There he was piling bags of carrots into the lighted bin, a man who could help me find it. He might have piled carrots for fifty years. Or maybe he started at retirement after a job as a textbook salesman. No, he couldn’t have been a salesman with those teeth.
It strikes me now how serviceable carrots are, how tossable, not easily harmed when stacked and laden with one another.
He stared at me at close range, mouth open, crooked teeth leaning like uncomprehending children. “Mango?”
“Oh!” and off he trotted in conversation with the air as I followed. The basil was far from the carrots, and I needed it though it was February. I have grown accustomed to having the food I want when I want it, and the week’s paralyzing wind made me want a panzanella salad with fontina, chunks of day-old cornbread, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and basil because all the comments at Giada’s online recipe for it said it was fabulous. I had googled “recipes with leftover cornbread." Since the first of the year I have been more diligent about using up what is in the fridge. I am conscious that women used to know ways in their heads to use up leftovers, but never mind.
The store itself is like this man racing away in front of me, soft at the edges from age, though he was leaner. The store’s passageways are barely wide enough to get a cart through, and even sturdy shelves seem to sag under mountains of onions, potatoes, oranges, peppers of many varieties for local Latinos and Latinas who know how to cook from their grandmothers. I begin to see that he is lean because he dashes off to another part of the store when called upon, rather than point and direct. Like my father, he walk-runs, and like my father, he loves to help.
He rifles through thin plastic boxes of salad greens and finds a large-ish one of basil, more than I will be able to use before it goes bad I think to myself. It costs $3.89, which seems a lot to me, I say, and I realize that I have said it to him because he is suddenly my father who shopped at this store for bargains for twenty or thirty years. Two months ago I would not have blinked at spending $3.89 for basil, but now that I have resolved to take more care with money and food, this seems too much out of the $20 I have allotted in my purse for this shopping trip.
After my mother’s hand operation my father took over cooking and shopping. He never went to fewer than three stores, and he never walked the aisles; he walk-ran, a man with a purpose. At this store, he came for boxes of slightly bruised fruits and vegetables that no one else noticed lined up on the floor tucked under the good produce shelves, or whole boxes of canned beans on sale four for a dollar. Our refrigerator perpetually smelled of rotting apples because he bought them past their prime, the whole box costing a couple of bucks. So yes, a large-ish plastic container of basil for $3.89 was a lot, and the man who was like my father agreed. But I tossed it into my cart all the same. I needed the panzanella salad, and I needed to use up the leftover cornbread.
As we started to walk away suddenly a look of discovery crossed his face. He remembered a stash of something else. “Thai basil” he said crisply with one finger raised, and he walked me over to the display where herbs were hunched loosely and unpackaged. He proffered a bunch of wilted green leaves with red stems toward my face a little apologetically, and I buried my nose, smelling the strength of it. “There is almost an anise smell,” I suggested. He said, “If you use this in your recipe, use maybe half of what it calls for. It’s strong, pungent stuff. And this one is what,” as he looked at the sign, “$1.69.” We smiled conspiratorially, and he left for his carrot piling while I went to put the $3.89 basil back with the stacked lettuce greens.
Satisfied with myself and the wilted Thai basil as if I were my father’s daughter I shimmied through stacks of spices and sauces, looking for peppercorns, all of which were at least $5. Then I pushed my cart through the automatic door into the dairy refrigerator as big as a semi-truck and picked up the smallest carton of half-and-half for my husband's coffee. Back out toward check-out and there was my father-man speaking something to someone and I realized it was to me. “Guess what just came in the truck!”
Of course the cart and I followed him back turning this way and that around corners to produce where a Latino man was unpacking a box of pristine basil in plastic. “They still have their roots, and look they’re grown right here in Michigan.” I could smell it before I held it by the wet roots. “Spring,” I said. “It’s like planting time.” The leaves were supple and curved, the color of new grass. The price: $2.89. “A little bit more than the Thai,” he said, “but this will last a long time because of the roots” with a fatherly look implying that of the three, this was the bargain.