Southern Cornucopia

Out of Clorox but loaded with ketchup

By Bill Fields

Going to the grocery store these days, even in fraught times when being on the lookout for Clorox or coughs can cause a headache, it’s hard not to marvel at what is there.

So many options, so different from the way things used to be.

I was reminiscing with Dianne, one of my older sisters, and recalled a meal she cooked for me when I was 10. I felt as if I’d gone to another country instead of to Winston-Salem. It was my first lasagna.

That layered deliciousness wasn’t the only culinary highlight of my weeklong visit. One night supper was tacos, which weren’t on our household’s menu growing up either.

Oh, we ate well. Mom and Dad cooked tasty, filling meals. But they were predictable and limited, the way mealtime was for most families of the time and place.

I was reminded of this upon finding a grocery list, circa the early 1970s, in Dad’s handwriting — because Mom worked too, he often did the shopping — that he no doubt had tucked into his shirt pocket and set out for the Big Star.

Sugar & Tea. Rolls. Barbeque 2 LBS. Sliced Peaches. Chicken. Ribs. Barbeque Sauce. Roast. Milk. Baking Potatoes. Sausage.

Although Dad liked to cook out in any season, I’m guessing that was a summertime trip to the store. Given that Big Star was across the street from Memorial Field, you had to be alert for foul balls in the parking lot. My friend Alvin Davis’ mom, Marjorie, likely checked us out. Two items that didn’t need to be on a list were bagged up too — a six-pack of Budweiser and a carton of Salems. If it had been a good day for me, I would have slipped some Cokes and potato chips into our cart without pushback.

On another day, the list would have included iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, baked beans, applesauce, fish sticks, instant grits, Taster’s Choice coffee, white bread, bananas and hot dogs. There was one kind of mustard, the bright yellow kind. If it was around Thanksgiving or Christmas, apple rings and olives would make the cut.

Chow mein or pizza out of the store-bought kits were as exotic as we got. The market was sparse with ethnic foods, although there was more variety in the aisles of Big Star than the downtown Colonial Store it supplanted, still the only grocery store I’ve seen shaded by a magnolia tree. We weren’t an A&P family, except for Jane Parker pies during the holidays.

There were variations of cuisine by families, depending on their roots. The kitchen of our neighbors, Italian-Americans from New York, was alive with smells different from ours, of spices and sauces I wouldn’t really get to know for years.

My tastes broadened during college, practically from my first week on campus in Chapel Hill. At one orientation function, there were catered Blimpie sandwiches. I’m not sure if it was the oregano or the oil and vinegar, but it was unlike any sandwich I’d ever had. Two independent places in town, Sadlack’s and Hoagie’s Heroes, had even better offerings. My grilled cheese standard had long been from the buttery skillet of my friend Chuck’s mom, but it didn’t take very long in first semester to discover Hector’s Greek version, on pita bread with tzatziki. To be reminded of home, I only needed to have dinner at the Porthole, where the menu was filled with Southern staples.

Within a few years, I would enjoy my first jalapeño (Lubbock, Texas), lobster (Boston), bagel (New York) and fish-that-wasn’t-fried (Jacksonville Beach, Florida).

Everything is available almost everywhere now, choices we have even if we don’t need them. I don’t miss potted meat or fruit cocktail, to name two canned goods I regularly ate growing up, but we would be just fine without nine flavors of ketchup.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent. Bill can be reached at williamhfields@gmail.com.

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