The boy with the intricate tattoo on his forearm rushed to the spices. He apologized, saying a coworker illness left him covering two sections.
The older white woman with the massive cat’s eye glasses, smiled and laughed at him, pushing the button on the machine that ground peanuts and almonds right there into homemade butter.
I stood with my list and looked at the world around me.
I’ve written about the luxury Mariano’s by the Metra tracks in Ravenswood before. I’ve written about the piano bar and the full pints of beer you can purchase when you’re dining in amid the produce aisles.
I put the place in local context, talking about food deserts a few miles south while here people wandered amid luxury. And I made people laugh. I swore a lot.
But I never wrote about this place for what it is on its own.
The homemade peanut-almond butter oozed into the plastic container like soft-serve ice cream, overflowing suddenly. The boy with the intricate tattoo lunged over the counter, indicating the woman should hand him the plastic jar.
“I’ll pay for all of it,” the woman said.
The boy just smiled and took the container, slapping the bottom over and over and over until the nut spread settled.
A commuter train shrieked by in the darkness outside.
The grocery store was mid-filled, not quite packed but a long way from empty. People milled and pushed carts and did grocery things, but others sat at the wine bar to listen to a pianist bundled up in winter wear play trickling songs on the ivories.
At the sushi bar, a woman quietly flipped through a magazine while waiting for sashimi. Other customers milled by the BBQ grill while excited teenagers and less-thrilled adults rushed about restocking the infinite rolling shelves and counters packed high with food.
On the muted overhead TV, a local chef shopped in full chef whites, mouthing what was presumably a lecture to an off-camera narrator about why he comes to Mariano’s for veggies, meat and brand-name Daisy Cutter beer.
There’s a certain blind spot observers of the world have, one where they don’t realize they’re part of the scene. That’s why I write in first person. The journalistic voice of God coming down from above to say this is this and that is that never seemed fair to me. I was there too, not as a narrator but as a guy who didn’t want to buy whole jars of the crazy spices I need for a recipe. I went to the place where a young guy with an intricate tattoo will scoop just what I need from the bulk jars. The $6 meal counter is nice too.
The others in this sprawling complex of food also had their reasons for being there. Some, I’m sure, just lived by there or popped in from the Metra station. Convenience over any particular desire to be there.
Some, I’m sure, were like me and had also come in for a particular thing, making their own wry mental notes about the glitz. My observer eye does not make me special.
Some came to eat alone at one of the various stations, a clean, well-lighted place to enjoy a meal where no one would look at them.
But I’m sure some came for the glitz. I’m not creating a fictive fancyman who pooh-poohs establishments where you can’t get a glass of cabernet amid the cabbages. The influence is more subtle.
Maybe a few shoppers revel in the fancy. Maybe more just saw it, liked it and when they had to buy their next round of groceries thought they might as well do it at the place that’s just a tad nicer.
Although we’re not the only culture afflicted with this crave, in America as we toddle toward 2016, food has become cultural capital. The spot where you buy your veggies and boxed pasta has become a way of trumpeting social standing, similar to a high-status car or a shirt with the expensive logo facing out.
We shop at Mariano’s to say we’re glitzy, at Eataly to say we’re rich, at Aldi to say we’re sensible, at Whole Foods to tell the world we’re a good, caring, health-conscious person. Even people who buy their stuff at the carniceria down the block, if they do it by choice and not by circumstance, will let the world know once in a while that they’re the type of person who supports local businesses.
Not every customer shops to be fancy. But enough that it became the chain’s business model.
They paid to produce a running loop of TV chefs shopping. They paid for a wine bar, for an in-house pianist. They invested in our desire to look at a massive showcase of food and be impressed, knowing that shopping there will make us feel just a tad more impressive too.
The chef on the muted TV was now grilling his Mariano’s meat on a brand-name The Big Green Egg grill. Both the Big Green Egg and the Daisy Cutter beer had their product names perfectly framed in shot at all moments.