as a night grocery shopper, i tend to miss out on the tiny retiree kiosks filled with samples. today i set out to make up for years of missed indulgences. first i plotted a route that encompassed each of duluth's major grocery stores; then i set out for a three-hour tour during peak shopping hours.
make no mistake: i was not actually shopping. i was skulking the outer parameters of the stores, investigating pedestrian culture one see-through domed pineapple hut at a time.
my travels found me neglected, cohersed, and stuffed to the uvula with $1.99 banana bread. i was sometimes charmed, sometimes guilt-ridden by my own freeloading ways. i found that the further from my home base that i traveled, the more disappointed i was by the fare. but mostly i realized that within this town, you can't give a javelin toss to a gnawed toothpick without hitting a super one.
STOP ONE: SUPER ONE [15 S. 13th AVE E.]
i find myself jostling elbows with two college boys for a slice of bakery-made banana walnut bread. [at this point in my travels, this is novel. later, banana bread will represent the epitome of lazy freefare]. loafs are on sale for $1.99, 50 cents off. i select the piece most liberally doused in butter. it is moist and delicious but mostly i'm just in it for the butter. as you know, i'm a dipper.
STOP TWO: SUPER ONE [LAKESIDE]
lakeside is oppressive. it feels like i'm wearing an electric shock curfew collar. i fear that someday i will be trapped out there at midnight without food or gas or easy interstate access and from that day on i won't be able to stay up long enough to watch conan o'brien.
one time i was at a party in lakeside, and when the police busted in 20 minutes after i had left they found 6-10 sober adults playing cranium. ["sorry officer, we'll try to spell words backward more quietly," my friend reportedly said.]
but this lakeside super one smells promising, and by "smells promising" i mean: smells like kentucky fried chicken. i work my way quickly toward the smell, which is coming from the deli, but instead of spicy popcorn chicken, there is this handwritten sign:
homemade chicken cashew salad
on an empty, unmanned sample table.
MOUNT ROYAL FINE FOODS
i know that this will be a milestone moment in my investigation, as mount royal is not only my favorite grocery store -- it has the exact lighting that i want to always be surrounded by. this good feeling is enhanced when i walk in and the song "come dancing" by the kinks is playing.
there is a platter of hor devours in the meat department: ham or turkey options, rolled into aesthetically pleasing pink bite-sized cylinders. this is an intimidating sort of sample arrangement. it is hard to be casual about your grazing when you have to actually approach an official counter manned by an official sample lady. luckily, this bird ducks into the back room just as i approach. i opt for turkey and a generous chunk of asiago cheese and drop my toothpicks into a container marked used toothpicks. i can only hope these slivers are recyled into IKEA furniture.
i move on to a chili con queso served with baked tortilla chips. a few feet away, garlic hummus has an older man and his wife in a tizzy. they are playing "find the hummus," trying to match the label on the display to a label in the hummus case.
a stocker is refilling the toothpicks near the pineapple chunks. i hip check him and dig in.
this is by far the best buffet i've stumbled upon thus far, but with all of the sample items packed in the same vicinity, i feel self conscious as i stuff my face. like they are going to drag me out by my dirty hair and drop me in front of the vat of macaroni and cheese at old country buffet. where i belong.
SUPER ONE [KENWOOD]
finally, a beverage. i take a shot of bayfield natural apple cidar in the produce section. it is acidic and tastes like the potential for a hangover. near the meat counter, a woman swabs at the fry pan to increase the amount of cheese on my bite of chicken kiev. "2 for 5 dollars," she says and i turn around. "would you like to buy some?" another woman behind the counter asks.
clearly at super one in kenwood, sample lady is a commission-based job opportunity.
feeling pressured, i flee, mumbling something vague about maybe stopping back. i end up in the bakery, where a woman half my height tries to bully me into more of that $1.99 banana bread. here, the pieces are smaller and less buttery and i also have the option of sans walnuts. sans walnuts trumps avec walnuts every time.
"you can't even make this bread for this price," shorty challenges me.
"i'd imagine not," i say, scurrying away with a mouthful.
i circle back to the chicken kiev. i'm going to need something for dinner tonite. something that isn't served on a toothpick.
i've missed a grocery store further up woodland avenue, so i have to retrace arrowhead. based on the parking lot at the piggly wiggly, sampling here will be tricky. i may be the only customer they have had all day.
makes no difference. there is nothing free for me.
SUPER ONE [BURNING TREE PLAZA]
this may be the superest of super ones. unfortunately, i'm too late. there is an empty dome with a handwritten sign: "pretzel crisps. great with cheese dip!" i'm sure it was, before the vultures [ie my people] descended.
there are some donut crumbs in the bakery department. i'd have to lick my finger and swab at the community bowl. i'm unwilling to do this. perhaps earlier in the day i'd have been more ambitious.
then: more banana bread.
i don't even make eye contact. i get the feeling that someone involved in the super one chain is a manic bread baker. this banana bread overload smacks of someone's meth addiction.
the cheese department rarely disappoints on the occasions that i have been here before midnight. today i am left with stella's low fat blue cheese crumbs and a handful of broken crackers. i take two servings because this is my home grocery store.
local romanesco and colorado green beans with grateful harvest sesame dressing. i want to put my face in this bowl and begin lapping at this sludgy brown organic mess of yum. near the deli i sample from a tray of sesame rice. there is also cubed cheese, but i am too shy to approach the dish this time. not sure why. shyness rears its boring head and occasionally interfers with what i am called to do.
SUPER ONE [WEST]
nothing. not even banana bread. but there are girls out front selling hot dogs in front of a sign that says: don't be a meanie, have a heart, buy a weinie.
this gets stuck in my head for about an hour.
i drive home and eat my $2.50 chicken kiev.banal probe is a new weekly feature where i get off the couch and do something not particularly innovative for no real reason or importance beyond the post potential. so far i have a short list of experiments including things like: walk the length of duluth; learn to like mushrooms; see what i look like as a 125 pounder; subsist on liquids for as long as possible; go an entire day without talking; nicotene patches, whatever. suggestions? e-mail me at email@example.com.