March 19, 2006

Trader Joe's opened in New York City this weekend (wine shop next door to open at a later date). This fact seems to elicit boredom and passion in equal measure, but I'll just say that Wendy and I stood on line for half a block to get in, and leave it at that.

It's bumper to bumper people inside and I'm sure that's part of what makes it surreal—because as New York grocery stores go, this one is of typical size and shape and layout. But walking through, it's as if the aisles morph. When I look back to remind myself what I've passed, it's already turned into something else. "Where's oatmeal?" Wendy asks. "It's right over...it was..."—but it's gone. It's Trail Mix now, or Vanilla Almond Clusters.

The employees are almost manically upbeat—but it's clear they're sincere. (I ask one how they're achieving this and he holds up a paper cup: "Caffeine. Lots of it.") The crowd is largely hipsterrific ("I'm dressing up the next time I come here," Wendy vows), Trader Joe's-starved transplants in the flush of rediscovery.

I'm surprised to be one of them. I left California when I was six, and my most vivid memories of Trader Joe's are the crates of wine my parents dragged to Texas and the aura the name grew to have after listening to them reminisce. The only item in the store I actually recognize from my childhood is the Mini Toasts (we ate them with Salmon Mousse).

One shopper says it's like designer Costco. It's sacrilegious, of course, but I start to wonder. Costco, besides being about quantity, is about ready-to-eat snack food, which is why I purport to dislike it—but then what am I doing here? Case in point: I gleefully snag a box of coconut ice cream in the half shell—a smaller version of the same brand my mother buys in bulk. And suddenly I look in my basket and feel an inordinate amount of guilt.

Trader Joe's is the anti-cooking grocery story. Everything ready to go, no intrepidness required (beyond navigating the crowds). Sure, it's all superlative—but I thought what I wanted was to prepare my food myself. It's cathartic. It's self-empowering. It's better for you. It's—

This is when I realize: I'm nostalgic for snacks. I almost never buy them (beyond throwing a few granola bars in my drawer at work). Snack food always seems expensive or unhealthy, and I guess it's been grilled into me that I might spoil my appetite before the real meal—and that real meal is incredibly important to me. I just didn't realize that this logic was depriving me of so much happiness.

So it is a pilgrimage—a religious reawakening. Of course I still aim to cook homemade, multi-course dinners, but I'm reaffirming my faith in snack food. And there is no worthier temple than Trader Joe's.