Studying the items that we put into our grocery basket can reveal much about who we are. In very straightforward ways, our choices clearly indicate not just what we like to eat, but also —in a way—how we live our lives day to day. Some would even argue that in a unique store like Willy Street Co-op, the products that make it into our basket define or at least imply our values. But is it true for most of us? In order to explore this idea, I began to peer surreptitiously into customers’ baskets. I peeked into those of friends, of neighbors, of co-workers, and even into my own. Then I began talking with those same shoppers, customers, Owners, and friends, asking them what they were buying and why. What I learned in these conversations cannot be limited to accounts of food or home products but is instead made up stories of people’s lives. While often the kind of stories that tend to the absurd when viewed in relief, they weave the subtle yet intricate, holistic, and natural patterns that define our culture, our society, and our store. I talked to many customers and asked, “What’s in your basket?” but found our conversations were really answering a larger question: “What’s in our basket?” or “Who makes up our clientele, our store, our community at the Willy Street Co-op?”

Needless to say, some of the Co-op Owners with whom I spoke were—understandably—a bit reticent to reveal themselves in such a public forum—so, the names have been changed, but the baskets are real. The stories portrayed here should strike a note of familiarity—perhaps even similarity—for us all...because they are us. They are, quite literally, “what’s in our basket.”

Name: Ben Goodman
Age: 35
Occupation: Construction worker
Favorite Product(s): Fuji apples, Assam Honest Tea, lot and lots of Just Coffee (especially Runner’s High), and gluten-free products
Notes: Ben does most of the cooking around the house and accommodates the dietary needs of his new—and gluten-intolerant—girlfriend.

“It’s not easy to cook for someone with dietary restrictions, especially when everything you know how to cook is food that they can’t eat. I mean, I try—with some success—but it’s hard to cook in a totally new way. It’s like learning another language.” As Ben and I discussed his cooking trials in front of the Seafood Center at the end of Aisle 4, he told me about his new girlfriend and her gluten intolerance. Turns out he was in the right spot, because that’s where the Co-op keeps most of the ready-made gluten-free baking mixes and raw materials for gluten-free baking. His green grocery basket, filled with baking mixes from Pamela’s, Namaste Foods, and Arrowhead Mills, was weighing him down, and I could tell his arm was getting tired. I implored him to, “Put down your basket for a second, and tell me about how it has been adjusting to this challenge.” Thus unburdened, and as if a great weight had been lifted, he spoke to me freely of his recent experiences.

Ben began by recounting his first two attempts at cooking gluten-free, both of them cakes. “We had just begun to date, but it was my girlfriend’s birthday, and I wanted to make her a heart-shaped chocolate cake—from scratch.” As it turns out, he really meant from scratch, and visiting our bulk aisle he found the proper ingredients to produce a cake that had “the texture of baked, sandy silly putty.” I asked if our ingredients had been inadequate. He shook his head vigorously. As it turns out the cake’s failure, he says, was due to “operator error” and his second attempt (this time with a mix—Chocolate Cake from Gluten Free Pantry), turned out just fine. “I’ve begun to get the hang of gluten-free baking, but when I think about it, I guess it took a while to get good at ‘regular’ baking too.” Ben admitted that his first cake fiasco has kept him from baking gluten-free entirely from scratch, but “why bother when the mixes are so easy, and so good?” I asked him if he planned on eventually learning to do it from scratch. He thought a moment, shot me a rakish grin and said, “That depends. We’ll see how long this relationship lasts.” Oh boy.

Pork Roasts
Name: Hope Goodacre
Age: 57
Occupation: Retired
Favorite Product(s): Willow Creek Pork (all cuts), bok choi, Kitchens of India Meal packets, El Rey Chipotle Sour Cream Tortilla Chips
Notes: Lives in Middleton and looks forward to the opening of our West Side location.

When I ran into Hope she was leaving the meat department where she had just stocked up on a number of different Willow Creek pork cuts. “My husband just loves the pork chops; they taste better because Sue and Tony (Renger, of Willow Creek) really take care of their hogs,” she said.

“True, true, true,” I replied, “but I do notice that you don’t have any pork chops in your cart, just a pork shoulder and some of what I would call ‘just possibly the best bacon in the world.’”

As it turns out, Hope’s son was coming back home for a visit and it has been a family tradition of sorts to enjoy a slow-cooked pork shoulder. We chatted about the history of that tradition and how it came about. It seems that back home, Hope’s family would eat pork almost exclusively because it was cheap and readily available. So, since she would cook large pork roasts for family gatherings, they soon embodied the sight, smell, and taste of home and celebration. Things just weren’t the same without her pork roast and traditional blend of spices. Her allusion to the smell of a slowly cooking pork shoulder brought back memories of my own...

...memories of the rough, physical work of a crisp October weekend, the bracing wind chapping already frozen knuckles, and the smell of the dried leaves crunching underfoot that lead inevitably to a sense of order and accomplishment gained from preparing the yard for the season and for a loved one’s arrival.

...memories of then bursting past the threshold into the positively warm house—the roast’s moisture, now released, condensing on the inside of the kitchen windows, the spice rub hanging on the air suggestively, encouraging the natural and unavoidable appetence. No more shivers. At least not from the cold...

After clogging the Co-op aisle with our reminiscing (a rare occurrence, to be sure), and in the spirit and tradition of food and wine combinations, Hope and I heartily agreed that fall yard work—the raking of leaves, bagging of refuse, and the prepping of the garden’s perennials prior to winter’s unforgiving cold—make an exquisite pairing with a slow cooker and a homecoming spice-rubbed, roasted pork shoulder! Indeed the two, well, deserve each other.

Vegan Combinations
Name: Faith Truman
Age: 34
Occupation: University Professor
Favorite Product(s): Grasshopper brownies, vegan mac and cheese, salad bar greens, pumpkin cookies, BBQ seitan wrap     
Notes: Faith says most non-vegans don’t even know when they are eating vegan food because it tastes so good.

While I spoke with a number of Owners who follow varying degrees of vegetarianism, Faith was one of the few true vegans with whom I spoke. Similar to gluten-free cooking, veganism can present significant challenges at the grocery store. Faith’s motto, though, is “Yes Vee-Gan,” and she takes the challenges in stride. On this particular day, she was shopping with one of the Co-op’s half carts, and it was full of what looked to be “regular,” delicious food.

“The key at the Co-op,” she says, “is in the combinations.” I asked her what she meant, and for some examples. She explained that many delis have vegan options, but it is frequently difficult to put two or three options together into a meal that reasonably resembles something “balanced.” Instead, she noted, “You end up eating all of one dish as your meal.” From the vegan point of view, due to our extensive hot and cold cases—as well as the salad bar—the Co-op does a fairly good job of providing combinations of protein, starch, and vegetable.

Faith quickly rattled off three of her favorite combos: (1) Southern Fried Tofu and Creole Roasted Yams, (2) Kung Pao Tofu and Sesame Kale, (3) Red Curry Tofu and Asian Noodle Salad. She also noted the new(er) BBQ Seitan Wrap that she says goes well with salad bar greens. And speaking of the salad bar, she also remarked that, with its “bounty of green goodness” the Co-op’s was always useful for a quick, on-the-go meal plan. The large container of salad inhabiting the top shelf of her cart punctuated her point precisely. Though it was indeed represented in her cart that day, she also wishes that the Deli made more use of seitan, as it is “very versatile, and a staple of a vegan’s diet.”

Faith was extremely forthcoming with her favorite products, but it was easy to see them lined up in her cart as well. She loves the Grasshopper Brownies, and Pumpkin Cookies that are found near the Juice Bar, as well as two juices in particular, the Caribbean Queen, and the Green Zinger (with extra zingy).

Finally, she relayed an important message of warning: “Be careful with the vegan mac and cheese.” I laughed, asking why. “It’s so addictive that I call it ‘smack and cheese.’”

frequent flyers
Name: Tess Trueheart
Age: 28
Occupation: Health Care
Favorite Product(s): Harmony Valley Bagged Arugula, Hook’s Two Year Cheddar, and (of course) Umeboshi plums
Notes: Buys local products whenever possible.

The Co-op has a number of very, very frequent shoppers (you folks know who you are!), and Ms. Trueheart is a perfect example of this kind of customer. Both living and working within only a few blocks of the store, she is able to stop in almost daily to pick up what she needs for that day’s lunch or dinner. For her, it is more convenient to make multiple trips than to make a list and shop once a week. Consequently, she never has very much in her basket, and she is in and out of the store in mere moments. Fortunately, I was able to catch her, take a peek at what she was picking up, and speak to her briefly about it before she was off again.

On this particular day, only three items graced Tess’ basket, Umeboshi plums, and two heads of kohlrabi. Naturally, I asked her what she was cooking. “Nothing, actually,” she replied with a hint of incredulity in her stifled laugh. As it turns out, she prefers to enjoy her kohlrabi thinly sliced —but raw—and with the occasional dash of salt. Tess insisted that, ugly as it is, the kohlrabi makes a great snack.
She also explained that she makes a significant effort to purchase items that can be produced locally, if the Co-op carries them. For her, part of buying and eating locally also means concentrating on food that is in season and at peak freshness, so multiple shopping trips make more sense. She also mentioned that she frequents the area farmers’ markets to pick up even more fresh vegetables, especially heirloom varieties that are popular in the area. In response to my observation that between the Co-op and the farmers’ markets, let’s be honest, that’s just a lot of shopping, she replied, “It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.” Indeed.

“I get it,” I said. “High quality, local, and fresh. Makes sense. But then how do you explain the pickled Japanese plums in your basket, Tess?”

As she rushed off again, she turned halfway and grinned. “They’re to aid my digestion, of course!”
Of course!

Name: Tom Steadfast
Age: 36
Occupation: Teacher
Favorite Product(s): Veggie Booty, Black Earth Meats 80/20 Ground Beef, Hawkwind Heat Mustard, Mrs. Beaster’s Itty Bitty Kitty Salmon Treats (okay not his favorite...his cat Oblio’s favorite)
Shops without a list, but never shops alone.

Talking with Tom is an exercise in multi-tasking that tests the abilities of even the most accomplished and steely-nerved among us. As I talked with him he would seamlessly address the whirlwind made up of his three children, attending to their needs while also deflecting their attempts—okay mostly deflecting their attempts—to put their own favorite items into the cart. In fact, keeping track of just what was in his basket at any given time was a fluid exercise, and it struck me at one point that his average shopping experience must be quite different from the majority. Unlike most of us who select items to put in the cart or basket, most of his Co-op excursion is spent returning items that have magically made their way into the basket back to their proper locations on the shelf. It was clear that the addition of my questions was providing an unaccustomed distraction (perhaps that is how the Zion Fig Bars and Matt’s Chocolate Chip cookies made it into the basket), so I left Tom to focus on his whirlwind.

I caught up with the Steadfasts again at the register where, presumably, only those items slated for purchase would still be in attendance. Tom quickly disabused me of this notion, sending two of his children back into the fray, products in hand (a bag of Willy Street Co-op Bakery Snickerdoodles and a glass jar of Lakewood Pure Cranberry Juice). “We’re making cookies tomorrow and we already got the lemonade you like!” he called after them.

Using the moment of relative quiet, I asked him what typically makes the cut for his grocery list. He admitted that he seldom has a list per se, but relies on his kids to help him make choices. He noted that they have become accustomed to certain products, and—though they try their darnedest to slip in new ones—they are very good at reminding him which things the family typically picks up in each aisle, as well as items that are their favorite foods.

As Tom’s transaction was finishing up, we talked about the virtues of a top-down, pre-determined grocery list vs. the diversely sourced, pluralistic model his family seemed to embrace. We concluded that, given the family dynamics present, the former probably wouldn’t work...a point driven home moments later when his two boys showed up, out of breath, with two additional products and expectant, hopeful looks on their faces. As the cashier handed Tom the receipt I chuckled and thought to myself, “Ahh, you boys have a lot to learn. You have the right idea: build pressure by presenting products at the register, but you have to get it in before the transaction is over. A nice attempt, just a little bit too late this time.” Tom opted for the pithier, “In the car in two minutes!” I think they still got the point.   

Our Stories
In truth, the Co-op’s basket contains more people than the five whose stories are explored above (as anyone who has tried to shop on a Saturday or Sunday morning, Wellness Wednesday evening, or most any other time can attest). In a straightforward way, we are all shoppers interested in buying goods, and getting back home to our families. In a less straight-forward sense, a more meandering, socializing, catching-up and sharing stories of successes, failures, and just the business we call life kind of sense, the Co-op is much, much more. It’s a large, inclusive basket that captures the stories of our shoppers, of our Owners, of our collective and shared pasts and futures. What stories do you carry around with you at home, in the community, and at the Co-op?
What’s in your basket?
And what’s in ours?