Groceries Without Grocers

"But how do you get your groceries?" asked the tourist standing beside as we waited outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium to see the transit of Venus in 2012.

Good question from this suburban dwelling woman of the urban city dweller that I was. Noting that she hadn't seen any grocery stores on their drive down South Michigan Avenue, she wondered. "Do you have to drag groceries home one bag at a time?"

Not in Chicago, I said having a flashback of dragging one bag at a time during our life in the backwater of Asunción, Paraguay in 1979-80. In Asunción grocery shopping was an ongoing process to find edible food that wouldn't kill us.

In the early days it was a scavenger hunt as my two-year-old daughter and I shod our feet for our daily walks to the local shops a few blocks away. Most of these shops were the size of a short two-car garage back home in Canada where we'd moved from. The business hours were flexible to suit the owners, not to suit regular paying customers.

I still remember the thrill the first time I found my daughter's favored tipple, bottled apple juice. Bottled in neighboring Argentina in recycled wine bottles, I hefted one bottle to see how many of them I might be able to carry home. Not many, so not enough. Especially since the endless summer temperatures of high 90s Fahrenheit kept her constantly thirsty. Even watered down wouldn't satiate my toddler's thirst for long, it was time to move to more water or less juice.

There was one grocery store in town. Nothing like the Safeway grocery store I'd frequented when we last lived in Vancouver, with health laws and polished floors; it was a dead ringer for the grocery store seen in the 1940 film Double Indemnity.

Located in an open-air building with high open windows without screens, it offered a few child-sized grocery carts to push around the creaking, off kilter wood-slat floors. The wooden shelves were about 4-foot high and very well stocked should one need flour, sugar and blends of cooking oil. Or gallons of the omnipresent, floral smelling cleaning liquid used to clean everything in Latin America, my very own Proustian madeleine memory is that smell.

But no fresh or canned vegetables. No freezer section, for what would they have stocked it with? There weren't any frozen foods for sale in the entire country.

As for the quaint open-air markets of tourist photos, my friend Raquel, who could pass for a local with her dark hair and fluency in Spanish, said it best.

"What the hell was quaint about having to trudge every day through the muck and mire of the markets? What is quaint with having to bargain for every single piece of fruit or vegetable? What's quaint about having to carry all those heavy items home by hand?" It wasn't quaint, it was a pain in the ass. "Oh, for the luxury of a supermarket shopping cart and clean plastic bags," she'd muse.

But I needed fruit and veg, so off I went to the open-air market to walk through the mud, slime and other questionable slippery ooze underfoot. When something caught my eye--usually something exciting like one unblemished red apple--the women vendors took one look at my gringa face and inflated the prices.

As for the butcher, that was easy. Just look for clouds of flies buzzing overhead a wooden stand decorated with various animal entrails bloodily hanging over a wooden rack. "Breathe through your mouth, not through your nose," I told my young daughter.

Once back home, it was time to wash everything. No lazy first world rinse with plain water, but a soak in some bleach or iodine solution. Chickens came barely dead, with feet and other parts I didn't know chickens had jammed into their skinny, still warm body. When I bravely bought pork, my agro-business husband told me to freeze it in our home freezer for a few months, to kill off whatever needed killing before we consumed it.

At least we probably didn't eat a lot of antibiotics in our food, given the apparent anorexia of the chicken.



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    Candace Drimmer

    I was an accidental expatriate; love and marriage led me to it. One day I was a bandy-legged kid sitting atop my dogwood tree looking out of my small backyard world in 1950s New Jersey, wanting to move somewhere--anywhere, different. Next thing I knew my father had accepted a job in Houston TX. I was ecstatic, it was a foreign land in 1961 America. After high school graduation, my parents’ gave me a matched set of fawn-colored hardsided American Tourister luggage. Taking the hint, I went to college; well four colleges in five years--it was the 60s after all. Meeting a young hirsute anti-war, soon-to-be-Peace Corps volunteer, I fell in love. After finishing up college coursework for my degree, but before I even walking a graduation stage, I grabbed the paper airline ticket my boyfriend had sent me, my brand-new passport, and was off to the airport and Lima, Peru.

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