Sunday, June 25, 2006

End of an Era

Having lived in California for less than a year, I probably can't legitimately claim to have any traditions yet. That hasn't stopped me from trying, though. One big one is my Sunday morning routine. Every weekend that I've been in town, I'll wake up in the morning, walk down to Albertson's (a local grocery chain), and buy a doughnut, a Sunday paper, and whatever odds and ends I may need for the next few days.

That "tradition" ended today. Last month, Albertson's announced that it would be shutting down a dozen of their bay-area stores. Like many traditional grocers, they're getting squeezed from two directions. At the top end, they're losing wealthier customers to stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's that offer a more holistic shopping experience. At the bottom end, they need to compete in price against Wal-Mart's enormous purchasing power. As a result, both sales and margins have been falling strongly; couple this with Silicon Valley's economic slump and its taste for organic food, and it's little surprise they were feeling the pain.

As soon as I heard the announcement I knew my store would be one of the dozen. They never seem to be very busy when I'm there, and they're right next to a Long's Drugs that offers a lot of the same food items. It's a real shame to see them go... the workers there were friendly, plus I loved having a place so close by. The fresh bakery was excellent.

I hadn't heard an official shutter date for them, so I walked up the same as usual, only to find the doors closed and locked. I wasn't alone; several other people stood there peering into the windows, more than I would usually find on a Sunday morning. This may have been the first day that they didn't open.

I'm left wondering now what will take its place in the building. Another grocery chain has announced it will buy several of the Albertson's, but this isn't one of them. Long's doesn't seem to do a lot of business either so I can't see them expanding. I feel like that space must be fairly valuable - it's about halfway between the 280 exit and Ebay, and must see a lot of traffic during the day - but it probably won't be replaced with another grocery.

Instead of my customary doughnut, then, I went hope and tried out a new recipe for pancakes, which were excellent. For some reason I've been getting a ton of magazine offers in the mail over the last month or two, for everything from Time to Sports Illustrated to The Economist to The Atlantic. Yesterday, I didn't just get an offer, but a whole magazine: one free issue of Cook's Illustrated, which, along with several other good-looking recipes, had a new one for blueberry pancakes. I didn't have any blueberries, but in any case it called for sprinkling them on top instead of mixing them into the batter, so I figured I'd try them plain today, get some berries, then do the real deal with the rest of the batter later. So far so good; this recipe will replace my previous version (which was already pretty darn tasty).

I've been meaning for a while to go to a farmer's market in Campbell, about two miles southwest of here. It runs year-round but features fresh, seasonal produce from farmers in the Central Valley and other nearby places. I thought this would be as good a time as any to check it out, and after polishing off my pancakes I drove down to see for myself.

It looks really solid. The market runs along Campbell Avenue for three blocks, most of which are filled with stalls; the first two are food, the third has handmade crafts and flowers. One thing I really liked was the signs indicating where the food came from and describing it. Some was organic, most pesticide-free, some not. I overheard lots of people talking to the sellers, asking about how the food was prepared, and getting honest answers in reply. I'm a huge fan of people having access to information, and what I saw was a great example of free markets in action: merchants competing on price, and quality, and even social responsibility. An impressive number of people were there and it looked to me like everyone was making out well.

The produce is all seasonal, so I expect the market probably shrinks down a fair amount in the winter months. For now, though, there was an amazing variety on display. Lots of berries, plenty of tree fruits, vegetables of all sorts of colors. The prices were also very reasonable, even for the organic stuff. I hadn't decided ahead of time what to buy, and ended up walking off with fresh blueberries, nectarines, peaches, cherries, and two large cloves of garlic. Everything I've nibbled on so far has tasted great. Oh, and this is definitely a venue that encourages tasting; seemingly every stall had plates set out with free samples of what you could buy there.

So the fresh produce looks great. Even more exciting for me, though, is the non-produce, locally-made items. I picked up a jar of fresh honey from Los Gatos. Several bakers, including an Indian and a Russian baker, offered fresh bread and pastries for sale. I didn't pick any up, but some of those pastries looked so good that I think I may continue a variation of my old Sunday routine. I didn't see any eggs for sale, but one stall offered "natural and organic sausage". To me that sounds like an oxymoron; I'll take a closer look the next time I'm there. Probably most exciting of all was a fresh fish stand, displaying fish on ice that had been caught that day off the Santa Cruz coast. Unfortunately, it looked really expensive - up to $14 a pound (though cod was just about $8). Still, I love the idea of fresh fish, and that may become a treat for me in the future.

In all honesty, I'm still not sure what my food universe is going to look like six months from now. I'm increasingly feeling like I should be taking more advantage of living in California and eating fresh foods, instead of cheap stuff that has been processed elsewhere and shipped back in. Food at the farmer's market is cheap enough, except for the fish, that I could easily switch my fruits and vegetables over to it without much of a hit; but it would be less convenient than the mainly canned and frozen stuff I use now. If I can easily make it part of my lifestyle it may become my new Sunday morning tradition; otherwise, it'll probably be an occasional fun treat for myself.


  1. You know what I miss? Shrek cereal. That was the BEST CEREAL EVER! And the cryspy little pies they sold at Odoya, yeah, those are gone now too! I hate it when supply and demand makes the things you like disappear.

  2. Shrek cereal, eh? I never heard of it, but I'm not very adventurous when it comes to cereal. It seems like most sugar cereals have a limited shelf life though... anyone remember Nintend O's?