Sepia Saturday #311: Going to the Grocery Store?

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This is the launch of a new project for 2016! Yay! The concept behind these weekly Saturday posts can be found at Sepia Saturday Intro.

One of my pet peeves is driving down the road and seeing those plastic grocery bags flapping in the wind, hanging onto cactus and palo verde branches. They are so ubiquitous now that many states are starting to ban them and bringing back the good old paper bag.

As you would expect, I like paper (or reusable totes) the best. The birthday card above shows a girl bear holding a brown paper grocery bag with the groceries in cardboard boxes. If you look closely, you can see the card is embellished with a piece of twine running around the bag image.

Paper bags were one of the only options that my Aunt Sadie had when she was doing her weekly household grocery shopping. However, she hated the way the bag boys used to bag her groceries. Yes, I called them “bag boys” instead of the more politically correct “bag persons” since at that point they were mostly males. She would insist on packing the brown bags just the way she wanted. There was a specific order. Boxed goods together, cans in another bag, cold items in the next. The troublesome, odd-shaped vegetables got their own sack. The bag boys would be so surprised when she would shove them out of the way and say, “No, I’ll do it myself.” I’m sure they were thinking, “What sort of crazy lady wants to bag her own groceries?”

Along with having to frequent grocery stores (we all have to eat, don’t we?) to do our shopping, a number of family members received their paychecks from grocery stores at some point in their lives. My father, Bill Strait, worked for the Acme Markets when he was a young man. When he was sixteen, he started working for Acme when it was located on Spring Street. Because he was underage, he had to get working papers to be employed. The Newton Acme moved from Spring Street down to Nelson Street and Woodside Avenue in Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey. (It’s now a Dollar General store.)

Ed Zuckowski was an Acme Stores superintendent and soon he had Dad helping to close stores that were going out of business. Dad helped pack boxes and close up the stores in Little Washington and Netcong. Dad also worked in stores in Rockaway and Hackettstown. However, he got tired of traveling. Dad asked to be put at the Newton store where he was the 3rd man, behind the manager and assistant manager. At one point, the Acme employees went on strike. My grandpa, Al Westra, asked him, “What are you going to do with the strike?” Dad said, “Well, wait for it to be over and then go back to work.” Al responded, “Why not come work for me while you’re waiting?” That’s when Dad moved over to construction and started to work for grandpa as a carpenter.

My sister Jill started out working for Shop-Rite but soon moved a short ways up the road to work for Hayek’s Market located at 1 Mill Street, Newton. All throughout high school, she worked part-time behind the deli counter and also ran a cash register. Hayek’s is a local, family-owned business that has managed to stand up to the Shop-Rites and Weis’ of the world and was established in 1939. It’s been expanded a number of times recently.

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Hayek’s Market, 1 Mill Street, Newton, NJ

Me? I worked at the now defunct A&P that used to be in the shopping center on Route 206 just northeast of town. I mainly worked as a cashier but would occasionally change price tags, stock shelves, and bag groceries, mostly using paper sacks.

The packaging of the items in grocery stores sure has changed a lot since 1941 when Aunt Sadie received the birthday card shown above. Meat used to be cut special for you by the butcher and wrapped in paper. Today’s tenderloins and roasts sit in styrofoam trays with diapers and are covered in plastic wrap. As times changed, my Gram Strait embraced modern food and its packaging. What exactly is Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 4.22.57 PMmodern food, you ask? Think Jiffy Pop, Tang, and Cool Whip!

First, let me relate what was known in the family as the Jiffy Pop Incident. Jiffy Pop is popcorn in an aluminum pie tin with a metal handle and pleated tinfoil top. On Sunday afternoons, after morning mass at St. Joseph’s Church, my sisters and I got to go over to Gram Strait’s house. Every once in a while, we enjoyed a special, buttery treat when Gram would make Jiffy Pop. This day, Gram took the paper cover off, turned on the electric burner and set the Jiffy Pop on the stove. The trick to Jiffy Pop was to make sure you were shaking the handle to keep the kernels inside moving around. We got chattering and turned our backs on the stove and the Jiffy Pop. After a bit, Jill said, “Hey, what’s that weird smell?” We all turned to look at the popcorn on the stove. Its top was puffed up like it’s supposed to be but it was also on fire!

Jill blinked. Jen didn’t know what to do. I did! I panicked. I started screaming, “We have to call the fire department! Where’s the number? Where’s the phone book? FIRE! We have to call the firemen, NOW!” Gram looked at me and rolled her eyes. She turned back to the stove and calmly turned the burner off. She put her oven mitt on and moved the Jiffy Pop from the burner to the sink where she turned on the water to douse the fire. I was too young at the time to know that wasn’t her first kitchen fire.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 6.43.51 PMWhen we weren’t burning the Jiffy Pop, we loved to watch the way the foil expanded; it was very space-aged. Which brings us to the next modern food mentioned above. Tang. The drink of astronauts. Originally, they came in little packets that you could add to water to make an orange, grape, or hibiscus flavored drink. Gram loved orange Tang (it was never anything but the orange flavor) but instead of water she mixed it with iced tea. There was always a jug of tea and Tang in Gram’s fridge. It was the go-to drink for picnics in the backyard at 43 Lincoln Place and family reunions.

Cool Whip was another modern food that was a big hit with Gram Strait. Homemade whipped cream is a process. Cold bowl, cold heavy cream, a few other things, and lots and lots and lots and lots of stirring. Who wants to do that? Not Gram. Especially when you can get it pre-made in neat, white plastic containers. The fact that you could freeze it too was just an added bonus for her.

You could also use the empty Cool Whip container for leftovers storage, just like you can use your paper grocery sacks more than once. If you were leaving Gram’s house with your hands full, you could bet that you would hear, “Dear, go get a paper bag from the back of the toilet.” Wait, what? Some explanation is needed here on why the paper bags were stored by the toilet.  This particular toilet was in the back room by the furnace. It wasn’t part of a finished bathroom, just the toilet. It was intended for those times you were working in the backyard and didn’t want to tramp all the way through the house to the “proper” potty. As a result, it didn’t get much use and was relegated to babysitting the paper bags. They sat on the top of the toilet’s water tank, neatly folded and stored in, what else, a paper grocery bag!

Wow, was all that really sparked from a simple photo? You bet!

Theme taken from Sepia Saturday photo: Groceries

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7 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday #311: Going to the Grocery Store?

  1. I like to use plastic grocery bags for small, fresh, or frozen food. I reuse the plastic bags for garbage–if I couldn’t get free plastic bags at the store, I would have to buy more plastic garbage bags.

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  2. A post full to the brim of memories – like a good supermarket bag (of the paper kind). I don’t know why we don’t do those sturdy brown paper backs here in the UK, I have always been quite taken by them when I have visited the States.

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  3. Some great memories recorded for posterity! My grandmother was one of the first recyclers (reusing everything) but she considered herself frugal. Many of your comments reminded me of her.

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  4. Loved the Jiffy Pop story! I used to store paper bags (in a paper bag) between my cat’s scratching post and a dresser. Molly (cat) loved to climb up on top of the bags & sleep in the morning because the sun shone in right on top of them.

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