Kathleen Alcalá

The Clueless Eater

Town & Country

April 28, 2011

Tags: Town & Country, Bainbridge Island, sustainable living, local food, produce, Uwajimaya

How does getting food to market work on a larger scale? The truth is, most of the food at my house comes from Town & Country Market down the street. I make an appointment to see the store director, Rick Pedersen. He leads me from the front of the store to the back, then through a warren of passageways to his overheated office upstairs. Pedersen wears the signature dark-green windbreaker of store employees and a baseball cap. Rick Pedersen is a team player.

Town and Country Market is the flagship store of six supermarkets in the greater Seattle area. Known affectionately by its customers and employees as T & C, it moved to its present location in 1957. It was preceded by two small grocery stores, and the original partners opened what must have seemed like a huge store at the time. It’s most famous feature is the signboard on Winslow Way. Originally erected to advertise specials, the owners long ago turned its use over to announce special events, now limited to nonprofits. The lettering of “Town & Country” is close to the “Sahara” type face on my computer. It is hopelessly, unfashionably retro. We all love it.
The store has been expanded a couple of times, but is still – eccentric. There is a main floor and a downstairs, with a stairway in between. Downstairs is a wine cellar and bulk food. Upstairs is the rest of the market, including a delicatessen, a place to drink coffee, and a florist. The store is located on a steep slope, so the upper floor extends out towards the harbor to provide covered parking for about twenty cars. I usually start downstairs with rice crackers, nuts, rice and beans, filling plastic bags and labeling them with the numerical codes that allow the checker to charge me correctly. Employees are constantly refilling the bins, and can answer even the most obscure question about bulk spices and types of dried chiles. I then awkwardly carry my bags upstairs and dump them in a cart in order to complete my shopping. Above the main floor are the offices.

I asked Pedersen, a soft-spoken man in his early forties, where the other stores were located. They are, in order of opening, Bainbridge, Poulsbo, Ballard, Greenwood, Shoreline, and Mill Creek. Each store has a different character, and caters to its particular clientele. Ballard has become hip and trendy, as illustrated in online reviews --
"All kinds of fun stuff in the bulk section…. Mixing the potato salad and egg salad from the salad bar…. I'm awash in a large colorful sea of beautiful pornographic produce"

--while Greenwood has older customers. However, said Petersen, there are more commonalities than differences between the stores. Three are neighborhood stores, geared to frequent visits, and the Central Markets are larger stores that draw from a wider area, with customers making bigger purchases. “People have different needs at different times,” he said.

The Bainbridge store is a neighborhood store, even if it’s a big neighborhood. We drive the extra ten miles to Poulsbo every six weeks or so to purchase groceries that are not available on Bainbridge. Central has an expanded Asian foods section, and a huge fish counter. Women making sushi at a little stand as you shop, readying boxes to be taken away for lunch.
Two or three times a year, I also visit an Asian supermarket in the International District of Seattle. While I am not a gourmet cook, I enjoy experimenting with textures and flavors, and am always looking for food that is both healthy and enjoyable to eat. Years ago, I sent away to an address on a can of Chung King bean sprouts for directions on how to stir fry. That was an exotic concept in Western Colorado, where beef and creamed corn were more likely to be on the menu. Now, I can buy lotus root, long beans, and bitter melon at Uwajimaya, plus tamarind paste, endless varieties of citrus vinegar, and if I want, the latest ‘Hello Kitty’ products. Tourists stroll down the aisles, looking at labels they cannot read, while Asian moms haul bags of fresh vegetables to their cars. The produce section is a visual feast of green and yellow and purple, maintained by a local poet. If you OD on food shopping, you can duck into the adjacent Kinokuniya Bookstore and puzzle over racy manga comics or clever t-shirts.
T & C does not have a high enough demand or shelf space to carry all of these items. It must be as many things as possible to its island customer.
With Cowichan Elder Hyamiciate, Della (Rice) Sylvester at the The Living Breath of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ Indigenous Foods and Ecological Knowledge Symposium

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Selected Works

Creative nonfiction, memoir, environmental sustainability.
Combining memoir, historical records, and a blueprint for sustainability, The Deepest Roots shows us how an island population can mature into responsible food stewards and reminds us that innovation, adaptation, diversity, and common sense will help us make wise decisions about our future. And along the way, we learn how food is intertwined with our present but offers a path to a better understanding of the future.
Creative Nonfiction
Essays on Family and Writing

The Desert Remembers My Name makes an important contribution to discussions of ethnicity, identity, and the literature of place.”
Bloomsbury Review
Fiction
"...a mesmerizing tale... the author explores the fascinating confusions and contradictions plaguing a culture precariously poised between tradition and modernization."
Booklist
"She never forgot the power of storytelling as testimony."
The Utne Reader
"Kathleen Alcalá's Spirits of the Ordinary is an enthralling book..."
–Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Books

"This book entered my dreams."
–Alberto Rios
Short Fiction
"Thoroughly satisfying."
The New York Times Book Review

"By turns touching, entertaining, and surprising, and uniquely her own."
Publishers Weekly

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