The first Chicago Whole Foods Market was located two blocks from the apartment we moved to in 1994. The heavenly aromas I inhaled walking past the store seemed to promise deliciousness, though I stayed away, initially. The place seemed too fancy for people like us. Until one Saturday I succumbed, walking through the automatic doors instead of past them, into the wafts of sweet, warm sustenance.
Dizzied, I floated up and down every aisle. I’ve long forgotten exactly what I bought that day, but this I remember: I left holding only one bag of food. All I could carry and conveniently, all I could afford. Unloading the three, maybe four items onto the kitchen table I reminisced. The salad bar with no iceberg lettuce, beautiful photographs of delicious looking everything, the word organic. Until then Todd and I had only shopped in “grocery stores.” Whole Foods was no grocery store, it was a market. A market where we would we spend large sums on enough food for one meal and possibly a snack.
In June 1997, Todd and I moved into a condo and began our quest to procreate. This replaced grocery shopping as number one on our list of “scary things.” As if having children wasn’t enough, I decided practicing the aforementioned eating habits (If You Can Read, You Can Cook) was fine while we were still DINKS (Double Income No Kids), but not fine when we become parents. By then Todd had proclaimed he would rather eat deli meats every night than to participate in cooking another meal in his life. He promised to clean up as I furthered our dinner horizons. I decided to give myself five more years, thinking if we had a baby soon, it couldn’t possibly remember family meals prior to kindergarten.
By the time son number one was born in June of 1999, I had made zero progress. With three years left in my five year plan, I was now consumed with changing diapers and schlepping baby boy to play dates. My inner voice, which seemed to intensify in my postpartum state, chanted, “learn to cook…be a good mother.” One evening I told the voice to "shut up!" so I could focus on the Giordano's menu and decide what kind of pizza to order.
Of course the voice came back, the next day and the next, elaborating which while helpful, was quite annoying. “You can do it! Remember, if you can read, you can cook. Unpack those cookbooks in the basement closet, you know, the ones in the box next to the uncomfortable shoes you will never wear again. And while you’re at it, donate those shoes to charity.” So I read the cookbooks (donated the shoes). The voice even persuaded me to purchase unusual ingredients and use spices instead of Lawry’s Salt, which by the way my cousin believes is God’s gift to edibles and probably sprinkles it on chocolate. I identified with his position, but listened to the voice instead.
Regardless, “The best chicken according to my mother-in-law” was a bust and the “savory braised lamb with delectable mint sauce” was just okay. They were supposed to be delicious and fantastic, according to the recipes. Yet not a single meal I cooked was drop-your-fork-to-applaud great. Why was this happening? I kept asking myself. I was following the recipes meticulously, timing how long I sautéed the onions and simmered the sauce.
After a while Todd began putting my attempts into three categories. There was, “Not bad…not bad…I would eat this again, but add more salt next time.” Then, “It’s just okay, but not a repeater.” And most often, “Don’t ever make this again. Ever. Do we have any peanut butter?” When he started telling dinner guests my cooking was “50/50: half the time it sucks and half the time it’s edible, depending on your hunger level,” I nearly gave up.
Then new hope arrived by way of the farmers’ market. How I loved where the peaches for sale really do ripen by sundown, the tomatoes are devoured on the walk home, the ten year-old cheddar costing more than a movie ticket is so worth it, all sold by smiling people withstanding rain, sweltering heat, and swarming bees. Not a bad place to spend a morning, particularly in lieu of a grocery store. I longed to stand before the local farmer grabbing everything in sight intending to whip up a magnificent meal that would send my husband and I (and guests?) reeling.
Unfortunately, the scene so often overwhelmed me I usually left with a bunch of flowers and nothing else. (Did you say two bunches of daisies for $3, or three bunches for $2?) Or aimlessly spend $40 on produce that later sat rotting in the fridge as I spent days perusing cookbooks for a recipe calling for those exact ingredients. Neither scenario worked for me, but I kept at it. I suspected there was a “farmers market code” that might just translate into cooking prowess. So I returned week after week and eventually, I hatched a plan involving my fellow shoppers.
My new approach was to study the "experts": grinning 40-something women donned in long, flowing colorfully patterned skirts and t-shirts, khaki hats, espadrilles or sandals, sporting fabric eco-friendly recyclable bags. Confidently they marched along, gripping lists, purchasing unfamiliar (to me) fruits, vegetables and herbs. I shadowed them, bought what they bought, even if I hadn’t a clue what to do with a spaghetti squash and never before purchased a fresh beet. I would go home with my exotic vegetables and again, attempt to cook yummy meals. This had to work.