It was the only store to shop at. Mom decreed it so, and we fell in line. Others may have been cheaper, maybe some even had more to offer, but like the New York Daily News was the only newspaper that mattered in our home, the A&P was the only supermarket for us.
It started out as the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company in 1859 and from 1915 to 1975 it was the largest retail grocer in the country. It was the first Supermarket chain once as iconic as McDonalds or Google, it started in New York City, and grew worldwide, eventually gobbling up other stores like Farmer Jacks, Waldbaums, and Pathmark. Its marketing technique was studied in business schools across the land, and it was the first in 1936 to become a self-serve store – yes before that you didn’t get to pick out your groceries yourself, you relied on the grocer for that; you just pointed.
I don’t know if Mom knew any of that stuff when we were growing up in the Village; all she knew was the A&P was on Sixth Avenue off of 12th Street, and all good food emanated from it. As a kid, I loved accompanying her on her shopping trips – I still love grocery shopping; when in a new city, one I have never been in before, one of my first trips is to the local Supermarket to check out the shelves. I think I got that love from Mom. She would make a list in her distinctive cursive handwriting, making little notations as to quantities and flavors. Only when it looked like she had a little novel folded up in her purse, did we venture out to the glory that was a food emporium. She had one of those metal shopping carts with two wheels that you pulled down the street, saving you from lugging bags of groceries the five blocks back home when you were all done. Her shopping trips were as well planned as an Army operation; nothing was left to chance, and disaster was realized when a product expected to be there on the shelf was missing, as each purchase had a specific and vital purpose in the making of whatever wonderful meal she had planned.
Of course, going shopping with her around the holidays was the best; the list was longer, the meals planned more elaborate, and the necessary ingredients more precious to be found. It was a treasure hunt with a perfectly cooked turkey, or roast, or lasagna as the prize. Cooking was serious stuff in our house especially if there were guests coming over. And of course, the store itself knew it was a special time and pulled out all the stops to make each department shine with anticipation and delight. There were tasting tables for shoppers to sample a new product – a new practice at the time, the butchers would line up behind their displays, standing at attention, ready to jump into action should a shopper need a special cut or instructions on how to cook that rack of ribs. The Fish Mongers proudly stood by their fresh catches; you could smell the ocean still, and the ice sparkled underneath the Cod and Trout And the bakery….well the bakers were the stars of the show, filling the entire store with the luscious smells of cinnamon buns, or freshly baked pies.
It was a carnival of sensation like going to an amusement park, there were so many sights, and smells, flavors to be enveloped and seduced by. I made up my mind early on that I loved food, loved the shapes, the colors, the spices, the textures; I would learn to cook like my Mom, and then we could cook together and make wonderful meals for our family. Not a bad dream at all, at that young age.
And that was just the produce, meat, fish, and bakery departments! There was more; our cart was a quarter of the way full, now it was time for the dry goods, canned, bagged, packaged. Labels swirling above me, images of painted red tomatoes on a background of the yellow fields of Sicily; the strange sketches of closely packed sardines in those interesting cans that came with a key to open them. Okra, Mushrooms, Collards, Peas, Succotash, you name it, there they sat after their long journey from across the land, finally resting in their colorful cans, on a spotless shelf in our local A&P! And there was a whole side of one aisle dedicated to Campbell’s Soups! And if all that wasn’t enough, there was still the Frozen Food section – to this day my all-time favorite portion of any store – the extent of the variety available frozen far outpaced any other department. There, of course, was the Ice Cream – Mom hardly bought Ice Cream for the family- but there was so much more! Bread dough, pizza dough, layer cakes, cream cakes, pancakes, breaded eggplant cutlets, tamales, pierogies, pizzas, eel, octopus, shrimp, clams, catfish, Cool Whip, burritos, peas, carrots, broccoli, and my all-time favorite creamed spinach, all neatly stacked, frozen in space and time, just waiting for that moment when you needed them. It was the age of invention in the food industry as I have written about previously, and no spot exemplified that as much as the frozen food section. The legendary names, some still around, take me back: Swanson, Banquet, Birdseye, Gortons, Morton, Stouffers, Van DeKamp, Chun King, Libbys, Mrs. Smith and on and on and gloriously on. Whole dinners, cooked for you, an entre, sides, and dessert all nestled together but neatly separated into their own compartments on that foil tray- a housewife’s dream, a child’s extra special treat!
I could have stayed all day, but there was cooking to do back home, and the special holiday version of our trip to the A&P had to end sooner or later. That shopping carriage was laden with paper bags full of goodies (no plastic bags back then), and my imagination went into overdrive just thinking about all the wonderful dishes Mom would create out of the ingredients she had gathered.
Back home, I helped unpack the bags, put away some items, leaving others out as they were on deck for the first dish to be made. Soon the kitchen was humming with the sounds of sizzling olive oil, the divinity that is garlic and onions, the perfection that is the smell of a rich, moist dough, soon to be molded into a stunning Pannetone, the comfort of the aroma of fresh coffee, and the sound of the crisp crunch of the first Biscotti of the afternoon. Mom would let me help, or at least I hope it was helping; she was too sweet of a person to tell me if I wasn’t, and those memories of being in the kitchen with her are indelibly marked in my mind and heart, and I suppose my stomach too!
She had a small Better Homes & Gardens looseleaf binder with recipes that came with the book, and dozens more she had written out herself, cut to size, punched holes in and secured for posterity; she added to it each year, mostly around the Holidays. There were stains of joy on every page, gravy, jam, tomato sauce…each spot, each stain, an affirmation of love; of sharing. It is falling apart now – yes I still have it – and when I want to feel close to Mom again, and remember those afternoons shopping at the A&P, and cooking side by side in our small kitchen….when I want to remember and yes, cry…I bring it out and flip through it’s brittle pages, reveling in the kodachrome colors of a mushroom meatloaf, or an authentic English fish and chips, or the cursive handwriting of Moms on a torn piece of paper, a piece of her frozen in time, capturing that moment she decided she needed to record yet one more culinary triumph.
She lovingly made every one of the recipes in that binder, and we gratefully consumed every one, and every one originated in some department of that A&P that still stands if nowhere else but my memory.
That childhood dream still stands as well: to be cooking in that kitchen with Mom by my side, grateful for the bounty that God and the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company bestowed on us.