Writing reviews of grocery stores is like reviewing people’s living rooms. There is something intimate about buying food. People go to a movie or out to eat two or three times a month maybe, and they might develop loyalties to a particular restaurant or movie star or director, or even like the popcorn or kinds of movies available at one theater.
But they go to the grocery store every day or every other day, almost as often as they make an evening meal, so that the store becomes more than just a place they visit for fun sometimes. It becomes part of their neighborhood, the place they’re from, part of their history and identity.
I’m just figuring some of this stuff out. I am a relative newcomer to the esoteric world of literary supermarket criticism. I’m learning fast, though. Two reviews ago, I suggested that the people of South Knoxville deserved a little more fun and pizzazz in their lives than I thought their Kroger was providing.
The result was a full-page letter from an insulted South Knoxvillian, who reported being fully catered to and entertained by the neighborhood Kroger, thank you very much, and implied that I could take my opinions back to whatever condescending snootville I happened to have crawled out of. (As the editor indicated after the letter, I live in South Knoxville.)
While claiming to hate grocery shopping and to patronize the South Knoxville Kroger only because it is close to home, the writer did take the time to go there before sending the letter and count the more than 40 kinds of deli meat and poultry available, just as in the Krogers in other neighborhoods. As for the South Knoxville hollers that I described as looking as inaccessible as the upper reaches of the Amazon, the writer explained they were inaccessible because South Knoxvillians treasure their privacy, presumably against the inroads of wiseasses like me.
Having never been on the receiving end of a well-written put-down, it set me thinking about the boundaries of neighborhood and personal identity. (Don’t most people do that after a big put-down?) While people tend to regard their living rooms, houses, and neighborhoods as their own, they aren’t really. I imagine most people possess equity in that part of their living room sitting under the couch, with the rest owned by a bank or mortgage company.
And, of course, the South Knoxville Kroger isn’t the aggrieved letter writer’s Kroger, my Kroger, or South Knoxville’s Kroger. It’s owned by a big corporation headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A while back, the South Knoxville Kroger had some very nice trees planted on islands in front of it. One month every single tree was cut down and gas pumps were installed in their place. I shop at the Kroger, and I liked the trees. I don’t even object that much to the gas pumps. But nobody from Cincinnati asked me beforehand if it was OK with me if they chopped down the trees.
South Knoxville doesn’t even belong to South Knoxvillians. If some out-of-town businessmen decide to level one of our hollers and throw up some ugly housing for UT students, that’s the way it goes. I imagine the Cherokee also enjoyed the privacy provided by our hollers until Andrew Jackson decided they would better enjoy the privacy provided by the plains of Oklahoma.
The hold we have on our homes, our families, our neighborhoods, our lives is tenuous. That’s the way life is. It’s pretty scary. That is why, as the letter writer pointed out, people take pride in five generations of ownership of a South Knoxville home. That is why we cling to the familiar as if it were part of us. That’s why we defend our grocery stores against the snide remarks of others.
That’s why I’d better watch my step. There are some dangerous beats in the city, but I’m the outsider who walks the aisles where every shopper is a stranger, where no neighborhood is my own. I can’t let down my guard—I’m in groceries.