Writer by day and artist by night, or vice versa, Vanessa Crofskey delves into the complexities (and joys!) of supermarket shopping during lockdown. Her piece is entitled Supermarket Nation.
Grocery shopping is one of my favourite activities. I get real pleasure from wandering up and down the aisles, deciding what I do or don’t want to bring home. It’s a good leg-stretch, it gets you outside, and you get to bestow future rewards and nourishment to yourself.
Me and Countdown have been going long-distance over lockdown. My heart still burns for her: I send weekly love letters in the form of flat shopping lists. They’re handwritten of course, and tenderly overthought. In return, she sends back what she has to offer. Sometimes, it’s enough.
I’m lucky to have a good relationship with my supermarket, one where I can still buy nice things even if I have to double-check my bank balance. I hold particular fondness for the cheese section (Haloumi! On-sale brie!). I love the sneaky reduced-to-clear cabinet as well as what can only be described as the hummus section (Lisa’s! The Turkish Kitchen!). Obviously, I am rapidly approaching my mid-twenties.
Tensions have been mounting, however. We’re better separate than apart at this point. I mourn for the time when things felt easier for our supermarket nation: when the Mt Eden parking lot wasn’t a feral dirt rally, overrun with stressed-out shopping trolleys. For a time when we were all collectively able to buy flour, not that I used it for anything. Hindsight makes you wiser. I didn’t appreciate what I had with my local super before and can admit to treating my pantry like I was a cheating husband and she was my faithful but unsatisfactory movie-wife. Takeaways were easier than thinking about what to cook for dinner. Both my bank account and my wilting greens can testify to my promiscuity, to the virulent discrepancies between what I bought and what I actually got to cooking. I’m an arts girl. There were always post-event dinners and drinks I wanted to spend my scarce income on.
Our flat has recently swapped go-to supermarkets. It’s still Countdown, just Royal Oak instead of Mt Eden. We’re trying out new things in this relationship, to see if it will stick. I still prefer Mt Eden’s layout, and admire their pastry displays, but there’s something to be said for consistency. Royal Oak is reputationally peaceful, which is what the world needs right now. It feels like unsung-hero heaven after the long queues and mounting-anxiety-over-toilet-paper of its inner city sister. The shoppers are pleasant. I haven’t heard anyone yell “f*ggot!” at another person (which absolutely happened at Mt Eden). The only major fault it has is in its layout, with the fresh produce placed furthest from the entrance.
I knew that we had made the right decision, swapping supers, when I saw a double rainbow in the sky that first lockdown dawn. That morning the line was calm and orderly, and the trolley I chose had no bung wheels. All great signs. When those roller doors opened up, they revealed aisles and aisles of food products. I almost blacked out. Fresh produce! Carbonara sauce! People to sustain eye contact with! Options to buy things!
Thunk! I came back to proper consciousness once I had lifted up the car boot. My receipt, sitting patiently at the top of my very heavy shopping bags, listed hundreds of dollars worth of ingredients, amongst absolutely frivolous personal products still swaying in the trolley. We have a designated shopper for the household now, and it is not me.
Although we’re on break, I probably don’t need to worry about my relationship to a mega-conglomerate. We’ll do fine, me and Countdown. It’s stressful to think about the relationships that might not otherwise survive: the fruit stores and weekend markets whose abundant produce I greedily seek out, rubbing peach skins for ripeness. What will come of the cafés who could pronounce my order (iced soy decaf latte, sorry) or the Dominion Road noodle joints I could ring up for an evening?
Last week, I went to Jadan to see how my local Mount Roskill Chinese supermarket was going. They’re still open, thankfully. There was a long line of devotees behind me, all paying our respects to the superior stock and in-house BBQ pork. The smell of roast duck wafted around like incense.
I feel a strong sense of friendship between me and Jadan, but I still rubbed a dollop of hand sanitiser between my palms and fixed up my face mask to be safe. I need Jadan to survive this. I visit here mostly for the refrigerated drinks section, which is a bona fide house of worship. You’ve got your 100 Plus, your Teza Iced Teas (one of the last places to find the rarely stocked Mango & Ginger), your different flavoured Assam milk drinks, your Boss cans of coffee, and many a drink served in a Ribena-style pouch filled with nata de coco and other cubes of jelly. It’s heaven for anxiety-snackers and buyers, of which I am both.
Chinese supermarkets are hands-down a necessity. You can get all the good sauces you can’t buy in the “International” section of your common New World. Being stuck in my house had me feeling weirdly homesick: I missed the staples of my mum’s own pantries, and desperately wanted to cook with dark soy sauce, cooking wine and fried shallots. At the checkout, I bought dong gua (winter melon) fresh dumpling skins, garlic chives, frozen prawns, Hokkien noodles and a pack of Yakult. On the way home, my bag clanged with the sound of sauce bottles.
I miss grocery shopping. I keep going to the dairy to buy versions of things we already own. Because of the food restrictions, our flat has had to learn very quickly how to plan a weekly meal schedule and to communicate what we actually want and need. To my nineteen-year-old self, planning what to eat feels deeply boring, a foreboding sign of how inanely dull my personality will become. I’m a 4w3 on Enneagram; I need to be seen as creative and successful. One of my talents from years of not bothering to write lists or look at recipes twice is I’ve become very good at substituting stated ingredients for vaguely related counterparts. But I’m being forced to plan what I buy. I have to think about what specifically I’m going to cook and eat for an entire week, write it out and hand it to another person. The parts of this which I thought would feel challenging have in fact, felt lovely. I feel very grown-woman. There’s a satisfying delight to hearing a car pull up, padding outside barefoot and helping carry the groceries inside. Unpacking brown paper bags feels like home-grown unboxing videos, an adult’s lucky dip. I love the rustling, the sorting, the lining up of cans on shelves and having a sneaky munch immediately. It’s a joy I’ll never grow out of.
I’m growing lettuce, parsley, cabbage, chillies, passionfruit, grapes, cucumber, radishes, basil and coriander at the moment. Small sprouts peek out of dark soil mounds, yawning at the sun. We have a well-stocked pantry I know the contents of. We’re all sharing the cooking. We’re all home to eat dinner. It’s feeling monumentally more fun to cook communally rather than just for yourself, and it means I’m expanding my food vocabulary. For the first time in a while, I’ve had time to attend to my routine. I’m feeling a closeness to others that feels preposterous, given everything. Of all things I feel (stressed, nervous, bored, chaotic, manic, depressive, ???) I’m also feeling very lucky. There’s something to be said about not just shoving an apple in your bag and running out the door. Not being someone who just lets their day disappear behind a laptop. In the morning I sit in the courtyard, the morning sun tangled in my hair, a revelry biting into plump feijoa skins.