Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chicken in Every Pot?

If you live around here (the Minneapolis/St. Paul area), Lunds & Byerly's or Kowalski's mean one type of grocery; Rainbow and Cub mean something else. There are also SuperTargets, Walmarts, Aldi markets, Econofoods and other discount and deep discount stores. Whole Foods and Simon Delivers add another dimension. When reading about these places the tone and type of information are never what I'm looking for. The three color inserts in the newspapers don't have content, just prices and exclamation points. I spend a lot of time online, but do you consult Wikipedia when the "what's for dinner" question comes? Although the article on SuperTarget has 93 references and tells you the average store has 175,000 square feet, you neeed to visit the place to learn the produce is a disappointment. On the other hand, it's a shelf stable paradise if you're looking for canned soup, spaghetti sauce or 3.2 beer. Liquor stores are closed on Sundays in Minnesota, so the beer is important.

I like to browse over good food, but I also care about where I am. Places like the Caspian Bistro on University (Persian restaurant and market) are secret treasures. The little market's floor is covered with open crates of bulk almonds and pistachios. Shelves and cases are packed with exotic oils, pickled garlic, Persian saffron, and dates. But it need not be so exotic. Recovering from years of neglect as the Nokomis Food Pride, Nokomis' Oxendale Market is a store I like. Its previous owners hadn't updated much of anything for years. The store still has dingy floors, ancient freezers and dim lighting. It also has friendly service, a good selection of Kool-aid and some odd items (e.g. pickled eggs and turkey gizzards).

Travel writers have to be practical. I'd be upset if a museum's admission for a family of four was $60 and I wasn't tipped off. Likewise, I'd be remiss to leave out of a review the "premium" nature of stores like Byerly's & Lunds. I've developed a price index, the Harrington Household Index (HHI). The more familiar Consumer Price Index (CPI) is composed of an extensive list of prices urban consumers pay. My index is only five items: a whole chicken, a head of lettuce (or a bag), a bottle of canola cooking oil, a package of toilet paper (4 rolls), and dish soap -- almost a chicken dinner and the clean-up (sorry). I'll try to avoid discussions of the "core" index vs. the more volatile "chicken, lettuce and canola" index. Some of the store-to-store selection differences, e.g. size variants and availability, will be controlled by adjusting on a per once basis. Specialty ethnic markets like the Caspian Bistro might not stock TP or be licensed to sell meat. For them, I'll index based on what they have. Look for the first index coming soon!

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