The Thunker - Sarah Donohoe

When I grocery shop I want to go alone because I don’t like to be rushed. You see, for me grocery shopping is a form of entertainment. Call me zany, but I like it.

The fun begins on Wednesdays when the newspaper inserts arrive. I pour over them, make lists, note sale prices, and hop up from the table to check our supply of staples such as pickle relish—when pickle relish is on sale.

The amusement continues when I get to the store, put on my mask (until there’s a COVID vaccine), wipe down the handle of the cart, put on my sweater to ward off the chill of the meat department and frozen food aisles, and begin my spree. The big reveal: grocery shopping is all about the label.

Example: have you bought a jar of Planters dry roasted peanuts lately? There are original, honey roasted, low salt and no salt versions. The jars and labels look almost identical, so it is important to study the label to make sure you’re getting what you want. I like original Planter’s dry roasted peanuts and was disappointed when I accidentally bought a no salt version and didn’t realize it until several days later when I opened the jar. Peanuts without salt? Aught to be outlawed. Since that blunder I examine the information on the jars very carefully before I buy.

Example: when’s the last time you looked at the ingredients in a container of cottage cheese? Only one brand—Daisy—has three ingredients: skim milk, cream and salt. The others have a list of mystery additives that makes one wonder how they can call it cheese. On the label I see carrageenan (made from seaweed), locust bean gum (extracted from the carob tree seed) and guar gum (extracted from the guar tree—of course. Guar trees grow in India and Pakistan. How a bean from India ended up in my cottage cheese is a question I’ve yet to find the answer to). Cottage cheese labels also list three different acids, modified cellulose (which comes from wood pulp and cottonseeds), and some chemicals that imitate nature.

I discovered this cryptic list because I spent several minutes reading the labels on all of the different brands of cottage cheese before I put the three-ingredient Daisy brand in my cart.

My brother-in-law found out the hard way about the importance of label inspection. He bought cottage cheese for his wife—my sister—and when he got it home, discovered he’d bought cottage cheese with chives. So he took it back and exchanged it. When he brought the second container home and gave it to Alice, she looked at it and said, “With chives?” Sure as tootin’, Bob had bought cottage cheese with chives for a second time! It’s right there on the front of the container: “with chives.” How did this happen?

I suspect label reading is a skill developed and passed on from mother to daughter while all the sons missed out. I don’t know one man who will spend the time and energy reading labels in the grocery store like I do. For me it’s an adventure. For them it is a tribulation.

Example: I grew up having root beer floats around the kitchen table on hot summer nights when some sweet, cold relief was needed. Because of this tradition I’ve recently had a hankering for a root beer float. My affiliate Joe offered to go to the store to get some root beer. He came back with a four-pack of Frosty’s vanilla root beer.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Vanilla root beer? Is that like cream soda?” (answer: no, it is not.)

Joe was disappointed. He saw the Frosty’s brand and figured it would be good. He never noticed the word vanilla. Joe has three sisters. It’s obvious they got all the label-reading genes and Joe got none.

Label scrutiny can be a curse sometimes. During this pandemic, some of us are finding comfort in food from our past. Think creamed chipped beef on toast, boxed macaroni and cheese and beanie weenies. For me, it’s Pop Tarts. Up until a month ago I hadn’t eaten a Pop Tart in decades. I decided I’d earned a box of Pop Tarts because I’d successfully isolated for three months.

Without reading the label I bought a box of frosted strawberry Pop Tarts. (Subliminally I knew better than to peruse the list of ingredients.) They were as good as I remembered them! I decided to reward myself with another box since I’m still practicing social distancing. Herein was a dilemma: should I get frosted or plain? I toast my Pop Tarts until they brown and then, if they’re not frosted, I spread butter on them. The butter melts into the crust and ooo-la-la! What doesn’t taste good soaked in melted butter? But the frosted ones are mighty tasty too. (My sister tells me I can have the best of both worlds: get the frosted ones and butter the underside. Brilliant!) I picked up a box of brown sugar/cinnamon Pop Tarts this time. But I couldn’t resist: I read the nutrition label. Then I reluctantly put the box back on the shelf. Pop Tarts do not have one single solitary iota of nutritional value. Zippo.

So it’s back to Dave’s Killer Good Seed bread with Smucker’s natural peanut butter for breakfast. What’s in the peanut butter? Peanuts and less than one percent salt. Now that’s my kind of label!

You may let The Thunker know what you think at her e-mail address, donoholdt@gmail.com.

© 2020 Sarah Donohoe

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