Shopping at the A & P

By Jonah Raskin

My mother always shopped at the A & P in the small town where I grew up. Going there with her was almost as wonderful as going to the Planetarium with its stars and planets in its make-believe night sky, and the Museum of Natural History with its reconstructed dinosaurs. At the A & P I liked the rows and rows of canned goods, and packaged cereals, the smell of the wood floor and the man in the green apron who always helped my mother. I thought of him and the A & P the other day when I went shopping in my own local food market.

Like the A & P of my boyhood, my local market is small, clean, and tidy. Some of the smells are nearly the same. Walking the aisles, I’m reminded of the smells in the A & P. Before I know it, my boyhood has come back to me, and I’m back in my boyhood on an afternoon shopping adventure with my mother. Indeed, I can remember what she and I bought together: the cans of tuna fish; the half gallon containers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream; and the many products with labels that read “Ann Page” and “Jane Parker”—names as familiar to me as the names of my own aunts.

The manager of the local market where I shop today reminds me of the man who helped my mother. He smiles, he’s soft-spoken, and he seems like a relic from another age. There isn’t ever a product that he pushes at me, or tells me I have to buy. I like him because he’s never trying to sell me anything at all, whether it’s discounted or not.

Maybe, too, I like him because he shopped at the A & P with his grandmother when he grew up back East. We weren’t raised in the same town, but we have the A & P in common and we can each describe the stores we knew—which is like describing the same place. Almost every &A & was identical, which was why we liked it. If we went to another town or city, we could walk into the A & P and find what we wanted without having to ask questions, or roam about. Everything about the place was imprinted on our young minds.

We both have memories of boyhood foods—both store-bought and homemade. We’re both partial to the kinds of foods our grandmothers and our old, old aunts made for us. We both remember the smells in their kitchens, and that we liked to roll out the dough for a pie, peel and slice apples and add brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg that we’d bought at the A & P.

Just the other day in my local market we were talking about the A & P, and how it was once a strange and mysterious place. We both remembered how we’d learned a long time ago that A & P was the abbreviation for “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.” We’d both also learned a long time ago that the symbol between the “A” and the “P”—the “&” was called an ampersand.

The manager of my neighborhood market uses ampersands a lot and draws them the way they were drawn in the A & Ps of our boyhood. No one else seems to recognize that particular lettering. It’s something that means a lot to us, something that binds us together, along with our food past and our food present. Then, too, there’s something about knowing the A & P stands for “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company” that connects us as though we belong to a secret tribe or clan.

Of course, the market where I shop today has things that the A & P never had— organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains in bulk, and local produce. It’s a much better store with healthier food, and with much more health and nutrition-savvy employees. Still, I can’t help but feel loyal to the A & P of old and sentimental about it. Not long ago I read that the once “Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company” had shrunk from the thousands of stores when I was a boy to just a few hundred today. Maybe like the dinosaur, the A & P will go out of existence. Then all I’ll have will be the memoires of that long-ago time, and the never-to-be-forgotten smells of A & P; nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar, too.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate my own memories and to enjoy sharing them with friends and family. Once mighty enterprises seem to come and go; memories remain. My friend, the manager of the local market, has moved on to another, bigger store, and while I’m sad to see him go, I remember the stories he told me about food and his childhood. In autumn, he and his grandmother would pick unripe, green tomatoes just before the frost, wrap them in newspaper and put them away in a drawer. At Thanksgiving, they’d remove them, unwrap them and they’d be ripe and red and ready to eat.

Memories are like those tomatoes. You pick them, store them away, then take them out months and even years later and enjoy them. So, there’s something I think of now as the taste of memory, and I know it can be as nourishing as ripe tomatoes at the height of summer, or in the cold dark days of November. Stores & stories; there’s not much that separates them, and just an ampersand brings them together as it brings together two great oceans in The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

Originally published in Susan Bono’s Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative, Flashpoints 2008.

Jonah Raskin was born in New York and raised on Long Island. He attended Columbia College and the University of Manchester, England where he received his Ph.D.

He has taught at Winston-Salem State College, The State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Sonoma State University (SSU).

He moved to California in 1975 and began to teach in the English department at SSU in 1981. From 1988 to 2012 he was the chair of the communication studies department at SSU, where he taught media law, reporting, and media marketing. He is now a professor emeritus.

As a Fulbright Professor, he taught American literature at the University of Antwerp and the University of Ghent. From 1985-2005 he was the book critic for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

He writes for Valley of the Moon magazine, CounterPunch, The Bohemian and The Anderson Valley Advertiser.

Jonah Raskin is the author of sixteen books, including most recently  Dark Land, Dark Mirror and  Dark Day, Dark Night.

His other books are:  James McGrath: in A Class By Himself,  Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, and  Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.

He has published six poetry chapbooks among them  Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation.

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