Tales From Aisle 14: Grocery Shopping for the Non-Cook

I spent six years living in New York City, eating every meal except breakfast Cheerios out and about on the wide streets of Manhattan. During that time, cooking seemed like a quaint idea in the face of all of New York's world-renowned, and hole-in-the-wall, eateries. Cooking. Cute, but unrealistic.

Now that I've moved back to Houston, the grocery store is necessary, especially since my metabolism isn't 21 years old anymore. These are the grocery-shopping tales of a 30-something-year-old gastronomical nothing.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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First, breathe, and pick your grocery store. Walmart and Super Target, hell's to the no. You are not heading to the gym -- you are attempting to eat. Whole Foods, faaaancy. You can't find Fruit Loops here, and you don't want flax seed.

H-E-B and Randall's Flagship are so opposite in reputation that you just knock them both out, as you never claimed extremism. And Rice Epicurean -- if you can't pronounce the last name, you don't deserve an invitation. So it's the last mart standing: Kroger. Specifically, the one in Sugar Land. It's nice enough, has a great wine selection, and allows for a fantastic coupon card. Easy, breezy, you go girl.

You've grabbed your rickety cart, and the wheels don't turn. But you've managed to enter the automatic glass doors to be met with a blitzing assault of the sights, sounds and the brightness of the neon floral department. Temporarily mesmerized by the gigantic sunflowers, you feel an overpowering, false sense of hope and want to celebrate. Fifteen minutes are wasted because you will plant those tulips and someone in your life certainly needs a plastic balloon. Put those roses down. We both know they're going to rot and mold in some glass serving as a vase because you are too cool, out eating at restaurants, to be bothered to sit staring at them at home.

Leaving the mini-nursery on crack, you remain entranced. You somehow hit the bakery, with all its enriched flour and red sugar icing. Trying to force yourself away from the sprinkle donut, summer cupcakes and baby croissants, you stop and stare at the one thousand varieties of artisan bread. Buy the cupcakes and donate them as a gift at your best's barbecue; his three kids will leave you one. Leave the bread -- you've already scarfed down five different samples. Hello, jalapeño-Asiago cheese bread. But really, you do not live in a teeny French village, so who's going to slice those golden loaves anyways?

Cheese, Fresh Olives...Charcuterie!

Moving on, you suddenly land in the United Stores of Europe and think you are just that fabulous, going to whip up a spontaneous pre-dinner wine-and-cheese party. With white flag, I declare Gruyere, Manchego and Brie awesome. Add fresh, whole, marinated olives, with razor-thin pancetta, prosciutto and smoked salmon, ooh la la.

But, ding goes the tortilla-maker's oven, and you snap out of your flower-induced pollen hallucination. You can't cook, so what makes you think you're an Italian bistro? Put the charcuterie down. Unless you are going to slice Gouda while watching Kim Kardashian, what you'll have is a nice, thick block of green fungus.

Where Doves Fly

Hark, the angels sing, and you are the devil entering the gates of heaven. Even if you've never eaten a vegetable in your life, the scintillating array of colors illuminating from the stacks of ripe, fresh, shiny produce stimulates your senses into near-veganism. Red apples, bright oranges, sunlit bananas and luscious, misting greens recreate the box of 64 tantalizing crayons in Technicolor. All this divine goodness leaves you insecure, escaping to the Little Debbie cakes. Are you even worthy?

Is that cilantro or parsley, mint or basil, and why are there still at least three other mysterious green leafy things? What do you do with rhubarb, and what's the difference between clementines, tangerines, mandarins and just teeny, tiny oranges? How do you even cut a mango? Wow, a whole watermelon would be wondrous. Just add wheat and honey to this cornucopia, and I'm the devil who wears pomegranate.

Seriously, slow your roll. Here's what I do: I'll take onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers, and spinach for warm, made-to-order omelets. Throw in a cucumber, and I've got fresh sandwiches. If I'm adventurous, I'll boil some quinoa, or as my Indian mother likes to say, "queen-oo-I-yeah." Include bananas, strawberries, apples and oranges, and I've just made smoothies for three days. I still can't read a recipe, but I'll survive.

The Cows Come Home

Dairy's quick and easy for me. Silk Chocolate Soy Milk it is. Rumor has it that soy contains a tremendous amount of estrogen, but what man couldn't use a lil' knee-jerk tear reaction and women, well, use in moderation and beware of Volvo commercials. Grab a few fruit-flavored yogurts and of course sliced cheese. What else are you going to eat once your Brie molds? Without a recipe, all other dairy products are useless. Maybe butter, but you buy that once a year, and coffee creamer...but really, you'll just go to Starbucks.

Push your cart forward.

Marmalade orange salmon filets, succulent pork tenderloins, juicy kebabs and blood-red beef -- it's so tantalizing, you can almost hear it sizzling on the grill. But if you don't cook, then this entire section is inedible, as you would need an actual fire to consume it. And your novice attempt probably should not be with an open flame.

I mean, sure, you could fry up some turkey bacon and mash up some spices in ground meat for a chicken burger, but you have no idea what to do with a lamb chop, rib eye or tilapia. Except for the sushi, which is inexplicably straight on the other side of the store near the flowers, I say just plain avoid raw flesh.

But take another look at the live lobsters clawing in that dirty water. You didn't even have to pay a zoo entrance fee.

Remember the Titanic

Sweet, Mary and Joseph. Stay away from this section. Nothing good ever comes out of frostbitten disodium phosphate. Rows and rows of snow peas and corn, waffles, ice cream, Sara Lee deserts and -- solving world hunger -- frozen pizza. Hallelujah. No doubt, that Totino's Party Pizza satiates all kinds of paper crust, plastic cheese and red slime sauce cravings. This manufactured food group is gooooood. Little old me can take down 740 calories of one whole "hamburger" pizza of pure deliciousness in one sitting. And at four for $5, it's the greatest math I've ever seen. But eventually: It. Will. Kill. You.

The automatic strobe lights that dance on to illuminate frozen crack don't help this feeling that you've just entered an ecstatic Studio 54 of eating, but your nutritional rehab counselor is whispering fiercely in your ear that this is the tip of the iceberg of a ludicrously fast downward spiral. Turn around, don't look back, and walk away. (Okay. Cheat and grab a box of mind-bogglingly expensive garden burgers. But that's it. Now run.)


Oh, don't lie. This is the greatest six-shelved aisle ever created. How many varieties of processed bread can there be? Apparently, gazillions. This aisle is the greatest thing because of sliced bread. Wheat, honey oat, rye, cinnamon and pure white. Bagels, buns, muffins, pita. What can you not put on a slice of bread? The Atkins and South Beach can suck it, bread is delicious. Go ahead girl, get two loaves for your different moods and eat your heart out.

Spices, who needs them? You still have those bottles from three years ago, when you tried to create that easy Gourmet magazine recipe for Roasted Arctic Char With Orange-Lentil Salad.

The most delicious cake you've ever eaten stemmed from a Duncan Hines box, but you can't afford it right now. You don't cook, you've got places to go, people to see.

Canned goods: only tomato soup, for when you have a craving for grilled cheese.

Eggs: always. Boil one of those mofos, and you're full for a half hour.

Cosmetics and toiletries are a whole 'nother issue but quickly grab a tube of paste to keep the dentist away.

You're done. It took you longer to pick the store than fill your cart. The fruits will rot, the eggs will go bad, you did buy two economy-size bags of chips and a box of frozen garden patties. You're gonna make vegetable lasagna, spinach quiche, black bean soup and chicken Parmesan. One day.

But now, after all this hard work, fears challenged and slayed, on the way home, you should definitely stop off at Chick-fil-A. You deserve it.

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