Mom, Me and the Market

I’ve been thinking about my mom. I lost her in October 2009. Technically I lost her eight years before, when she slipped completely into her Alzheimer’s world, but anyway, she’s on my mind. I haven’t written that much about her in this space, so I thought I would let you get to know her. 

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To my mother, grocery shopping was serious business. Sometimes I would lie on her bed as she fell asleep she would roll over and say, “Ground beef. Lettuce. Mustard.”

Every week we’d go to Waldbaum’s, Grand Union and the A& P because each one possessed a unique quality that was unequaled at the other. Once my mother discovered coupons, the need for specificity grew. Now I know that coupons didn’t come out in my lifetime but they were new to my mom, and Waldbaum’s would have double coupons on Wednesdays — we’d always go there for the best coupon deals. We once had a coupon for $1.25 for free coffee, and they doubled it so they actually paid us to take it. I think we saved 13 dollars that day. Our excitement over the deal inseminated the bargain shopper in me.

Since she was somewhat of an expert, Mom taught me the golden rules of shopping. Buy only name brands. Del Monte tomatoes and canned vegetables, Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables, Ore Ida frozen potatoes, Dairylea milk, Dannon flavored yogurt and Colombo plain yogurt. Never buy pre-chopped meat. Instead, pick out a nice sirloin and have the butcher chop it up. Grated cheese: Pick out a nice Pecorino Romano or Parmesan from the deli and have them grate it for you. I don’t know about then but I bought some grated Pecorino Romano from the deli recently and it was $11 for a quarter pound. Good thing my family had money.

My mom loved the art of the deal, but her insistence on name brands for everything else negated any savings. My father insisted that store brands were made by the same manufacturers as the name brands, but my mother didn’t believe him. And then there was the advent of generic foods. Generics came out to compete with name brands and offer shoppers bargain foods without all the fancy labeling and advertising costs that jacked up the name-brand foods. They came with white-matte labels with big black lettering that said, for example, “Green Beans” – the perfect products four outfitting a survival bunker. My father salivated at such a bargain but my mother would have none of it. We continued to eat Del Monte and Bird’s Eye and Ore Ida. About the same time, generic aspirin and Tylenol hit the stores and my father insisted my mother buy the generic equivalents, “They’re the same thing. Look at the labels!” he’d say.

“We only use Bayer aspirin in this house. Who knows what’s in the other stuff?” she’d counter. So we continued to take Bayer aspirin and Tylenol.

Probably because of all that training, my grocery habits have evolved over the years. When I was first on my own making $17K a year, I lived on fifteen dollars’ worth of groceries a week. I used coupons and shopped specials but my secret was that I ate mostly Hamburger Helper made with ground turkey. With my first husband I’d spend about forty dollars a week – pretty good for the two of us. I bought store brands and we had this awesome produce stand where I could get four bags of produce for under ten dollars.

But now is when my mom’s tutelage comes in. Since I discovered I was allergic to corn and that my daughter’s allergic to artificial dye (See “It’s un-Corny” and “Dethroning the Drama Queen“), I have to be very careful about what I buy. I read every label – even on products that have proven safe — because ingredients change all the time. Just like my mom, I have go-to products. I understand her insistence on certain brands. I never thought that I’d shop like her, but like so many other things that surprise me, in the supermarket, now I’m just like my mom.