I did something daring recently: I went shopping at a strange grocery store.
I realize buying groceries in an unfamiliar setting is not as exciting as skinny-dipping in the Caribbean. But these days you take your thrills where you find them.
So it was that I found myself tracking down -- and yes! eventually finding -- cans of hominy in some distant canned corn aisle. But I'm jumping ahead of myself in this spine-tingling tale.
The most challenging part of my adventure came right at the beginning -- finding the store. I was driving back to Baltimore from Washington and decided to stop in Columbia and get some groceries. I knew I could find Columbia. But locating a grocery store, or any vestige of commerce, in Columbia has always been a challenge for me.
That is because the signs in this community are so tasteful, so discreet, so small. There are no big, bright, flashing billboards saying "Get your grub here." Instead small placards read "Earth Tone Village"; the rest is supposed to be self evident.
I first stopped at a garishly lighted gas station outside the town, on U.S. 1, and asked strangers for directions to the nearest grocery store. Then after attempting to memorize the directions, I drove down something akin to "Broken Snow Parkway" and pulled into something like the "Village of the Brown Buildings." I -- parked in a lot that was tastefully landscaped but not very close to where I supposed to be. I couldn't see the store. But after a three-minute walk, I found it.
The first thing I noticed was the condition of the shopping carts. ++ They were different from the ones I use in my city grocery store. These were so clean, so mobile; nothing wobbled. This was the suburbs, where wheels mattered.
I whizzed around the store checking out the carrots, guessing correctly where the Monterey Jack cheese was hanging out, spotting the Yoo-Hoo, the crinkle-cut frozen French fries. In short, loading up on the stuff of life.
Traffic was light, the aisles were wide and I was making good time. Until I hit the canned corn aisle. I was hunting the hominy. Hominy is hulled corn; it is an essential ingredient in my family's traditional holiday dish -- hominy, chili peppers and Monterey Jack cheese casserole. It is an elusive item, especially in northern grocery stores. Last year, when I traveled up to Boston for a Thanksgiving feed, no one had heard of hominy. Luckily, I had carried a few cans of hominy with me. I do that now whenever I venture into Yankeeland for the holidays.
Since I was in the corn aisle, I knew I was close. A smiling, cheery-cheeked clerk walked by and I asked her where I might find the hominy. She looked puzzled. "What," she asked, "is hominy?" I felt the urge to take this young woman under my wing, to introduce her to one of joys of life, or at least to the joys of hulled corn. But then along came another woman, a shopper, who called out, "Here's the hominy," and the moment was lost.
From there on out the pursuit of foodstuffs went smoothly. The cereal aisle was a snap, and I made quick work of the dairy products, milk and sour cream.
The search for pretzels was somewhat tricky. I had a hunch that since pretzels were a snack item, and therefore an impulse buy, they would be lurking on the end of an aisle. The question was which aisle. I guessed the pretzel lair would be near the potato chips. I was right. You can't fool a veteran pretzel shopper.
After bagging the pretzels and claiming my reward, a pint of double-chocolate ice cream, I rolled to the checkout counter. There was no line. The clerk was friendly. It seemed too easy.
There was the matter of moving my car from the lot where I had parked it to the lot that bordered the grocery store. That took a few minutes. I loaded the groceries in the trunk, and stopped yet another stranger who gave me excellent instructions on how to get back to my neck of the woods.
And so as this adventure came to an end, and as the ice cream in the trunk slowly melted, I vowed I would return some day to this faraway, shining store.
& If only I can find it.