Updated: May 4
By David Sherman
In BC (Before Corona) times, every night or two I’d take a walk in Provigo, Quebec’s Loblaws, also known as The Diabetes Shop.
There are no sidewalks where I live and the road is paved with asphalt and a layer of crusty, corrugated ice and snow, good for the heart, but torture on rusted-out knees and back. I asked the city to install an anti-inflammatory dispenser at the end of the street, but no luck.
So, I warmed my cozy 20-year-old Chevy and drove the 11 kms down the 364 to Provigo and parked and walked. The aisles are wide and long, perfect for a long march and glomming the Canadian diet. Art-school grad-designed boxes, cans, bags under gorgeous halogen light, glimmering, shimmering, beckoning as I double timed it and marvelled: if one was to carve off the butcher counter, the produce and the dairy sections, where’s the food?
They used to have a health-food department but someone with a BA in marketing at corporate HQ must’ve decided if we have a few aisles of “Health Food,” what does that say about the other 20 aisles? Now they call it Natural Foods. One can only conclude the rest of the place is unnatural and should be unspeakable.
What first greets shoppers is a glistening selection of cupcakes and layer cakes in every colour of the food-dye shop. I tasted one once and survived and went on to sample the Lebanese pastry with a best-before date four months in the future. That didn’t kill me either, though time will tell.
My amped-up strolls progressed past the produce – yes, food, albeit overpriced – around the ersatz cakes, donuts, pastries in plastic clam shells, lists of ingredients wrapped around the packaging from top to bottom. Tempted but unbowed, I’d pick up my pace past shampoo and diapers, around the sparkling red cuts of meat, pasty chickens on sale two-for-$12, pasty chicken parts on Styrofoam trays and rows of rubbery home-grown pork chops. I knew better. You can spice the skin and the outer layer, you can brine, marinate, slow cook, pan fry, sear, boil or stew. But spiced paste is spiced paste.
I had a light sweat going by then and I’d continue up and down rows of canned everything and boxes of pasta and bags of potato and vegetable chips in every design, colour, size and flavour. I was breathing faster by the time I hit the B-ball court-sized sea of palettes of beer and soft-drink cases and, zipped around the corner, arms swinging, through the dairy section of rubber cheese made of “modified milk ingredients” meaning, whatever it is, it ain’t milk.
Then came the clean glass doors of freezer cases in your face with pizza and ice cream and “frozen dairy dessert,” masquerading as ice cream, which means a scoop of modified milk ingredients, sugar, fructose, glucose, palm, soy and crank case oils, as well as an impressive mixture of guar and other gums and rubber and gooey stuff and things too difficult to pronounce or spell, injected with air to increase volume, enhanced with artificial colours an flavours.
And, if my brain stopped to absorb the quality and price, it all lead to my mind boggling, my wallet twitching and my lips forming those familiar words, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Provigo has long, flat, dry floors, by my measure, more than a kilometre of them, and dazed shoppers to dodge, their carts parked in mid-stream, staring stunned at shelves of loaves of white bread light as air, jugs of sugar water claiming to be lemonade or ice tea or fruit juice, Hamburger Helper and mac and cheese in a box. Cheese in a box on a shelf that’ll last longer than my Chevy. This is the age of miracles. I was not tempted by pocket-sized packs of Kool-Aid drops, mostly water and concentrated sugar-like substances, though the imagination soared on discovering a jar of Clamato Rimmer. A novel way perhaps of spicing up one’s sex life, but shouldn’t that be beside the condoms, lubricants and vibrator assortment?
But I kept on keeping on because those BC nightly excursions were not only about stretching the legs, getting the heart rate up, trying to stay alive by moving through mountains of so-called food lab-designed to light up all my senses, dull my common sense and drain my pancreas. How long before they offer a dialysis unit and an insulin bar? I was also reconnoitering.
I also avoid toilet paper, paper towels, sausage, frozen breaded anything, energy bars, cereals, and pancake mixes. Partly because one needs a computer to figure out the cost per unit of the 100-foot-long permutations of paper products, but mostly because they all contain cellulose. Google describes cellulose as an indigestible plant fibre used in manufacture of fabric and paper. After all, if peckish enough, I can always take a wad of toilet tissue, dip it in egg and milk, salt, pepper, sugar and breadcrumbs, drop it in hot oil and achieve a similar result.
On a good night, I did two or three circuits of the store, stretching the hamstrings, hunting for so-called loss leaders. One night, the tuna that is usually $2.29 or $2.49, depending on some unknown algorithm they use to compute pricing, is a buck a can. Blood oranges, “on sale” the night before for $2.99, are “on sale” again this night but for $4.99. “On sale” appears to be a euphemism for “We’re messing with your head.”
The Italian pasta, which actually contains fibre, on sale for $1 a box rather than $2. would make my shopping list. The canned tomatoes for $2.49 were ignored. Just a matter of time when they’d be going for $1. The MSG-free chicken stock, curiously made from chicken stock, used to go for 99 cents was suddenly $2.49. I’d wait for the inevitable next sale.
In this cat-and-mouse game, I am the mouse and they have the cheese and the traps, but I persevere. I know when a product is embellished with a “Wow!” card, it’s market speak for, “We’re going to shaft you.”
There was a “Wow!” next to the half watermelons going for $4.99. There was no “Wow!” next to the whole watermelons going for the same $4.99. And I know they know they’ve duped me into buying the whole watermelon. I’ll eat half and let the other half turn to compost in the back of the fridge.
I know, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But, in the days before toilet paper and Lysol locusts cleared the shelves, at least I got some exercise getting jobbed.