Glance around the web and you’ll find New Yorkers complaining about buying groceries — not just the prices, but the actual process of procuring food. In a city where cars are a luxury, we probably devote more physical effort to bringing home the bacon than anyone else in America. There must be something wrong with me then, because I love grocery shopping.
Food costs less, even here, than most things we spend money on. The huge array of grocery stores reflects the city’s diversity. Besides, buying food is guilt-free — after all, I actually need it. It’s easy, though, to feel crippled by groceries, like the Anasazi dragging stones up the cliffs. I live in a narrow slice of Brooklyn that is home to small, mostly terrible grocery stores, so I’ve always shopped elsewhere. I shop after work, which means all over the city. I use in-store baskets to set limits, but still end up tilted over with half-gallons of milk and cans of crushed tomatoes. While being so active keeps us alive longer than people in other parts of the country and I feel quite smug about not driving, I look forward to the day when I can buy a big bottle of something and not have to put something else back.
Walking to lots of stores, often from the subway, is, nevertheless, a very New York thing to do. It makes us feel like Europeans, never mind that actual Europeans do their shopping at Tesco. Asked to name the grocery stores where I regularly shop for this article, I managed to narrow the list to sixteen. I don’t have a problem: it’s a choice. I feel about grocery stores the way some people feel about art galleries: I always want to see more.
Steve’s C-Town Supermarket has a branch on 9th Street in Park Slope, about 11 blocks from my building. Predating the neighborhood’s swank gentrification, C-Town does a great job of balancing the needs of organic-food yuppies with those of the neighbors on food stamps. Its produce is decent, and priced competitively. In addition to a deep devotion to all things Italian-American, C-Town keeps prices low on the German health bread I like and half-dozens of eggs.
New York currently boasts 54 farmers markets; closer to 70 in summer. When people say “The Farmers Market,” though, they usually mean the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, located above a major subway hub. Some days, inevitably, it’s irritating — too crowded, too expensive. Saturdays are a scene, with clusters of street musicians and club-kids dressed to amaze. In late summer, though, when everyone’s away, the cucumbers and zucchini pour in. Year-round, there are samples of popcorn, lamb sausage and more. I once bought a Christmas tree here and got it home to Brooklyn on the subway, in a cart.
Since 2002, I’ve bought tea at New York Supermarket’s East Broadway store, located inside the base of the Manhattan Bridge. Not fancy tea: tea bags. NYS sells a range of foodstuffs, including shrimp so fresh they leap out of their baskets and head across the floor, but I generally stick with the tea. Recently, two things have happened to my tea-buying experience here. The first is that the price of a box of 20 tea bags jumped from 69 cents to 99 cents. Apparently, it dawned on the proprietors that they’re not living in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Then suddenly, there were no more boxes of Sea Dyke tea. I substituted two of Fujian Company jasmine and one of Butterfly Brand green, for a total of $2.97, and went home with much prettier boxes.
Prices at Whole Foods on house brands and bulk actually constitute bargains in New York: rolled oats, skim milk, frozen peas. I have a special affection for the Whole Foods on the Bowery. Originally designed as a sort of hip playground, with Wi-Fi and a rotating sushi track, it’s trimmed its sails recently. You can still ogle the huge cheese and chocolate selections, though, surrounded by a mix of fashion people, punks from the Lower East Side and Euro-trash. Supermodels are skittish and best left alone. This location features two sets of lines: the regular one often moves faster than the express. The F Train departs right outside.
Arriving in Brooklyn late at night, I succumb to the obvious and shop at convenience stores. The first option as you decamp from the 7th Avenue station is Kim’s, open 24 hours, and featuring cheap containers of melon pieces in the curbside frig. Inside, however, you’ll pay high prices for staples like milk. For years, Kim’s hosted The Mean Man Whose Real Hair Looked Like a Toupee. Faced with an older patron struggling to find exact change, he would bark at her to make way for other customers. Finally, his family must have realized he was bad for business. Kim’s now employs gentle cashiers of various generations. It also keeps a small but respectable produce department.
Because food shopping is universal, grocery stores offer genuine introductions to neighborhoods. In New York especially, you can expand your frame of reference simply by picking up a can of soup somewhere new. Most people can spring for a box of salt or a bagel from even the fanciest shop. When visitors come from out of town, I always try to drag them to a grocery store so that they can really see the city.