I am the designated grocery shopper in the Hines household. Laurel pretty much is the designated everything-else shopper, aside from such necessities of life as books, computers, and other techno gadgets. I take my duty seriously. I am not a creative grocery shopper. Hewing to our evolutionary designed sex roles, my mantra is: “Get everything on the list; do not get anything not on the list.”
Using every available dwindling ounce of testosterone in my aging body, each Wednesday I dedicate myself to hunting down the assigned items on the list. If I fail to catch a quarry, I am disappointed. I circle the name of that elusive prey and return to the hunting ground the next day, and the day after that if necessary, until the Hines larder has been filled.
Laurel is much more the archetypal female gatherer. She is happy wandering around a grocery store looking for new interesting things to pluck off the shelf and bring home to share. I find that modus operandi frustratingly imprecise. If you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know when you find it? Yet together our styles mesh nicely, as nature undoubtedly intended, a harmonious mix of yin and yang.
Moral dilemmas usually are absent from my shopping experience. But today I was drawn to reflect on the ethical rightness and wrongness of some everyday grocery store behaviors. Well, actually my first instance of moral angst came at a Commercial Street roadside farmer’s stand here in Salem.
I was attracted by a “Fresh Corn” sign and moved to fondle some recently harvested ears. As I usually do, and as I recall my mother telling me to do, I started to peel back part of the husk on a promising looking ear. Instantly the stand proprietor grabbed it out of my hand and said, “What size do you want? Big ones?” “Sure, what else?,” I replied. “How many?” “Oh, eight.” “OK. I’ll pick you out some nice ears.” Which he did.
Later, as I was paying for the corn and some other items, he said to his partner seemingly in passing (but likely for my benefit), “When that guy who just left comes back we should charge him for all the ears of corn he ruined that we’ll have to throw away.” “Ruined?” I asked. “Yeah, he kept picking up ear after ear, peeling the husk down to see what the kernels looked like. Then he put the corn back. We can’t sell it after that has happened.”
I was shocked. In a burst of honesty I told the guy what he likely already knew: “Well, I also am a habitual husk peeler. I didn’t know this was a bad thing to do.” “Oh, man,” I was told. “You wouldn’t believe how much corn grocery stores have to throw away. Women won’t buy corn if the husk has been peeled back. They figure that if someone else looked at the ear that closely and decided not to buy it, then they won’t buy it either.”
Lord, what a revelation! Images of hundreds of grocery store corn peelings flashed across my psyche, embellished with (likely false) memories of fruit and vegetable department staff surreptitiously eyeing me, wondering how many ears were going to have to be thrown in the dumpster that evening after I had finished trashing the corn display.
Then I began thinking about all the other grocery store moral dilemmas that I had rarely or never pondered until this roadside stand ethical wake-up call. Here are some samples:
Squeezing fruit. Yes, I do this too. I already knew the roadside stand folks didn’t like this, because in previous years a sign by the peaches said, “You squeeze it; you’ve bought it.” But most stores aren’t so direct. How many times have I picked up a nectarine or peach and said to myself, “Ick. There are bruises and dents on it. Better put it back.” And how did those bruises and dents get on the piece of fruit? By someone just like me wanting to see how firm it was. Do I need to know this? Doesn’t all fruit ripen to just the right degree in the summer if you wait a few days? Can’t I let my eyes do the choosing?
Disrespecting the “best used by” stocking system. Every week I buy a package of broccoli slaw. And every week I rummage through all the bags looking for the package with the latest “best used by” date. Invariably this bag is way at the back, since the store wants people to first buy the stuff that is going to be out of date the soonest. I understand this. I agree with the system’s logic. And I consciously subvert it. Even if I know that we are going to use up the “August 7” bag before then, I’ll buy an “August 14” bag if it is available.
What if everyone did this? Didn’t Sartre say that we have to choose each action we do as if we are choosing that every person in the world would do it?
Taking the last of something. This moral dilemma may be the best sign of my nearly perfect Buddha-nature that I clearly perceive but is dismayingly unrecognized by Laurel (perhaps because she thinks that a Buddha would empty the dishwasher more than 1 out of 10 times, and not demand that the press be notified when he performs this selfless act).
I agonize when I take the last of something that I know someone else is going to soon find gone, and be disappointed. And I really agonize if I take the last two of those things when I really only need one. We love the whole wheat round bread loaf at LifeSource Natural Foods that has seeds on top. So do lots of other people, obviously, because the whole wheat loaf sells out almost instantly, while the white bread hangs around for days after delivery.
Laurel sometimes will come home with three whole wheat loaves, two of which she puts in the freezer. “For when we can’t find a loaf,” she says. I am aghast, but I try not to appear overly judgmental, for this would be at odds with my Buddha nature, and, in public at least, I try to maintain my Bodhisattva appearance (could this be the last subtle sign of ego?). Yet I think to myself, “One of the reasons people can’t buy a loaf a week is because other people buy several loaves a week, even when they only need one.”
Ah, the more I thought about it, I concluded that all the dilemmas of human morality and ethics get played out in some fashion at the grocery store. The smallest act of shopping can reflect the grandest virtue or vice.
Today I almost failed to notice a display at Fred Meyer because it was virtually bare: “Organic grapes, 99 cents a pound; $2.00 off regular price.” $2.00 off!!! There were precisely five bags of grapes left. I put three in my cart, though I thought that Laurel and I could eat all five before the weekend was over.
As I walked away I glanced over my shoulder at the two bags left on the display. I felt good. The light of my Buddha nature shone a bit more brightly than before. Somewhere in Salem someone is eating two bags of cheap organic grapes because of me.
I should issue a press release. Well, I guess I have, with this posting.
[note to self: check Buddhist scriptures on question of whether realization of Buddha nature necessarily is preceded by loss of ego; rewrite scriptures as necessary].
Wait a minute! Mom was right. By pulling back the husk on the corn, you are looking for bugs or worms. If there aren't any, then you take the ear you fooled with.
Some grocers remove part of the husk so you don't have to do this. But because we always cook the corn in foil after soaking it in water, we want the corn to be intact.
Grocers are also sneaky in that the bad side of a piece of fruit are sometimes put on the bottom, so you have to pick them up to look. I am guilty of lightly squeezing avacados, however.
Posted by: Carol Ann | August 05, 2004 at 03:15 PM
Revelations indeed! Based on the behaviors outlined in this story, I wonder if the roadside grocer had some moral angst of his own. Could it be that he was (secretly) more concerned with the fondling of the corn than the actual peeling, (thereby exposing the corn's birthday suit), and he was just too embarrassed or conservative or unliberated to express it? Who knows what moral dilemmas the poor pitifully perplexed platonic proprietor faced in that moment!? The better question is: "was the corn fondled before or after the aforementioned peeling incident?" Yes, that is the question, which I realized in the final line when the author pondered ...'rewriting the scriptures as necessary'). My observation /commentary was then confirmed when Carol Ann (see earlier posted comment) blatantly admitted to the squeezing of avacoadoes. When will this indecent exposure and questionable touching in the vegetable aisles stop? Vegetables and fruits have rights too, you know. If only Buddha wrote clearer guidelines for our modern day behavior on this stuff...
Posted by: Ron Morey | August 05, 2004 at 07:19 PM
I married the produce boy.. so I just asked him in the other room to explain why this is, because I may not purchase corn that has been touched... in my obsessive compulsive shopping habits...
Background.. My husband and I met while working for Roth's. He was the produce boy and I was the courtesy clerk..
He says that in the summer many people buy corn to put on the grill, which means that the husk needs to be intact. He also said that he would never buy corn that he didn't personally pull the husk back, but that a person could check for worms and such in the first inch of the husk. In fact, when I was training to be a checker, I would often use my future husband as a training tool for learning obscure produce items. While we would practice, he would pull one area of the husk off the corn for presentation for those who were boiling, leave all of the husk on for the barbeques, and pulling all of the husk off for the lazy.
You know, Scott did a much better job of explaining this.. but I hope this makes sense.
Posted by: Melodie A. | March 18, 2005 at 09:41 PM