Moon in the 6th

Archive for the ‘The Entertainment of Shopping’ Category

Rocky’s Pasties has been on my mind for the past few days. It’s a one-of-a-kind takeout counter specializing in the unpretentious meal-in-a-pocket called a Cornish pasty, a single-serving, dough-encased pie along the lines of an empanada (only bigger) or a calzone (only smaller, and without cheese or sauce). The item is definitely low-to-invisible in the ranks of this country’s melting pot cuisines and below the mainstream radar even here in Rocky’s home base of north central New Jersey. I learned about the store from an ad-cum-coupon on a diner place mat, of all things. My first visit years ago delivered magic with staying power, from the anachronistically simple signs, to the gnomish counterman who slowly emerged, as if from another place and time, to take and fulfill my order, to the hearty, hardy and savory treats I unwrapped at home. The experience wasn’t an anomaly. Every return visit has had a gentleness, ease and open-heartedness that are refreshing to the point of bordering on otherworldly. (When I once mentioned that I was taking a large frozen order out of town, the counterman expressed genuine interest in knowing the destination.) And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that the pasties are tasty, too.

So when the weekend brought gloomy skies and an unseasonable return to cool temperatures, I took them as a call for a comfort food pick-me-up and headed to Rocky’s. It’s in the small town of Wharton, once a mining center (true of so many northern NJ towns) that now enjoys a quiet bordering on dreariness. On a residential stretch one block off the main street, Rocky’s is in the middle of an unassuming row of townhouses, of the utilitarian and archaic worker residence variety and not remotely resembling the townhouses of the last few decades. Rocky’s existence is an outgrowth of the town’s mining past. The miner population was heavy on immigrants from the British Isles for whom, word is, a pasty provided a hand-holdable meal that could be carried into the mines. This family-owned business started producing pasties for the community four generations ago.

Rocky’s also sells homemade strudels and banana walnut bread, handlabeled and, by appearances, handwrapped as well. These haven’t wowed me but have a loyal fanbase of their own; when a friend moved from the town, one particular strudel variety topped her list of things she would miss. The mainstay pasties come in three varieties: beef, sausage or chicken, each filled with neatly cut blocks of potato. My latest sausage purchase had a bit less meat than I remember, but the size is still big (about 4″ by 2″-plus), the ingredients remain fresh and the seasonings are lively. The crust is neither thick and rubbery nor thin and flat, but somehow just right. I’ll be restocking the freezer again soon.

Rocky’s Homemade Pasties, 47 Robert Street, Wharton, NJ. (973) 366-2750. No website.

I enjoy visiting unfamiliar grocery and specialty food stores. I find low-key adventure in wandering the aisles and taking in the product and display choices. At best, the prowling leads to happy-making finds. At worst, it’s nothing but a shoulder shrug and a U-turn out the door.  But that was before I explored the brave new world of ALDI.

ALDI has had must-visit status for me since a contract German document review  job a few years back, when I had heard other lawyer temps rhapsodizing about finding beloved products here on American turf.  The chain’s from Germany and has been been scattershooting outposts across the US. (One of the German owners has a connection now to Trader Joe’s as well.)  The closest location has been more than an hour away in upstate New York, and the expense of driving that far to visit a discount grocer put the brakes on my curiosity. That came back when I learned that a store had opened only 20 minutes away. (Sit still in Jersey and pretty much every chain will eventually come to you, the past decade has shown me.)

Thanks to vaguely happy memories from Germany and great word of mouth from my informant, I walked in favorably disposed toward ALDI. I expected some of what I encountered:  an industrial-to-Spartan layout, no-frills displays of stacked cartons of merchandise, pay-for-push carts, self-bagging.  The private labeling was another matter. ALDI doesn’t have one label, like A&P’s America’s Choice or Whole Foods’ 365. It has an array of labels with names that create their own discrete universe of marketing altogether, not so much parallel as perpendicular to what otherwise passes for commerce in these United States. Happy Farms milk and cheese. (Cheese was one of the few things I did purchase, and I am perplexed to report that Happy Farms Cheddar Cheese is as close to an extruded block of American cheese as anything I have come across bearing the label “cheddar.”) Goldhen eggs. Dakota beans. Tate’s mayonnaise and mustard. Cheese Club mac and cheese box mixes. Sea Queen frozen fish (a nod, perhaps to Sea Cuisine in the A&P freezer case?) Aunt Maple’s pancake mix and syrup, in fonts and colors that flirt with the trade dress of both Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth. Fit and Active was the most pervasive brand, cutting across a variety of product types. While I have no problem with those words applied to dried cereal or even yogurt, they are not ones I want to see describing ground turkey; that I want to be anything but active. (I passed up other items in the small butcher case for another reason — the disclosure that they contained enhancers.)

The effort, the deliberateness, the close-but-no-cigar approximation of popular brands were both unsettling and exhausting and triggered a cellular defensiveness that made me physically uncomfortable by the time I rounded the end of the first long aisle.  It was a European’s carefully crafted but target-missing interpretation of America — like when in the mid-80s I saw the Austrian consul and his wife sporting a zoot suit and I-Dream-of-Jeannie hairstyle, respectively, at a Goethe Institute event and a Vietnamese national took issue with my bemusement because they looked exactly as he thought Americans should. ALDI made me feel like I was walking through the Ikea of grocery stores, or a 3-d model of a set for a Simpsons episode, without that show’s intended irony.

I’m sticking to shopping closer to home, geographically and metaphorically speaking.
Adapted from “What Prompted This Was This” at The Compendiblog.