Diary of a Transplant: The Grocery Challenge

  |  June 4, 2012

Every week writer Larissa Phillips brings you tales of life upstate. This week, a post every transplant should read: a guide a to grocery stores. 

grocery aisle
I’m all rah-rah about country life, but even I’ll admit there’s one area that upstate life has failed me: grocery shopping.

I find it ironic and strange that the farm produce I used to buy at the Park Slope Food Coop, which is grown in the area I now live in, is so difficult to actually buy up here.

When we first moved upstate I was completely clueless about how to shop. I’d go into the Price Chopper and read pickle labels for half an hour, then come out of the store with some milk and the one loaf of bread in the whole store that didn’t contain high fructose corn syrup.

There is just no way around it: food shopping in the country kind of sucks.

But hey. I lived in Williamsburg in the 90’s, when the cold meat room at Tops was as close to gourmet as you could get. I lived in Park Slope before Fairway and Union Market, back when the Food Coop didn’t take debit cards or sell beer. I lived in Manhattan before you could get good cheese or fresh fish on the East Side. I’ve roughed it before and I can do it again.

But I’ll still complain about it. Imagine, urbanites, if you will, my food shed as a map of ever-lightening concentric circles. We’ll start with the red  central zone, close to home.

First Circle: Super-Local:

I have two Grand Unions, each a 10-minute drive in opposite directions.

 The Coxsackie Grand Union is a nightmare. Tiny and dim, with a terrible selection. Okay, there’s organic milk, a few Ben & Jerry’s flavors, and some passable produce like avocados and lemons. You can survive, sort of. But you have to collar your children past the Carvel cakes and the giant displays of sodas. I guess most grocery stores in the U.S. are like this? Is this how people shop? It’s unbelievable.

Over in Greenville, the Grand Union, “Bryant’s”, is much better. To be sure: no organic dishsoap, no Applegate salami, but there are some yogurts that don’t have rainbow sparkles and chocolate chips in them, and a decent line of bread. Ahh, progress.

Second circle: Super-Local but Somewhat Inconvenient:

Right after we moved I joined a buying coop called UNFI. Once a month you go on-line and shop. The next week you go to the church parking lot in Coxsackie and pick up your order. Members split 50 pound bags of flour and lentils and whatever using a scale and paper bags in the back of someone’s car. Everyone’s groovy and talks about their calving season or their art show or their homemade laundry soap. I’ve found some good friends here. And I can get the snobby stuff I like: Applegate bacon, Liberte yogurt in Fig & Plum, Mrs. Meyer’s cleaning products. This is a lifesaver for us. However, the 7:30 a.m. pickup is kind of a drag.

Third Circle: Thirty minutes Away:

So who thought the name Price Chopper was a good idea? What a terrible name for a place where people will go for food and sustenance with recipes and ideas for dinner parties dancing in their heads. And yet, they go, including me. Its depressing name notwithstanding, the Price Chopper in Catskill has bagels, decent cheese, good yogurts, a huge produce area, a seafood counter, a whole aisle of natural foods, and even “humanely-raised” meats. I can actually fill up a cart here.

Fourth Circle: 30 and 40 Minutes Away, but My Kind of Place:

We get our meat at Pathfinder Farms in Catskill, and this is how it works: I email Jimmy, the farmer, to find out what he has. He emails me back and we decide on a time for pickup. We meet at his farm in the little out-building that holds his freezers. We chat for about 20 minutes about the wonders of grass-fed meat, and what’s going on his pasture, and how the cattle are doing. He is a Joel Salatin-type, fanatical about his grass. He is a grass farmer. His meat is great.

Heather Ridge Farm, in the actual Catskills, has a little café and a little food store. Because they are farming the ‘right way’, about the only thing I can afford here is mutton stew meat. I’d never had mutton, so I asked the lady if it was really gamy. She said, “Some of our customers don’t think it’s gamy enough.” She told us about a 7- or 8-year old ram they’d recently slaughtered. He had a full set of horns and had begun escaping and chasing people. They’d had him for years and didn’t want to slaughter him, but he’d become dangerous. They did what they had to do. “I thought he’d be too tough to eat,” she said. She shrugged, with a smile, “He was delicious.”  So was the mutton stew I made.

Fifth Circle: 45 Minutes Away:

Honest Weight, the Albany Food Coop, kicks the Park Slope Food Coop’s butt. There is a parking lot! And a giant bulk section! You can get maple syrup, olive oil, kombucha, shampoo, you name it, in bulk. You can even bring in your own jars and bottles and fill them up. The problem: it is too far away for me to be a working member, and is therefore exorbitantly expensive. It is hard for me to get out of there without spending $300. Every couple months we make a pilgrimage up to Albany, and come home laden with chocolate bars and garlic-stuffed olives and raw sheep milk cheese and dried mangoes and buckwheat flour and Sucanat, and recycled jars full of maple syrup and olive oil. Ohh, those are great times. It’s like we live in the city!

In the other direction: Adams Fairacre Farms. This is like a little Fairway. Great deli, huge produce section, their own line of meat and chickens, prepared foods, great yogurts…. They even have a specialty chocolate shop and a garden center with a koi pond. Want a picnic table or a stack of garden stakes to go with your imported prosciutto and Italian lemonade? This is your place.

The sixth, and outermost circle, still in the realm of my imagination:

Acres, the Hudson Food Coop. They have secured a space on Warren Street. It is going to happen. Maybe next month!

New Coxsackie Grocery? There are rumors that Adams Fairacre Farms is going to open a store in Coxsackie, and, alternatively, that some that other upscale grocery store will open. It is highly needed. Grocery store investors? Coxsackie town planners? I promise to blog breathlessly and with jewel box photos and mouthwatering recipes about any first class grocery you bring my way. And all these imposters I’ve described above? I will wipe them from the table like dirty napkins, and do all my shopping with you, ten minutes from my house. Well, maybe not Pathfinder. I’ll probably always shop at Jimmy’s.

It happened to Park Slope. It can happen up here, right?


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