Getting naked in the grocery store
Because there's nothing more revealing than a shopping cart.
Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links. I’m glad you’re here!
I’m currently reading a very good novel, which begins with a family vacationing on eastern Long Island. Shortly after they arrive at their Airbnb, Amanda, the mother, heads to the grocery store to stock up on supplies for the week.
What ensues is a multi-paragraph description of exactly what she buys. Even though it’s basically a glorified shopping list rendered as literary fiction, I would have happily spent an additional twenty pages in her cart. Here’s an excerpt:
The store was frigid, brightly lit, wide-aisled. She bought yogurt and blueberries. She bought sliced turkey, whole-grain bread, that pebbly mud-colored mustard, and mayonnaise. She bought potato chips and tortilla chips and jarred salsa full of cilantro, even though Archie refused to eat cilantro. She bought organic hot dogs and inexpensive buns and the same ketchup everyone bought. She bought cold, hard lemons and seltzer and Tito’s vodka and two bottles of nine-dollar red wine. She bought dried spaghetti and salted butter and a head of garlic. She bought thick-cut bacon and a two-pound bag of flour and twelve-dollar maple syrup in a faceted glass bottle like a tacky perfume. She bought a pound of ground coffee, so potent she could smell it through the vacuum seal, and size 4 coffee filters made of recycled paper. If you care? She cared!
It goes on, but you get the idea. The scene made me hungry, naturally, but it also made me appreciate the power food can wield, especially in fiction.
When we picture a physical act that reveals something essential about a character, sex is often the first thing that comes to mind. But I think food is more honest, more personal. That we are more exposed in the produce section of a grocery store than between the sheets of a bed. (Is this why I love Trader Joe’s so much? Actually, don’t answer that.)
In creative writing workshops, we always search for the deeper meaning of a piece, the universal truth lurking just beneath the surface. A grocery store is never just a grocery store—what else is the author trying to show us?
In the scene above, Amanda’s shopping list tells us what’s for dinner, but it also reveals her aspirations (twelve-dollar maple syrup!), her love for her family (Archie doesn’t like cilantro!), and her keen awareness of social norms (the same ketchup everyone buys!).
It’s also significant that Amanda is on vacation. The vodka and wine, the recycled coffee filters, the mud-colored mustard—these are extravagances purchased for a special occasion, which allows us to imagine what her everyday life is like. Her whole existence, nearly, in a single list. Exquisite!
In the book I’m currently writing, my character also visits a grocery store in the first chapter, but instead of a relaxing vacation, she’s prepping for an approaching hurricane. Here’s an excerpt:
By the time I made it to the grocery store, the shopping center was nearly empty. A single cart creaked in the middle of the parking lot, pushed by a gust of wind as the sky grew dark. Inside, I bought whatever was left—a loaf of white bread, ten bricks of ramen, a case of sparkling water, a box of wine, and a single head of fresh broccoli. The vegetable drifting down the conveyor belt offered a fleeting sense of control. Even in the face of an oncoming hurricane, I would find a way to nourish myself. Why compromise my body’s needs for a mere force of nature?
I haven’t shared many specifics about my novel-in-progress, but I hope the above paragraph offers a sense of the main character, that her shopping list provides a glimpse of who she is—a bit reckless, a little naïve, and on the verge of having a Very Bad Time. (And if not, well, that’s what the fourth draft is for.)
If I still taught fiction workshops, I would turn this into a writing exercise. What does your character buy on a regular Tuesday? For a favorite holiday? Before a hurricane? What do they eat on their birthday, bring to a potluck, serve to their in-laws? Are they a coupon-clipper, a list-maker, an impulse shopper? Do they view food as a punishment, or a reward?
Because food isn’t just what we eat or the stores we frequent. It’s also how we grew up and where we seek comfort. It exposes our lofty dreams, our secret shames, our heady desires. It reveals how we celebrate and grieve, and what we crave when we’re most vulnerable.
So the next time you’re at the grocery store, look around. Peer into a stranger’s shopping cart, admire the artful end caps, make eye contact with your cashier. Let your appetite guide you down the aisles and lead you somewhere new. Buy something seasonal, tender and delicate, that delights your senses. No matter what you discover, the results are sure to satisfy.
Snack of the Week
For many years I was an active blogger, diligently chronicling the minutiae of my life online. I’ve since taken down my various blogs, because no one needs to read the calculated navel gazing of a young Chrissy. After all, that’s what this newsletter is for!
My most popular post of all time was a recipe for vegan carrot cake. It was briefly the number 3 result on Google, and over the years more than one stranger has reached out for the recipe after I retired my blog. I made it again this past week and, in honor of spring, new beginnings, fleeting internet fame, and our younger, dumber selves, reposted the recipe as a stand-alone newsletter issue. May the algorithm (and all of you) enjoy it. 🥕
You Can Be a Different Person After the Pandemic, NY Times. “Researchers have found that adults can change the five traits that make up personality—extroversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness—within just a few months.” I’ve thinking a lot about those five traits, and considering my own post-pandemic transformation. 🦋
Here’s 10,000 Hours. Don’t Spend It All in One Place. The Atlantic. “Hyper-specialization is not the best strategy for our well-being. We can find greater happiness by instead cultivating a variety of serious interests and activities.” As someone who wants to excel at both my creative work and my day job, this was a reassuring read! 😄
How Mochi Ice Cream Took Over the Freezer Aisle, VICE. I bought some mochi ice cream at Trader Joe’s last week for the first time, because I believe in taking my own advice, and I liked it almost as much as this deep dive! 🍡
How Fit Can You Get From Just Walking? GQ. “A basic program performed consistently—even a half-assed effort done consistently—can bring you a really long way, much further than going hardcore once in a while.” This is true for fitness, for art, for everything! Consistency may not be sexy, but it is absolutely effective. 👟
Behind the Scenes of a 5000 Word Draft, Culture Study. I’ve been following journalist Anne Helen Petersen for years, and I loved this look into her writing process. (Also: her newsletter is excellent and you should subscribe!) 📝
Wants and Needs: Plotting Begins with Character, with Leigh Stein. This craft seminar, which takes place this Tuesday, is for “fiction writers at all stages of the outlining, drafting, and revision process.” Sign me up! Actually, don’t. I already did, mostly because it’s only $20 and seemed like a good way to spend an hour. Maybe I’ll see you there? 🎤
This week’s to-do comes in the form of a tweet, because goals:
Thank you to Carol D. for meeting me in the coffee aisle last week!
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