In my idealist youth, I tried to help a family of Russian immigrants adjust to life in Chicago. Intending to show off the bounty in this great country of ours, I unthinkingly took this poor Igor to Cub Foods, a pioneering 24-hour-a-day mega warehouse supermarket.
To my surprise, he froze on the threshold, and would not go in.
"Is too much," he said.
His frame of reference was whatever small, shabby, bare-shelved, white-tile Leningrad corner grocery he was used to, cuing up for hours to get his bunch of turnips and package of mystery meat wrapped in paper and twine.
But his words often come back to me, while navigating the profusion of food emporiums all around me: Sunset Foods and Jewel, Garden Fresh, Heinen's, Caputo Brothers, plus TWO Whole Foods and TWO Trader Joes.
And those are just the ones my wife frequents.
Plus this place at the corner of Waukegan and Lake Cook, Fresh Thyme, which I had never noticed, but we popped in Saturday after walking at the Botanic Garden. The store was nearly deserted, even though it had a cheery, well-scrubbed, natural-goods purveyor vibe, sort of a Whole Foods without the hauteur.
Well, maybe a little hauteur. My attention was caught by this line of potato chips, "REAL SLICED POTATOES." My first thought was, "Aren't all potato chips 'real sliced potatoes?'" Except of course for Pringles, made of some kind of pre-digested potato mash. But Pringles are pretty much intended for toddlers, correct?
The Real Sliced Potatoes are sold by the Kettle brand, which also has regularly labeled potato chips, and, not wanting to delay the wife, I didn't have time to stop and try to figure out the difference, if any, but I imagine it's pretty much confined to nomenclature.
It does seem to point toward a new path of labeling products to mesh with the self-deceptive delusions of the consumer. Avoiding ice cream? Enjoy some "FROZEN COW NECTAR"? Trying not to eat bread? Try a "FARMLAND WHEAT SLICE."
Will people who are reluctant to pork out on potato chips happily dig their hands into bags of "Real Sliced Potatoes." Maybe.
To me, it's a product without a market, making a distinction lost on the average customer.
"Real Sliced Potatoes." Who will that fool? Who will be drawn in? These are customers, remember, who are already eating potato chips, their bar for healthfulness is already pretty low. "REAL SLICED POTATOES." The name's too generic. We could think of a better one right now, in a second. Mmmm ... "Genuine Spud Shavings." "Authentic Tater Crisps."
Being the guy who dismissed cell phones as a fad, I probably shouldn't mock any new product. And as for the superabundance of supermarkets, until a few go belly up, that's only good for customers. It means they're fighting for your business. I was ordering bologna (soon to be "HIGH PROTEIN ROUNDS") at the Jewel and the guy at the deli counter reached over and offered me a slice. Immediately I was back in Berea, Ohio, four years old, being handed a slice of bologna by the butcher in the Parkway Shops. I almost vowed on the spot to only shop at Jewel, in gratitude for my free bologna, even while musing on the fickle infidelity of customers. But the Sunset is really close to my house and, all things equal, I'm committed to trying to keep them afloat.