Grocery Stories

Descended from Jewish grocers, groceries have shaped my Jewish life

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about Judaism. But it’s also a story about five grocery stores.

My father taught me how to grocery shop. Weighing produce, looking obsessively at unit prices, befriending the bakery manager because you never know when they’ll have day-old bread to give away – these are life skills that I don’t take lightly.

Cooking for myself and my loved ones is a sacred act for me, inextricably linked to tradition and family and history. What I’m describing on this weirdly deep level manifests itself in my daily life as a practical consideration: I’m always thinking about food, and I adore grocery shopping. I love walking down the aisles, discovering new foods, and inventing recipes based on items that catch my eye. I’ve had the privilege of living all over the US and Europe, and grocery shopping has been an integral part of getting to know new cities, new countries, and new communities. I’m a firm believer in finding home – and making homes – wherever we are.

Jews, ever a Diasporic people, are experts at making homes in strange places. Isn’t that what Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof? “That’s why we always wear our hats.” In this blog post, the nomadic lifestyle is chosen, and the hats are…grocery stores. But I think the analogy still works.

So let me tell you about five grocery stores that have impacted my life, strengthening this key part of my identity.

Wegmans • Allentown, Pennsylvania

Step one on our autobiographical Jewish grocery tour is Wegmans, a Mid-Atlantic staple and a defining aspect of my Pennsylvania childhood. My very-opinionated-about-grocery-stores family thought that the Allentown Wegmans was absolutely the best, until they underwent renovation and moved everything. The bagels of my youth were from Wegmans – dark-toasted everything bagels slathered in cream cheese and topped with tomato, red onion, and cracked pepper as the perfect break-the-fast (or Hanukkah brunch… or Shabbat…) treat.

EconoFoods • Northfield, Minnesota

Ah, Econo. The middling but delightful grocery store of my college years. It was nowhere near as good as the co-op down the block, but you could count on Econo for birthday cake ingredients, study snacks, and novelty helium balloons – the three things you need most in college. I wandered the aisles of Econo every year asking clueless employees where the matzah was – no one ever knew what I was talking about, but I managed to make gallons of matzah ball soup for my friends every year anyway.

Simply Market • Rome, Italy

I lived in Rome for three months as an undergrad, during which time my neighborhood grocery store became an essential aspect of my life. Italian grocery shopping is a daily affair – and sharing a small refrigerator with six roommates, it was impossible to buy more than two days’ worth of groceries at once. The produce was overflowing, the cheese and bread would make you cry, and there was an enormous variety of products with only one brand to choose from for each one. Everything you could ever need, packed into a space only about twice as large as my bedroom. This store gave me everything I needed (except, um, matzah) to prepare a Passover feast for my friends after Easter Mass at the Vatican – a seriously ecumenical celebration.

SuperValu • Dublin, Ireland

SuperValu is an American-style grocery store absolutely stuffed with Irish products – local produce, cheese, granola, beer and wine, and a thousand varieties of crisps. There are only three permissible kinds of Irish tea: Barry’s, Lyon’s, and the SuperValu store brand. I would shop for the week, stuff my groceries into my backpack, and ride my bicycle along the winding streets back home. It was an idyllic routine that I treasured in the stress and craziness of graduate school. One SuperValu location – in Churchtown, a Dublin suburb – has a Kosher section, which I raided for Passover staples after a rainy 45-minute ride to the outskirts of town. Introducing Irish Catholic friends to Hillel sandwiches is a moment I’ll never forget.

Kroger • Jackson, Mississippi

As a long-time vegetarian, I’ll admit that I was nervous about my food choices when moving to Jackson. But our incredible Kroger ticks every box. Paired with Mr. Chen’s (a great Asian supermarket and restaurant) and McDade’s (a local institution), Kroger is a truly exemplary supermarket. As I prepared for another Passover in another new city this spring, Kroger gave me industrial-size boxes of matzah – enough for a few solid months of brei.

It turns out that grocery shopping is an integral part of my southern Jewish experience. And scouting out Jewish staples around the world is a learned skill. As the descendant of Jewish grocery store owners (a blog post on that is forthcoming), my connection to food shopping feels even stronger.

Which grocery store do you call home? Are there any can’t-miss grocery stores in the South that I need to know about? Let me know in the comments!

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