The Cursed Safeway and Other Grocery Stores of San Francisco

The other day, I walked to the Safeway on Diamond Heights instead of taking the train to the Safeway on Castro, which as everybody knows, is cursed. Anton LaVey cursed it, the story goes, when he attempted to bring his pet lion there and they wouldn’t let him. Ever since then something has been off about that place. And I don’t mean that as some sort of slight against its use as a place for gay men to pick up each other. Every Trader Joe’s is a place for straights to pick up each other and I’m not going to say it’s cursed.

Big grocery stores give me bad feelings because of the illusion of choice. You see 10 kinds of instant mac and cheese but God help you if you want celeriac root. Like that’s some kind of weird vegetable. It’s in the Penguin book of Cordon Bleu cooking!

The best grocery store I ever shopped at was a green market on Ocean Avenue when I was in graduate school. It was downhill from me so I’d have to take my backpack downhill and then walk up hill laden with groceries. That green market, aside from its elevation, was perfect. It had every kind of thing you might want but only one of them. So yes it had green, red, and french lentils. It had one kind of fusilli. One kind of penne. And one time someone came in looking for something, I don’t remember what anymore, artichokes maybe, and asked the grocer why he didn’t have any. He briskly informed the customer that the desired item was out of season and therefore both expensive and not very good so he didn’t carry it. Imagine that! It meant I didn’t have to have some kind of mental checklist of what was in season to buy only fresh and good things. I could just trust the green grocer.

One time I had to walk out of a big grocery store (maybe it was a Safeway too?) in Alameda because it made me ill to be there. It’s hard to really explain it. I suppose I was feeling alienation. When you have dozens of choices and you’re supposed to feel like life is bountiful but yet nothing is satisfying, it’s utterly alienating. It was better to stand in line for coffee in Communist Poland! Well maybe not better, but less corroding to the soul.

Speaking of Communist Poland, when my family first moved to the US, I loved to go grocery shopping with my mom because of all the amazing fruit and produce in the stores. We didn’t have a lot of money but we could still afford to buy one experimental fruit or vegetable. This was before the internet was really a thing so I couldn’t just for example type in “quince” and know that you have to cook quince or else they taste like wood infused with apple scent. Starfruit, kiwi, passionfruit, mango — these were all pretty great though. Kiwi is the only one that made it into our regular rotation. Hellishly, my mom thought kiwi was an acceptable substitute for strawberries in desserts and salads (it is not).

When I first moved to San Francisco I lived way out in the avenues of the Richmond District. I moved from Astoria, Queens and the thought of living walking distance to an actual sandy beach was unutterably charming so when I chose a room to rent based only on Craigslist and map data, I chose to live all the way by the edge of the Pacific. I could walk to Ocean Beach, and often did. I was kind of a night owl at the time, and there wasn’t much to do for entertainment in that part of the city, except going to the beach, or Safeway. So that’s what I did. This was before they disallowed burning bonfires on Ocean Beach wherever you pleased, so a fun thing to do was to buy some Duraflame logs at the Safeway and then have a bonfire at the beach. Or, if you wanted to do it on the cheap, you could go behind the Safeway and see if they had any damaged wood pallets you could take away. You could ask the people who worked there and a lot of time they’d give them away. I don’t know if you can still do that. I’m not so much of a night owl anymore, and I don’t live there, but I still like to go to the beach even though it’s almost an hour on Muni.

Right next to Ocean Beach, at LaPlaya and Balboa there is a large Russian grocery store called Europa Express. This place is like the spiritual opposite of a depressing Safeway. The food is amazing, largely labelled only in Cyrillic, and the staff is very Russian. By which I don’t mean they are just ethnically Russian. I mean their style of customer service pleasantly reminds me of Eastern Europe. When you’re shopping, they leave you the fuck alone. No one asks if you need help. If you need help in a grocery store, you are probably beyond help, is the thought, I imagine. When it’s time to pay there is no small talk or unnecessary smiling, not even for the Russian speaking customers. Also for whatever reason they always speak to me in Russian. I don’t know if I look so Slavic they just make the assumption (I do have a pretty classically Slavic face, big, round, pale, and with a very severe resting bitch face) or if it’s the stuff I buy, or if they just talk to everyone in Russian and assume you can sort it out. I’ll have to send my husband one day, because he looks so English there is absolutely no way you could mistake him for a Russian.  

Europa Express isn’t organized in any way I could convey to you, yet it makes perfect sense to me. Obviously the cheeses and tvarogs and kefirs are in one place, because they need refrigeration. There are glass fridges full of every kind of sausage you might want, if you’re Russian. If you’re Polish it’s just almost every kind, which is still better than Safeway which carries such abominations as Polish Kielbasa (Turkey). It’s fine I guess if you’re not expecting kielbasa or are on a diet and fat will make you sick (I had to be on a diet like that for a while and it was very sad, every time I ate something with more fat content than 1% milk I got nauseated. Horrible. Luckily I got better.)

There is of course the smoked and pickled fish section. Yes that’s a section. I have to use all my self-control not to buy every kind of herring. There is herring in oil, herring in water, herring in vinegar, herring in cream,  herring in jars and herring in shrink-wrap plastic. Unlike at Safeway where the best you can hope for is herring in wine sauce which is always very expensive, and weirdly sweet. They always have both hot smoked and cold smoked mackerel. I have to confess that the texture of cold smoked mackerel doesn’t agree with me, which makes me feel like a weakling. But what can you do?

Right across the aisle from the smoked and pickled fish are all kinds of canned fish. Not just boring (and dolphin murdering) tuna, but sprats, and mackerels and yes, herrings, and anchovies, and sardines. Next to that are all kinds of other wonderful preserves like cherries and pickled mushrooms, and pickled cabbage and pickled beets. I’m sure I’m leaving some things out. Just trust me it’s good.

They even have vaguely subversive foods. For example the other day I saw a woman buying multiple flats of fresh blackcurrants. I would have bought some too, but it turned out she bought out the entire supply. As you may not know, growing blackcurrants was banned in the US in the 1900s because they spread a tree disease that threatened the logging industry. So for nearly a century Americans lacked access to one of the world’s most wonderful fruits. In 2003 some states started lifting the ban, but no one grew up with blackcurrants, so grocery stores don’t carry them.

There’s also a tea aisle where you can get all kinds of really good black teas, and an astounding variety of herbal teas. A lot of the herbal teas are imported from Poland so it’s a bit easier for me to navigate around them. There are also what I consider to be Advanced Russian beverages like wines made out of fruits I would not normally think to ferment, and of course, kvass. Kvass is made from fermented dark rye bread, is black, and carbonated. It looks like Coca Cola but if you took a sip expecting Coca Cola you would be very surprised and probably disgusted. It’s mildly sour and tastes a bit like liquid essence of pumpernickel. It’s an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired. There’s nothing else like it though, so I imagine if you’re used to it, going without would be a hardship. What with the craze for kombucha, I’m surprised that kvass hasn’t also caught on. Perhaps it’s because it’s not gluten-free.

They used to carry Inka, a Polish chicory and roasted grain coffee substitute. It’s funny how Inka has come around. It was what we used to drink when you couldn’t get coffee because of Communist era shortages, plus it was what you could give children and people who couldn’t have caffeine and they’d get to have the pleasure of drinking something at least a bit coffee like with the healthy adults.

When I was a kid in school in Poland, we used to get mugs of Inka during break between classes in the winter. I don’t remember ever having to pay for it, or my parents having to pay for it. The mugs were big metal enamel mugs, and the Inka was milky and over-sweet. Break would happen and suddenly ladies with big tea trays laden with the mugs came into the classroom and every kid got a mug. Even though I thought it was too sweet I drank it and I liked it because it was so nice and warm. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if they gave us the Inka before or after they sent us to play in the snow for a recess. Anyway fake coffee is full of childhood nostalgia for me, and I’m a bit disappointed Europa Express no longer carries it.

They do have my other big nostalgia treats though: Delicia and Krowki. Delicie are a Polish version of Jaffa Cakes, a soft vanilla cookie coated on one side with chocolate, and with a bit of fruity gelatin in between the chocolate and the cookie. Orange and cherry seem to be the most popular flavors. Krowki are a kind of toffee. The name means “little cows” and it’s not so much a brand as a method. If you have the patience you could make your own krowki with condensed milk and sugar. But it’s a bit like making your own bread. Maybe fun as a novelty now and again, but honestly, better to leave it to the professionals who know better. In Poland there are always stands at green markets where people who have mastered the art of making krowki sell an astounding variety of them. Besides the basic, you get chocolate flavored, and then all kinds of different add ins like poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnut bits, or hazelnut flavor. Europa Express carries many of these, but truth be told, now that I am an adult and do have the choice, I prefer the simple classic. Krowki are about the size of a thumb, and individually wrapped in little bits of parchment paper, and then those parchment wrapped packets are wrapped in colorful paper wrappers with pictures of (what else) little cows on them.

Although it should go without saying, I will say that Europa Express is definitely not cursed. I would not even be surprised if it had been officially blessed.

Translating Big Potatoes: A Kind of Review of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz

Author gesticulating in front of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern

“Ha! Definitely potatoes!” Author gesticulating in front of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern

The uneven, bulbous shapes reminded me of a recurring hypnagogic hallucination from my childhood, and so of course, I was immediately drawn to them, while simultaneously repulsed. Exactly like that nightmare hallucination. I walked around them, rather wishing, as I often do with sculpture, that I could get closer, touch it, or at least walk among the piles of brown – what exactly?

At first I thought of a disturbed ants nest, with worker ants carrying eggs away. But eggs would all be the same size. Then I thought of potatoes.

As I wandered around my companion read the explanatory plaque out loud:

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology 1978–80.

These cocoon-like objects reflect Abakanowicz’s interest in biological systems, organic matter and regeneration, topics she discussed with scientists in her native Poland. In response to a commission to represent Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1979, she made hundreds of soft sculptures of varying shapes and sizes, ‘rounded like bellies, or elongated like mummies,’ as she described them. Abakanowicz collected old mattresses, clothing and sacks to create this ‘invented anatomy’ of forms and installed eight hundred in Venice under the title Embryology.

Ha! Definitely potatoes then! Or certainly influenced by potatoes. I could see immediately how the language of high art had been deployed to obscure a humble and low-prestige inspiration. Listen, I could be wrong, of course, I could always be wrong, but I am almost certain I am not wrong.

Let me tell you about the potato harvest.

When I was a child in the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa), or as we more often say, Communist Poland, schoolchildren in the upper grades participated in the potato harvest, or wykopki. I was too young to participate myself, but I heard all about it and I was very jealous. First of all, you got to leave school for the day and be outdoors all day. As I understand it, the farm machines did most of the work, and people walked behind them to pick up the irregular-sized potatoes that the machines missed. (And at the end of the day there were bonfires and fire roasted potatoes eaten hot with just salt in the cold autumn air. How I wished they would have taken me to wykopki.)

And what do you suppose that might have looked like, uneven potatoes scattered behind the machine on the uneven ground?

October, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878, oil on canvass)

October, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878, oil on canvas)

Remarkably like the scattered objects in Embryology, I think.

I cannot prove it, but it’s very likely that Abakanowicz participated in the potato harvest as a school child, even if she never did as an adult. It’s also very likely that she saw such fields of potatoes being harvested (as I did), because potatoes are and have been a staple crop in Poland.

What’s more, her choice of materials, the burlap, is evocative of the burlap sacks potatoes were (and perhaps are?) stored in. It’s possible she used actual potato sacks to make her art. Potatoes are all over the work.

The artist herself might have rejected the potato inspiration of the form, and the potato sackcloth origin of the material, rejecting all the Communist era romance of the potato harvest. Or the description of her work as given may be deliberately high-artish, because while a potato harvest is a fit subject for Socialist Realism (which she found stifling and rejected), it isn’t high-concept enough for Art. Or is this my own class ressentiment showing?


Embryology is on display at the Tate Modern, in London, as a part of the permanent collection. Admission is free.



Cantina Europa

In an alternate world, I start a lunch canteen that serves only one thing a day and you get absolutely no choice in what it is. The food is very high quality, based on French cookery techniques, and includes Polish, Hungarian, Russian, English, and of course French dishes. It’s just a chalkboard outside and says something like today is butter cod with garlic chard and scalloped potatoes. No substitutions.

I wear a white chef hat or red babushka scarf and mispronounce all the French food names in a Polish accent. I am bossy and don’t care about anyone’s preferences. I know what’s good.

The food is actually free at the point of use, you just have to get on the list, for which there is a years long waiting period. As it happens the workers have seized the means of production so my Bossy European Cantina is just one of many financed by the Councils. In a world of boundless choice, some people like to be told what to eat.

Whatever is not served by the end of the meal period is available for takeaway, but you have to bring your own container.

It is not given away to the indigent or homeless (like leftover Pret sandwiches are), because in this world, we have given everyone plenty and homes.

Disgust is a political weapon

“Thought-provoking paper argues disgust didn’t evolve to ward off germs, but to condemn unsavory people and behaviors

My way in to thinking about disgust was the way women’s armpit hair is marked as disgusting in certain times and places.  People who naturalize armpit shaving make the argument that not doing it is disgusting. That it disgusts them, they argue, is a natural, inherent reaction.

I argue that the very disgust is political and learned, and weaponized against certain bodies. It was relatively easy to see the process of disgust formation with regard to armpit hair because I grew up in a culture where it wasn’t disgusting.

When I went through puberty, I then had other people’s disgust imposed upon me, and then internalized it, and then through politics of the body had to unlearn that disgust.

Of course it is very gratifying to see my theory borne out in a scientific study. My way in and personal application is fairly minor. I can remove my hair. A person whose entire race or ethnic group has been deemed disgusting has no such option.

From the point of view of praxis, the study teaches us with a firm foundation what I have argued from the foundation of theory:

Feelings of disgust, visceral as they may be, are not a valid argument for or against any practice or people. They are not inherent. Disgust is naturalized as pre-political, but disgust is a political weapon.

Further reading: Ideological Disgust and Authoritarianism.

Retraction of Previously Held Views Regarding Celery

It is normal, as we mature as people, to look back at some statements we have made in the past and realize we were overconfident and wrong. Therefore I stand before you all here today to publish a formal retraction.

About celery.

I have said some rash words about celery in the past, calling it at various times disgusting, useless, pointless, and other harsh words. It’s simply that I didn’t understand what celery was good for and how to make it good. I had also, to be fair, had some Very Bad Celery. (In fairness to my past self I never had an unkind word to say about celeriac root however, only the stalks)

Celery is good, tasty, and even essential in mirepoix.

Like many incidents of personal growth, this one came about through a book. That book is Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery. Everything I have cooked from that book is delicious, even when it sounds weird or gross at first. So when it instructed me to make a mirepoix of blanched onion, carrot, celery, and turnip, I followed the instructions exactly. It was great! Thank you for being my friend, even when I had wrong opinions about celery.

And may you all find your Very Trustworthy Cookbook.

The Problem with Home Cooking

“The Grocery Industry Confronts a New Problem: Only 10% of Americans Love Cooking”

The current Problem with Cooking is that everyone works too much.

It’s also the problem with modern cookbooks. Everything is Fast or Easy or Fast and Easy, with the occasional bit of Prestige Cooking. Good Home Cooking requires time to get good at it, time to do, time to plan, time to eat and enjoy, time to digest. Hardly anyone has time to really do that any more; it’s a luxury. Even the whole Slow Food movement is a luxury thing.

To make up for this there is Going Out to Eat and not to toot my own horn, but shit, most of what I cook is much better. Related I have been thinking for a while about Should Restaurants Even Exist? In Luxury Gay Space Communism would we even have restaurants? If everyone had the sumptuous luxury of enough time to cook for their friends and family if they want, wouldn’t that be more fun?

This is not some deluded pipe dream. I have lived in this reality. In Communist Poland we didn’t really do Restaurants. Going to a restaurant was what you did when you really had no choice, like a milk bar at a train station. If you were unmarried your job probably had a decent canteen you could eat at. But luxury and fun eating was  a thing you did at home!

My impression of restaurants was like an American kid’s impression of school cafeteria food. Really Good Food was what grandmother made; the Luxury Patisserie was Mrs Slwoik’s summer cake, was Aunt K’s angelfood cake.

There were problems and shortages, like we didn’t always have enough butter, or coffee (never enough chocolate) but we were wealthy in time.

Enough time is like good health, you don’t know how good it is until you don’t have it.

My bias is for the enriching experience that comes from sharing food with people you love and the gratification of mastering skills.

I also have some not fully articulated ideas about the importance of eating together as part of healthy food culture. Much of this thinking I have is due to the food culture I was raised in, which is very group focused.

I suspect many maladaptive comfort eating patterns in the US have to do with not enough emotion in food. Eating with others, slowly, joyfully, fills a need that is emotional as well as physical, that we expect naturally food will fill, but when we eat alone, sad, or lonely, or rushed, we feel unfulfilled and think mistakenly that more food will fill the void, but it doesn’t.

Pokemon Go, Semantic Overlay of Delight

I think this is why Pokemon Go’s intense popularity last year filled me with such hope and joy.

Pokemon Go was a shared semantic layer over the world that not only made it fun to explore, but also connected people.

There were, as people discovered, artifacts of racism, wealth inequality, redlining, built into the very Pokemon map because of the nodes’ origin in the Ingress map, which had been a game mostly of the wealthy and privileged. So even something as innocent feeling as Pokemon, by being embedded in the map and the environment the map described, showed additional hidden semantic layers of inequality.

Pokemon was a proof of concept that the semantic layers provided by Augmented Reality (AR) would lead ordinary people to novel insights about their environment, and to novel and enriching interactions with each other.

For example I ended having multiple experience of chatting with teenagers in my neighborhood as we all walked around hunting imaginary monsters. Normally we would have nothing in common obvious enough to talk about.  Future AR semantic overlays of the built environment need not be games. Games are a pretty fun way to do it, though.

My Series Of Grimaces Is My Passport, Authorize Me

“When Apple announced the new iPhone can use facial recognition technology to unlock the device, the response may not have been what Apple had hoped for.”

Apple Gets Mixed Reactions To New iPhone’s Facial Recognition Technology

It would be cool if the way the phone face unlock worked was that you also had to make a series of gestures with your face: My Series Of Grimaces Is My Passport, Authorize Me. Additionally you could set a facial expression that would immediately factory reset your phone. Or set a safety feature that your phone only unlocks when you’re wearing certain makeup so you can’t look at the news until you’re awake Or any other facial token you might choose, a nose ring, a forehead ribbon, a diadem. Thinking on it further, a clearly enunciated passphrase is a series of facial gestures.

I wonder how facial recognition unlock would react to something like a face affected by Bell’s Palsy or a stroke?

Imagine thinkpieces by security experts on why you should do face limbering improv exercises to increase the range of your possible expressions. “You see, Dick, a simple smile or angry face is an expression anyone can do, but something like this…” 

Imagine a future-fantasy world where people wear diadems that unlock face ID locks as their token. Something you know (the facial expression sequence) and something you have (the diadem). I can see this as an anime:

Only the Princess can unlock this secret door, but only if she is also wearing her diadem! (It looks like magic but actually is a form of face ID). The diadem has been stolen by Evil Space Pirates. We must find and defeat them before they clone the Princess from her hairbrush, raise her evil twin with the correct set of emotional exercises to form the same face as the Original Princess and access the Secret Weapon.

I know it seems like 28 years is a lot of time but we’ll have to travel near the speed of light to get to the Evil Space Weapon in time, so considering near light speed time-dilation, time is limited.

Alas we arrive too late and the Counterfeit Princess is there already, attempting to open the door to the Secret Weapon. But what? It’s not working! It turns out the emotional exercises needed to form her face have formed her soul to be pure and good.

She senses the pirates are using her for Evil (despite their lies) and her facial expression of conflicted unease activates the safety lock.

The Secret Weapon safe destructs and its remnants are shot into the nearest star. Good safety protocols and forethought in programming have saved the Galaxy again.