Years ago, on my first visit to Whole Foods, I nearly passed out from the sheer number of choices. I had much the same response when I first set foot inside Larry’s Market, the now defunct supermarket that was one of the first, back in the 80s, to stay open for 24 hours. Even factoring for inflation, Whole Foods is far more overwhelming than Larry’s Market ever was.
What links them is the samples. At Larry’s Market, there were always little bread samples in the bakery and almost always some kind of sweet thing for afters. At the check-out, there was often a domed lid with chip samples under it. If you were lucky, someone might press a bite sized granola bar into your hand on the way out.
My orientation to grocery store sampling is that of a pudgy kid in the sixties. When I was growing up it wasn’t unusual for a stranger to approach an overweight kid eating a cookie at a picnic and say, “That’s the reason you’re fat.” In the way these things work, I was the one who ended up feeling ashamed, not the adult who felt so entitled to insult a child who took her comfort in the few places she could find it.
Enough of these experiences turned me into a secret sampler. I could smell a sample in the parking lot. I could suss out a whole store and find where they were handing out Tiger’s Milk samples in a futile attempt to popularize it. Though not technically a sample, I could finger the edge of wedding cake frosting left on the serving plate before the cake cutter turned back around to sink her knife in for another piece.
I think about how I got started on this life of sampling subterfuge sometimes when I am in a place like Whole Foods. There’s a way of lowering ones eyelids to half-mast in a disinterested survey, looking for a dome. Then circling the area like a predator, faking surprise when you come upon the prey, in this case, the do-nut holes.
I mention do-nut holes, because that’s how I set limits for myself. In a bakery, I only take a sample when there are do-nut holes. The truth is that most bakery goods look better than they taste. After you’ve been disappointed enough times, they don’t even look good anymore. But I like do-nut holes and they always taste the same, give or take a day’s staleness.
Do-nut holes were the de-fault sample at the old QFC on 15th NW. I understand that a whole family can lunch off the samples at the big warehouse stores. The West Seattle Thriftway for months put out samples of obscure little banana flavored sugar cookies that made the staff re-route themselves just to get another one. At the old Art’s Family Center which some of us still call Art’s, but which now is another QFC, you could always get salmon spread on either a Triscuit or a Wheat Thin. Or both if you were fast enough. The place to go for not just a sample, but a whole hunk of bread with butter is Great Harvest Bread Company.
Speaking as a veteran sampler, I can say that Whole Foods does better than any store I have ever scavenged. On a good day, you can sample orange slices and grapes in the produce section, something smoked in the meat or fish section, chips and dip in aisle seven and washed down with coffee or tea one aisle over. Double back for the green liquid by the protein drinks or the artisanal granola in the cereal aisle, then due north to try some kefir, Yobaby or Greek yogurt. Any continental repast finishes with cheese of which there can easily be four different kinds to sample, and then if you are lucky enough to get to the domed lid in time, some tiramisu or fudge cake in the bakery. Whole Foods doesn’t do anything so down-market as do-nut holes.
But I have never seen anything like the sampler’s paradise that is Mackinac Island. The townies call the tourists “fudgies” with good reason. Every other store front on the main street is a candy kitchen and you can eat a pound of fudge in a day just from going in and out of them. Not that I ever did.
This last item is off topic by content, but not by free association. Jessie, my little fairy god-child from years past, could make my mother laugh outright at comments I could never have gotten past her. Jessie was with me one fourth of July when I went to see my parents in Olympia. We were putting together a hamburger supper and my mother was shaking the mustard bottle while she explained to Jessie that the first thing to come out the spout was usually water.
“Oh, I know all about that,” Jessie assured her. “That’s why I always get a mid-stream sample.”