The restaurant supply store in town is a lightweight affair. Shelves are loosely stocked with one of each item, which the customer orders and which is delivered to the store at some time in the future. It’s all cups, flatware, sauté pans and aluminum trays of every description and dust. There’s been a for sale sign out front for years. I suppose when I imagined the restaurant supply store in Edison I imagined it would be like this: dusty, silent, oddly empty. It is not at all those things.
The warehouse sits at the end of an industrial park road that was paved at one time and never given another thought. The street sign looks new but it is rendered illegible by its angle to the intersecting road. The industrial park looks like it lost a battle with developers so it decays in the middle of remote and odd-looking apartment complexes. At no time does the main road through them identify itself. We found that many times during this excursion: you had to know something was there or you wouldn’t find it at all. So it came as something of a surprise when we drove over an abandoned railroad track, past a field and a dump, turned a corner marked with the name of another business and found the restaurant supply store. Despite the appearance of wasteland and open space, parking was cramped. Vans and SUVs circled, waiting for spaces. We happened to be in the right place at the right time and got a space. Inside, we waited as an energetic young woman registered Pete’s business, checked his license, his tax ID number. It took a very long time and a line accumulated behind us. A man holding a laminated bloody hunk of meat in his arms chewed gum and waited. The customers passed us on their way into the store represented a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups. About half the people passing us were speaking English. That seemed promising.
Pete tends to move quickly and lose patience with stores. I was determined to carefully examine every aisle and take in as much information as possible. The first discovery of real use was recycled paper products in bulk form. Pete walked through a doorway I missed and waved me in. It was the refrigerated section of the building. I hadn’t noticed it, but as we walked through it I realized the building was twice as large as it appeared. We entered an icy wonderland, passing freezers stocked with familiar restaurant size cases of hamburger patties, calamari rings and goat portions. We passed cheese wheels, halves and quarters. We passed bales of vegetables, packed to bursting. We came around a corner and found ourselves walking through corridors filled with meat. Giant cuts of beef, lamb and pork lined shelves and refrigerator cases; cases of chickens, ducklings and larger foul lined another corridor. It seemed to go on and on. My hands were stiff with cold. At the end of the rows, we found a spotless fish section that smelled like ice and the ocean. Crates of baccala and carts stacked with smoked fish formed a portico, on the other side: great banks of ice, beautifully arranged fish of impressive size gleamed. A whole tuna loin could be seen from some distance like a treasure. One imagines it was. We turned back and walked through the meat aisles again. The perspective shift – walking through stacked shelves of meat as opposed to meat separate, stored away – was jarring. I thought, ‘One hunk of this meat could feed us for weeks. It would be so much cheaper than the grass-fed free range beef we’ve been eating in small portions. But this stuff is mass-produced poison. The animals were raised and lived in terrible conditions. The factory farms are a blight. If it were a question of life and death, this might be okay but it isn’t, so this is disgusting. It would be easy to abandon what I believe and pick up that hunk of meat.’ And I really felt that temptation to betray everything I feel. I don’t need to eat that way, so this was a deeply weird sensation. I did not pick up a hunk of meat.
Back out in the main part of the store, we walked down each aisle, talked about everything we saw from salad dressing cups to the giant rondele pot I covet. Pete is going to do some personal chef work so he’s got supplies for that in mind. I was thinking about food preservation ingredients like oils, vinegars, spices in bulk. We were looking for useful flours, containers, work clothes, problem solvers. Of course, we walked down an entire aisle of #10 cans of tomato products. I started to feel grave doubt creep up on me. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought. ‘I don’t need to jar these small, crazy-expensive, boutique foods. This is madness.’ And for a few minutes, I heard the rush of blood in my ears. What am I doing? Well, what am I doing? We turned into the last aisle: condiments. Beautiful oils, vinegars, sauces, sauce bases as far as the eye could see. I sat down on a palate in the middle of the aisle and took a few deeps breaths. What am I doing? My plan is to spend the next six months of my life learning as much as I can about food. I could throw cans in a cart and sustain myself, but nothing would be gained by it. The idea is to learn. The idea is to push my brain, which I have had every reason to doubt in recent years, as hard and as far as I can; if I succeed, I can learn other things. I stood up and set about examining the vinegars. I might be able to do better on some of the prices.
We went to the checkout with a restaurant container of whole nutmeg: less than $8. That’s a good price. I didn’t say much on the way home, but I did say, “I feel like I’ve been to the House of My Enemy, and how am I going to use that without being corrupted by it?” We stopped at my sister Anya’s. The family can benefit from the restaurant supply store by buying in bulk and dividing between the houses. Anya mentioned that the food pantry and the soup kitchen might be able to use donations to buy in bulk there; I’d have to research that. Maybe they already do. But I was really shocked by the meat and how easily doubt and temptation shook me.
I was quiet for a long time when we got home.
It seemed very important to work in the garden.