I come from a long line of grocers. My father talked of doing his “lessons” atop a pickle barrel in his father’s store on the south side of Indianapolis. Years later, Dad courted my mother while she sliced cold cuts behind the deli counter in her parents’ Cincinnati market. Bilker Foods, Mom’s family’s business, was no ordinary grocery store. It was ahead of its time, offering gourmet and imported items alongside traditional merchandise. My Aunt Rose, as creative as she was smart, placed handwritten notes beside unusual and unfamiliar foodstuffs, offering cooking or serving tips. “Try this tuna mixed with your dinner salad,” she would advise, and customers listened. Aunt Rose was a foodie before foodies were foodies.
Back in Indianapolis, where I grew up, I received frequent packages from Aunt Rose. I admit I was disappointed they did not contain a pretty doll or new book, but I came to love the Danish butter cookies, exotic jams, and fancy crackers she sent. We shopped at Atlas Supermarket, where Mom could find pecans ground as fine as white sand for her coffee cake, tart and smooth currant jelly for her jellyroll, chocolate syrup kosher for Passover.
I’m no stranger to grocery stores whose shelves are stocked with rare delicacies. However, even I was thrown for a loop by the recent openings of two such super supermarkets in Carmel, an upscale mega-Kroger and especially the sprawling Market District. There, we park in lots as vast as the one at Klipsch Music Center, and complimentary shuttles deliver us to and from the storefront. While we’re shopping, we can enjoy a Starbucks latte, and after, dine in a fully set restaurant where servers are clad in black, and an open kitchen mimics those found in the hottest downtown eateries.
I don’t know who craves a fuzzy melon or Mexican jackfruit, so huge and foreboding I thought it was a groundhog.
Like many eager Carmelites last fall, I visited Market District the first week it opened, when the crowds made the place feel like the Motor Speedway on race day. Rubberneckers clogged the aisles, carts bumped carts, and shoppers marveled out loud at the massive selection and variety. I purchased very little that day, too distracted by the musical combo, coffee roaster spinning beans, rows of flavored olive oils and fragrant spices, and piles of produce to land on anything I needed. I was a bee buzzing around a flowerbed but never settling on a beautiful bloom.
I waited a month and tried again, when I could enjoy the surroundings unimpeded. The produce is the epicenter of the store, the area color-washed with mountains of peppers in rainbow shades of red, green, and yellow; bins of Brussels sprouts still on their stems; tons of tomatoes made ripe by the sun; bales of broccoli like floral bouquets; a plethora of pears, the ones I took home as sweet as candy. And then there are such weird crops as Thai eggplant, dragon fruit, and something called rambutan that looks like a blowfish. I don’t know who craves a fuzzy melon or Mexican jackfruit, so huge and foreboding I thought it was a groundhog. These curiosities might make it to some kitchens, but they only sidetrack me from my normal hunting and gathering.
It is a lengthy trek to get to more mundane stuff, such as aluminum foil or a carton of eggs, the items I may not want but need. I did fall for a few indulgences: refrigerated Cinnabon rolls and ready-made roasted salmon and chicken potpie, none of which lived up to expectations. Just because food looks good doesn’t make it so. I could find $10 Chilewich place mats, the stuff of boutiques, and Le Creuset pots—but no Dole chopped salad in a bag, hull-less popping corn, or my favorite Mallomar cookies! Still, what IBS sufferer could find fault with six flavors of lactose-free ice cream? The place is an Epcot Center of global fare. Rare, unpronounceable cheeses such as Beemster Vlaskaas and Shropshire appear alongside Swiss raclettes, and set nearby are bottles of English Double Devon cream such as might appear at a silver-laden table on Downton Abbey. The fish market is as close to Seattle’s Pike Place as Indiana is likely to get, and stacks of red meats call to us like a carnivore’s Bali Ha’i. I say yes! to chuck-and-brisket burgers and prime New York strips, but no to dry-aged—and dry-looking—beef hung in a glass-enclosed case. One room, itself the size of an entire store, houses spirits, including a case of pricey reserve wines and liqueurs.
Perhaps cooks more adventurous than I will make these new supermarkets part of their regular food-shopping routine.
The first time I ventured inside the new Kroger megastore, I laughed out loud at the guitarist singing folk music on the balcony. I don’t need a concert when planning my dinner, I thought; however, on my next visit, I found myself enjoying the mellow mood. There, I will never—ever!—pick my own mushrooms growing out of the dirt display or buy the latest bestselling book, but I confess to paying $2.14 for an already peeled onion.
For all of their glitz, these spectacular megamarts do not make me as comfortable—at least not yet—as I once felt at Bilker’s, where Aunt Rose surveyed the selling floor from her office window, or at the tiny Joe O’Malia’s at 106th and College, where employees Grover and Jeanette knew my name and asked after my kids. I could shop in 20 minutes, and I suspect my dinners were as delicious then as they could be now, if only I knew what to do with a fresh poussin.
Perhaps cooks more adventurous than I will make these new supermarkets part of their regular food-shopping routine. I will go when I have time to spare and want to be uplifted and inspired by pure possibility. Like glorious full-color cookbook photographs, such places offer great theater—a mental vacation, if you will—even as they satisfy simple responsibility. The truth is, I bought a dry Greek rub at Trader Joe’s three years ago and haven’t used it yet. I doubt I’ll ever desire country elk or deer pate. Then again, if you discover even one stellar item, like that sugary pear, the enjoyment might just be worth the quest.
Illustration by Elvis Swift