Food City: A Valentine

The other day I ran into Food City to pick up five avocados for a dollar, and a crumbling chunk of leche quemada, which is basically cajeta on meth, everything wholesome burnt out of it, leaving only sugar and sin. I was walking briskly through the produce department when a donkey-bray of a sneeze suddenly doubled me over. Embarrassed, I came up slowly, checking to see who had heard me. There was only one other woman in produce, scarves tied around her head, big Jackie O sunglasses on, her chin solid as she tried to suppress a smile.

"At least I didn't do that in church," I said.

"Amen to that, Sister!" she said.  "But if you had?  God forgave us, and so can man."

Unexpected dharma is one of the many reasons I love Food City: Once in produce late on a Sunday morning, an elderly, church-dressed woman a few bins away picked through the sweet potatoes, examining them so closely it seemed like she was checking for birthmarks. There was a ruckus down by check-cashing, and two women came shrieking and stumbling toward us, hanging from each other's shoulders, bellowing with laughter, weeping with laughter, laughing so hard they had to grab the sharp corners of the freestanding bins to support themselves. They staggered out of the store and in the sudden silence of their wake the church woman softly said, "It's good to laugh like that."

Novels and poems can be found beneath the piñatas: the moony restocker whose hands automatically shelve while his face ponders unmistakable heartbreak; the extravagant artifice of the check-out girl's eyebrows, arcing halfway up her forehead and ending with a little fillip. When someone I loved was very ill, a woman behind me in line, the part of her cart where you sit your toddler packed with solid triplets of masa, told me her mother had cancer and could only eat a tamale a day, but that she'd lived for twenty years that way, and today they would be making more tamales.

I didn't have her luck.  But in dark times, the Norteño music playing on the sound system still lifted my heart. Once, on the Mexican food aisle (as if there is any other food aisle in Food City) as I was piling my cart with Jimenez juices to tempt a vanished appetite, ranchera began blasting. The handsomest Latino I'd ever seen, maybe 40, put his arms around his gorgeous very young love and they began to polka. I must have looked disapproving, because as they sallied past, he called out, "She's my daughter!!!"

For that glimpse of joy, I love you, Food City.

And for your Roma tomatoes, three pounds for a dollar on the weekend special. I like to cook for my friends, but am I going to pay $3.95 a pound at Whole Paycheck when I am making gazpacho for eight, no matter how dear those eight are to me? Instead, I'll buy your Romas in advance and let them ripen on the windowsill over my kitchen sink. When fine lines form on their sides, the first faint admission of age, into the blender they go, along with lime juice and a purple onion, a stale bolillo and your freshly roasted chiles, with green and red peppers and cucumbers and cilantro, all to be garnished with creamy cubed avocado. I can be lavish with every ingredient, because all of them together cost under $20. My friends won't be served scant teaspoonfuls, they will inhale entire bowls.

Food City, I also love you for the incongruous booty in your customer's shopping carts: the collapsed, ghostly fellow buying every bottle of vanilla on the shelf, the huge man whose Super Bowl Sunday cart was crammed with eight bed-pillow sized bags of chicharónes, who bought the bag of freshly roasted chiles offered each and every time a customer checks out. Speechless at his Chichén Itzá of chicharónes, I asked instead what he was going to do with his one healthy item. "I make the world's best salsa from these," he declared, patting the bag of chiles. After he walked me through it (garlic, purple onion, cilantro, lime, and more of your Romas) I went home and made it, and it was the best.

I love your customers, Food City: the girl in a tube-top standing in the check-cashing line on Friday, her clear plastic bra straps cutting into her strong shoulders. The golden man in headgear and robes from another land, striding masterfully along as though we should all bow before him, occasionally reaching down to pluck his penis because wherever he was from, public penis plucking is no big deal. Parchmenty pensioners carefully stretching their dollars while their cabs wait outside. Young families spilling out of monster trucks and piling every manner of crap in their carts, but also lots of produce. Women in front of a pyramid of gris zucchini, comparing recipes for calabacitas. (My mother used to say, cook the strongest man in the world calabacitas, and he will weep.)

There is so much I am leaving out, but how can a mere valentine contain all that you offer, Food City? Thank you for tolerating the woman selling good tamales right outside your sliding doors. Thank you for the gumball machines dispensing trinkets that have consistently disappointed my daughter. Thank you for saladitos in all forms, for 10 kinds of Mexican cheese, plus the guy out in the parking lot who makes his own raw milk cojita. One day it may give me salmonella, e coli or TB, but in the meantime I'm happy to meet my maker.

Thank you for your votive candles, religious T-shirts, balms and unguents, for your locked-down shrine to the Virgin, for all the reminders that I am part of a larger, more flavorful world. For the rancheros, the cumbias, the corridas, the quebraditas. For being your complex, idiosyncratic self.

While it is true that I shop at other markets, none give me half the pleasure you do, Food City; I love you above all other stores, mi amor.