Moon in the 6th

Archive for the ‘This Scares Me’ Category

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.