My mom made even chores fun or at least tolerable. That included grocery shopping.
My sister and I played along, which was to everyone’s benefit. After all, she was raising us solo, with her deadbeat ex-husband skipping out on child support. We never felt deprived and she never resorted to self-pity or male bashing. She was busy, with her work and kids.
I got into the details of shopping. I was a cook from elementary school. We spent summers and holidays with her parents, including my working many long days with my grandfather in his patches, as he called his acre-sized gardens. I knew fresh foods, beetles and worms, how to plant, weed, pick and prepare veggies within a few minutes of harvest.
During the school year, we shopped as a trio. That became regular when I was in third grade in Danville Virginia. I can still picture the wonderful view of the Cat & Fiddle grocery as we turned left off Main Street. It was long before true supermarkets and if it was still around it might seem tiny and shabby, but oh, the sign.
Jutting out above the street was a splendid and huge neon sign. A standing cat worked the bow on his fiddle. No matter which approach you took, you had no doubt where the store was or what it was called.
To the heading here, back then it was about $5 a bag of groceries on average. I was fastidious even then and paid attention to such things, as well as the sizes and costs of what went into the cart. As I do today, she shopped with the newspaper ads. If ham was on sale at 29¢ a pound, ham it was that week. My mother was big on vegetables and fruits, but we tended to get what was on sale. I never was deprived and we always had good stuff in the fridge, on the counter and in the pantry.
Oddly enough, while she was young during the Great Depression, she did not come by her conservation and frugality as an emotional response to it. Granddad was both wise and lucky. He got and maintained a job on the B&O Railroad for his whole career, including the Depression years. He ran a tailor shop and dry cleaners next to the house and often made clothes for his wife and three kids. He sometimes sold cars on weekends (Chevy, although he didn’t care much for them and bought Ford himself). Then there were the gardens. My grandmother pressed the kids into service at the end of the summer in the great canning wars. Sometimes, Granddad would show up with so many bushels of green beans, tomatoes, limas or this and that, the neighbors would join in. For their work, they hauled away and preserved their own shares. Many afternoons under the huge maple in the backyard, we got sore thumbs snapping beans and hulling peas, while a half dozen or more old women laughed and gossiped.
Some prices stick in mind. A box of toothpicks normally was 11¢ but might be 7¢ on sale. A can of tuna was 29¢ or on sale 19¢. Chuck roast was then much cheaper in proportion to other muscle meats, at 49¢ a pound and less on sale. This was in the late 1950s.
Figuring by today’s standards, our groceries can still be reasonable, for those who shop carefully. Tuna today hovers around $1 a can. Given inflation, it is less expensive than we paid for it. Maybe there was a cover charge (bag charge?) for the neon cat.
I tend to average $10 to $11 a bag of groceries now. The bags are a bit smaller than those of yesteryear, and I do shop judiciously. I may go to three stores on the way to get the best deals.
Along the way with my mother, I learned to work the coupons as well as ads. Before requirements for labeling unit prices (like a pound of coffee or ounce of dish detergent), I calculated the best deal by size. Even then, the king-size cereal or such might cost more per unit than a smaller one. I loved that stuff and delighted locating the best deal between brands and by size. That may be a mild sickness, but I pretend it helped make me a good project manager.
My late mother-in-law, in contrast, was one of many who clearly didn’t grow up that way. She found such grocery-shelf comparisons confusing, even though she worked in a bank and dealt with numbers all day long. She had long ago given up on coupons, finding them far too much work to locate the precise item in brand and size to qualify. She seemed astonished that I not only used coupons, but reveled in saving $20 or more a week on things we’d buy regardless.
The few times I have seen parts of The Price is Right, I figured I could have aced the grocery items they use. I pay attention and know for my area what milk, laundry soap and such cost.
Now that I do the cooking nearly all the time, the other benefit of grocery shopping, and in my case hitting the Haymarket every week, is planning the week’s menu by what’s fresh, what catches my nose and eye, and what’s reasonably priced. By the time I head home, I have a bunch of meals in the works. I also know what’ll be in the fridge and pantry for winging it then or in a month.
Honestly, I enjoy grocery shopping.
Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, Danville, shopping, grocery, Virginia