For my little family, all through the 1950’s and early 60’s, Friday night grocery shopping at the A&P was no less a ritual than attending Sunday mass. When Nippy came home from work between 5:00 and 5:30, we sat down to a simple supper. Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, served along with canned oyster stew and a tossed salad, comes to mind. On some occasions my mother really cut corners by serving TV dinners, which were a novelty at that time. On this icy-blue Friday in February, Daisy Jean has baked some fish in the oven with a casserole of homemade macaroni and cheese, accompanied by canned stewed tomatoes. Ever the stickler for a completely balanced meal, Daisy Jean usually planned for an easy dessert like Jell-O gelatin or Royal instant pudding, sometimes canned peaches, pears, or apricots.
I dry the dishes for my mother and take an opportunity to fill her in on the school day. In seventh grade now, I love to tell her how Miss Wilt, the math teacher, sprays everything she says on students like me who sit in the front seats in her classroom. Then I mockingly act out, “Thay it; don’t thpray it!” My mother shields her face with upraised hand, trying not to grin at my shenanigans. In the high school years, it was fun to share my Latin teacher, Miss Mary Auld’s, stories of the handsome men she had encountered on her travels to Italy and Greece. I suppose Daisy Jean was willing to put up with the incessant school talk in exchange for help from the kid.
In grade school and junior high I normally accompanied my parents on the weekly trek to A&P except for illness or occasionally to stay home to watch actors George Maharis and Martin Milner drive their little sports car cross country on Route 66. Every Friday took those cool guys to new jobs and adventures across America. At nine o’clock I looked forward to watching blonde, pompadoured Kookie and the entire cast of 77 Sunset Strip. With recording options unheard of in those times, going to the A&P meant missing the first half of the hour-long private eye show. In high school days the A&P was still pretty appealing to me, if for no other reason than to avoid dealing with weekend homework. High school football games were daytime on Saturdays, so that never posed a Friday night conflict.
This evening my mother is preparing the grocery list on her trademark unlined sheet of tablet paper. On a better day she would have completed this chore before supper. I watch her open the refrigerator multiple times, along with every cabinet in the kitchen, examining the state of supplies and foodstuffs currently on hand. Then she does reconnaissance to the basement, bathroom, and bedrooms, checking all laundry, toiletries, and paper products. Nothing will be overlooked on her watch.
It’s almost 7:30 by the time Daisy Jean “freshens up” and changes clothes, Nippy fires up the Plymouth and we are on our way to the A&P, located on upper Walnut Street in Versailles Borough, just about a five-mile junket from our 7th ward residence in the city of McKeesport. We find an angle-in parking spot on the baked goods, produce side of the concrete-walled store. As we march over the rubber-matted, railed entry way, I smile at the prominent electric eye that opens the door for us with a whoosh like a giant rubber squeegee scraping a picture window. My authorized job is to grab a “buggy” and remain close to Daisy Jean to help make purchase decisions and assist with loading the cart.
With buggy in hand, we back-track 180 degrees to the right, passing the front cash registers. The familiar check-out clerks are bundled in sweaters to shield themselves from the steady bombardment of biting blasts from the February night. As we begin our counter-clockwise expedition through the historic grocery emporium. Jane Parker welcomes us warmly in the pre-packaged baked goods area. Last week we consumed a dozen of Jane Parker’s glazed, raised donuts. This week Daisy Jean has her eye on a cheese or apple Danish to accompany morning coffee. Braun’s bread, from a legendary Pittsburgh bakery, was available at our A&P. Daisy Jean selected white bread some weeks, but regularly alternated with Braun’s cracked wheat, whole wheat, or Old Settler rye. Tonight she is opting for cracked wheat. Nippy and I are fine with any of those bread selections.
A few steps more and the Regalo Produce logo looms overhead. We check over the cellophane-wrapped iceberg lettuce, the only lettuce choice I can recall in A&P days. Daisy Jean grumbles about the price going up again and it is hard to find a head that is free from coppery brown streaks. I dive into the bin, inspecting the heads—juggling them like bowling balls— eager to find one that will pass my mother’s inspection. (Daisy Jean loved to remind me that she had worked as an inspector on the bombshell line at the J&L tin mill in McKeesport during WWII. She still relished her inspector’s role as a proud homemaker.) How uncomplicated it was in those days to buy salad and other produce. No decisions to make about what to buy organic and what to buy conventional, or having to constantly read the fine print to see if the tomatoes originated in USA or Mexico.
We always picked up a white onion, a leathery, pimpled cucumber, and a bag of red radishes for next week’s salads. Now we see the counter with the three-packs of pink, pithy hothouse tomatoes that seem to be the only choice in the bleak winter months. You could cut one of those tomatoes into six segments and barely see a drop of juice on the paring knife. With no juice, there was no flavor either. Daisy Jean will not be deterred. Plop goes the pack of tasteless tomatoes into our buggy. We must have tomatoes.
Nippy rejoins us now, having returned from his scouting mission to the meat department. He was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Maybe I can talk him into a bag of chestnuts, which he enjoys roasting on Sunday nights in the winter months. Alas, none are available tonight. Good thing we bought some around Christmas time. We look over the palettes piled high with Idaho and Maine potatoes; I wait for Daisy Jean’s direction on whether to pick up a five-pound or a 10-pound bag. We usually selected the Maine potatoes; Daisy Jean thought they were more versatile—suitable for mashing, boiling, frying, or baking.
The first section we come to along the back of the store is for the processed meats like bacon, ham, and sausage. If the Allgood store brand bacon passes the lean test, it will land in our buggy; if not, maybe Sugardale. In this area I am scouting for blocks of packaged cornmeal mush. If they have it this week, I beg and cajole to drop a block in our cart, even though it is not on Daisy Jean’s meticulously prepared shopping list. Unless the budget was extremely tight, I was usually allowed a few of these not-on-the-list items. Fried golden brown mush with a couple slices of bacon was a welcome treat from the regimen of cold cereal or hot cereals like Mother’s Oats and Cream of Wheat.
The A&P in those days was stocked with their proprietary Super Right meats. You could depend on the quality of the brand and the attentive service of the A&P meat cutters, draped in their long, blood-smudged white coats, in the meat-cutting and packaging area behind the mirrored, swinging doors. Because last Sunday’s dinner featured baked chicken, Nippy and I have been sizing up the roast beef selections today. I love the look and feel of the plump, cord-tied rump roasts I hoist out of the bin. Nippy has found a nice three-and-a-half pound sirloin tip roast with just enough marbling. On Sunday Daisy Jean will be roasting it in the oven with potatoes, carrots, onion, and celery. I’ll look forward to helping to mash those Maine potatoes we picked up a few minutes ago. Daisy Jean taught me how to add just the right amount of milk, butter, and salt and pepper before I pulverized those spuds silly with a hand smasher. No lumps in our house, please.
Before we can begin snaking up and down the interior aisles for canned goods, dried goods, and other supplies, Daisy Jean brings our caravan to a halt by the frozen seafood bin along the spacious back promenade. She is mulling over the fish options—Cap’n John’s frozen haddock, flounder, or sole filets—for our meatless Friday dinners. I remember the waxy, paper-wrapped boxes with trademark image of Cap’n John through the portal—the Captain in hooded raincoat on a fishing boat in the Atlantic, bearded and grinning with a twinkle in his eye and corncob pipe cocked in his mouth. Oh my, this reminds me of my main reason for tagging along tonight. The newest volume of the United States geographic encyclopedias—the New England States—issued each month of this year as an A&P promotion, is now available. I abandon my buggy duty for a few minutes and race to the front of the store to make certain New England has not sold out. I bring a boxed copy back to our cart and nestle it into a corner where it should be safe from bloody meat or produce drippings . . .
Geography was among my favorite subjects in the elementary grades, and something magical happened when I turned those pages of the geographic encyclopedias of the United States. The maritime scenes from the New England coast made that volume my favorite except for the Middle Atlantic States’ volume. Musing over the photos of the ridge and valley region of our Pennsylvania plateaus, I came to realize the unique beauty of my home state. The deep gorges—their faces sculpted by the mighty hand of God’s glaciers under a setting late winter sun that paints the layered rock hues of dusky rose and royal purple—can be found nowhere else . . .
Frozen vegetables were introduced in those days—late 50’s and early 60’s—but canned goods were predominant in our grocery buggy until a greater variety of frozen options were available by the mid-60’s, my high school days. Daisy Jean preferred the Del Monte stewed tomatoes, but might opt for the black-labeled Iona brand canned peas and those dreaded “wax beans” that she tortured me with. The only way I could tolerate those waxy, yellow beans was when she creamed them in a buttery white sauce. Iona, with the regal black label, was one of those classic, proprietary A&P brands.
Ann Page reigned supreme in the dry goods aisle. All of Daisy Jean’s spices poured from small white tins labeled with the red-lettered moniker “Ann Page.” I help my mom find a new tin of Ann’s ground pepper for Sunday’s beef roast. I recall an image of Ann Page on some of the packaged items—a proud, Father-Knows-Best-archetypical housewife in shirtwaist dress, high heels, crowned with a sandy-haired pageboy. Ann Page was more than an A&P brand name; she was an icon for serious homemakers—like my Daisy Jean—to emulate.
We stroll down the aisle past the Carnation or White House brand evaporated milk that my mother used in her Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. At Daisy Jean’s request I heave-ho a small can of Dexo shortening from the shelf. I don’t remember olive oil in those days. When corn oil became fashionable, a glass bottle of Mazola replaced the Dexo shortening. Now we’re looking over the brand name peanut butter, along with A&P’s Sultana version. Daisy Jean loves the creamy smooth variety; I prefer crunchy style. But with my coveted encyclopedia secured in the buggy, I won’t press my luck. I’ll save the crunchy vs. creamy battle for another day.
While we’re on the subject of crunchy vs. creamy, I never embraced Daisy Jean’s fondness for cheese spreads out of a jar, especially Cheese Whiz. It was way too processed and artificial for me even then. My mother loved the versatility of the product—tasty on crackers (for her) and a handy ingredient for recipes. On a recent visit to my Aunt Donna (Nippy’s youngest sister and last remaining survivor of that generation of my family), she mentioned how much she loves Cheese Whiz with ketchup on morning toast some fifty-five years later. I saw visions of that pregnant, neon-orange jar with the screaming-red ‘Cheez Whiz’ letters. I held my tongue.
I was fortunate to have a mother who never passed up the candy aisle. The large cut glass candy dish on her coffee table was rarely empty. Tonight she mentions that we haven’t had chocolate stars for a while. Her suggestion passes by unanimous vote, and I dutifully place a bag of Worthmore chocolate stars in the buggy.
After laundry products have been secured on the bottom rack of our cart, we find ourselves at the opposite side of the store from where we had started. In the dairy case of that day, Otto milk and cottage cheese were staples. Though Nippy worked for Menzie Dairy from 1958-1966, Menzie milk was only available at neighborhood markets and for home delivery. When we needed milk during the week, I hiked to Strauss’s Superette or Finkel’s for a carton of Menzie. When we needed milk on Fridays, Otto was the choice.
By this time, I am a goofy pest, asking Daisy Jean if she wants large “turd” or small “turd” cottage cheese. Annoyed with me now, she rivets me with that look and then redirects her attention to crossing out items purchased on her shopping list as she grits her dentures. By the way, she likes small curd because it is creamier.
Before long I am inspecting the most exotic hunks of cheese I can find. How I love to put the limburger to my nostrils and smell the locker-room stink. Then I hand it over to Nippy, who crinkles his ruddy face in amused disgust.
The last stop before checkout will be at the legendary A&P coffee counter. Nippy has already checked to see if Margie is working tonight. She is. Margie was a longtime friend of Nippy’s second sister, Johanna, who was always ‘Aunt Jo’ to me. Margie works part-time at the A&P to supplement her husband’s income. She and Norman have five girls, and they live near the Youghiogheny River in Buena Vista. I grab a red bag of Eight O’Clock Coffee and hand it to Margie, who grinds it for my mother’s stove top percolator. I watch Margie open the shiny red bag and pour the varnished beans down the stainless steel funnel atop the boxy red grinding machine with the big chrome wheel on the side. The grinding whir cannot drown out the intoxicating aroma of the magic beans from the spicy earth of faraway, exotic climes.
Eight O’Clock in the red bag is A&P’s famous medium roast; Red Circle in the yellow bag the mild; and Bokar in the black bag is the dark roast. Daisy Jean and Nippy drank coffee for breakfast and supper. I did not drink coffee until high school days, then mostly at breakfast. It was milk for me otherwise. My mother wanted to make sure that her son developed strong bones to avoid the calcium deficiency that had plagued her childhood years when she lived, until the age of 11, with a passive father and neglectful, abusive stepmother.
I hear echoes of the Friday night banter between Margie and my parents, usually bemoaning the plight of “working people”. Margie chirps first, “The working people have no life,” to which Daisy Jean is quick to add a second, as though Margie has offered a vote-worthy motion under Roberts Rules of Order. There is an air of resignation, almost comfort to their familiar utterances on behalf of the plight of “working people.” I think they are happy in their misery. I just take it all in for another day.
Bidding a reluctant farewell to Margie, we head for checkout as it is 8:50 p.m. and the announcement lady has been reminding shoppers to procure their last items before store closing at 9 p.m. I have more fun now, placing items on the moving belt to see if I can stack our wares fast enough to avoid gaps. Daisy Jean will be happy if the order totals somewhere in the range of $25—$28. Any total above that will result in a Daisy Jean head-turn and eye-roll toward Nippy to express her exasperation that we are over budget. Then when she examines the loot to determine why we are over budget, and what might be done about it, I hope to God she will not think of that block of corn meal mush or my picture encyclopedia of New England. Phew!!! Both make the cut tonight. What a woman!
From what I have recently researched, I have learned that the A&P had already begun a gradual decline in the 1950’s and 60’s. A failure to enlarge and update their stores to compete with newer supermarket chains led to the demise of the most iconic American supermarket chain of the 20th century. Indeed, by the mid and late 60’s my mom and dad were shopping some Friday nights at other chains like Loblaw’s or Foodland. In my high school years I can even remember a few trips to an upstart chain in White Oak called Giant Eagle. Following a series of consolidations and store closings to reorganize the corporation, and a reckless selling off of their proprietary brands, the A&P of my youth vaporized—along with the spirits of Ann Page, Jane Parker, Margie, Nippy, and Daisy Jean—into the dusty ages . . .