unappealing on many days in winter. Not surprisingly, my substitutions are often not fully substitutable. I’m thinking of posting on the kitchen wall a scoreboard showing my hits and misses.
My shopping trips involve more than games, though.
One Christmas Eve, I went to the Price Chopper at 6:30 in the morning in order to avoid the crowd. At that hour there were about equal numbers of shoppers and workers. That helped keep my attitude properly Christmasy.
When I picked up a bag of flour, a rumpled, middle-aged stocker called out from behind me that it had a hole in it. He tore up some cardboard to make a dustpan, dropped to his knees, and swept up the spill. Naturally, we turned to talking about Shop-Vacs. I was careful to keep my contribution abbreviated, though. If I’d gotten going on the monastery adventures I’ve had with various brands and sizes, we’d have been there until the new year dawned. I had shopping to do.
“Do you know what Panko Crumbs are?” I asked.
“Sure. Japanese bread crumbs.”
“Do you know where I’d find them?”
“Go to the front of the store. Turn up aisle 11. About a third of the way on the left. We have three brands: Iron Chef, our house brand, and some other kind I’ve forgotten the name of. Iron Chef is the most expensive. House brand tastes best.”
Later I asked him about Press and Seal, which Ann and I prefer to cling wrap.
“Don’t carry it anymore. There may be some on the rack of discontinued items over by the fish counter.”
I thought about the refrain in the salesmen’s song at the opening of The Music Man: “You’ve got to know the territory.” This guy knew his territory.
A month or so later when I couldn’t find something, I sought out die Meisterstocker. I found him among the canned vegetables.
“Do you know if you have any plain gelatin? I see lots of flavors but not plain.”
“They’re all in the same place. I’ll show you.”
“How stupid of me. I was looking right at it.”
Die Meisterstocker passed up this excellent opportunity to be impatient and act superior. He must surely have been weary of customers asking him where things were when they were in plain sight. If he was, he didn’t show it. In fact, he encouraged me not to be too hard on myself. “Sometimes everything starts to look alike.” His response didn’t seem like normal behavior to me.
We talked for a while. I learned that he’s married. Has at least one child — a grown daughter. Been with Price Chopper for ten years. He’d worked at an A&P part-time and summers when in high school and college. After college he taught in a parochial school. Continued to work at A&P in the summer. Found grocery store pay much better and quit teaching. I can’t imagine why he’s not higher up in the supermarket pecking order, but I’m glad he’s a stocker. He’s good at it.
So are two assistant managers, Mary and Pam. They rarely stop moving. When the store is busy, they seem to be everywhere, doing whatever needs to be done — solving problems, bagging groceries, assisting cashiers, keeping the lines moving.
One day I had in my basket a vegetable ─ some kind of mushroom, I think it was ─ that didn’t have a tag with the store’s four-digit code on it, and the cashier couldn’t find it on her list. Pam happened to be nearby. She reeled off the number as readily as providing her phone number.
“Do you know the codes for every vegetable?”
“Most of them.”
“How about these?”
I held up a Roma tomato, organic celery, and collard greens. It was like asking Blake Griffin if he can dunk.
Finding a shortcoming in these guys was beginning to be a challenge.
“Hey Mary,” — I had a nodding acquaintance with her before she started working at Price Chopper — “where do I find Mini-Moos?” She took me to them. Too easy.
“I was also looking for Thai chili paste.” I knew where it was and that the store stocked little of it. Maybe I’d found her limit. Nope.
So. Three corporate employees who are very good at what they do, and who bring verve — perhaps even a touch of passion — to doing it. Like Ann cooks.
It’s not much of a stretch — at least not for me — to see in them what the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, saw in a French farming couple he knew. “I think, in a way, they were certainly saints. And they were saints in that most effective and telling way: sanctified by leading ordinary lives … sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within.”
I have no knowledge of the religious beliefs of the Price Chopper three, but no matter what, in my view, they are saintly in a way much like Merton’s French farmers. Showing up for work, going about it energetically, being good at it, and brightening their corner — I think that’s about all that’s required.
If you’re up this way, stop in at the Lake Placid Price Chopper and watch Mary, Pam, and die Meisterstocker in action. You’ll see what I mean.