Snacktastic

Grocer-with-a-cult-following Trader Joe's will make half your dreams come true

I spent the next few days dabbling in similar catering-company type foods, engineered from things I bought at TJ, like smoked salmon (many, many prices) with capers ($2.49 for almost half a pound), Moroccan spiced olives (59 cents for a little two-and-a-half-ounce packet) and enjoying extremely thin-crust, low-calorie (because they're extremely thin) frozen pizzas ($3.99 or so) which heated up brilliantly in my zillion-dollar oven. (Yeah, I'm one of those.) I balanced out my high-salt snacks with lots of super-dark, bargain, high-end chocolate. (Valrhona African 85 percent cocoa-mass Le Noir Extra Amer, for $2.69! ScharffenBerger bars for $1.99!)

I tried the one shade-grown organic coffee I found, Dark French roast ($7.99 for 13 ounces), and found it flaccid and awful. I kept going. Microwavable single-meal rice bowls of Chicken Vindaloo and Thai Massaman curry (300 and 390 calories, respectively, costing $2.49 and $2.29). I decided there were things I loved, like the sweet-and-spicy pecans ($3.99 for five ounces), which are whole nuts crusted simply with a bit of sugar and spice. There were things I hated: A $5.99 bottle of unfiltered olive oil was acrid, aged, and awful. That was to be expected.

But there was also a mystery: Why had I intended to purchase items for dinner, and returned with only snack foods?

Bill Kelley

I returned to Trader Joe's for a second visit, resolved to take it in with a calmer eye. I learned that the reason I hadn't gotten any vegetables or fruits on my first visit was because they looked terrible. The artichokes were yellowing, each of the four varieties of broccoli (organic, conventional, baby, rabe) was either flopsy with dehydration or yellowing. There was only one kind of organic apple on offer, and, even though I knew better, as it's spring and the apple was from Washington, I bought it. Yes, it was mealy.

There were no organic mushrooms, or organic greens such as collards, kale, or mustard greens. As a local organic produce person, I've gotten very used to an abundance of fresh, crisp local greens. As far as an average shopper could tell, by reading labels and such, Trader Joe's didn't seem to have a single locally grown herb or vegetable. Or even a single one grown in the upper Midwest. The scallions looked just like the ones from my local co-op—after I leave them in the crisper drawer for a month. The meat, seafood, and poultry area is a teensy area of the store, smaller than the soda-case area of the average SuperAmerica, and the precut meat in its plastic wrap is highly unappealing, conventionally priced, and quite limited. If you had a particular recipe in mind there's very, very little chance you'd find what you wanted.

Worse, the milk and egg area is also quite small, and full of signs bearing what I consider to be dubious language. For example, what exactly are "cage-free" eggs? Do the hens go outside into pasture, or are they merely confined in an electric-lit metal barn with a grate on the floor? What are they fed? Vegetarian feed and no antibiotics, or conventional feed, which can include things like processed chicken feathers, and plenty of hormones and antibiotics? I looked at the Trader Joe's website and its "Note About Eggs," and found little to clarify the issue.

Soon I found that the local Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.org ), an advocacy group for family farmers, has raised serious questions about Trader Joe's brand organic milk, as it seems to come from farms that appear to skirt the spirit of the organics standards, by doing things like providing their cows with "dry lots" instead of healthy, living pasture. I get a kind of sick feeling in my stomach when I think about things like this. I personally won't be shopping in TJ's egg and dairy areas.

I also tried three loaves of the house TJ bread, a French baguette ($1.79), an Italian loaf ($1.99), and the organic soft white bread ($2.79), and found them all to be fairly dry and characterless, about on par with the house breads at Cub or Rainbow.

Ironically, a few months ago I spoke with a representative from the American Heart Association, who told me that the main message they were trying to get across to Americans was to eat from the periphery of the grocery store, from the fresh produce, fresh dairy, and fresh breads that usually form the outside aisles, and to avoid the processed foods in the inner section of the store. My advice for Trader Joe's shoppers is just the opposite: Skip the periphery and stick to the center, where there are processed foods and lots of wonderful pantry-stuffers. Such as those sweet-and-spicy pecans, which I'm nuts for. (Ba-dum-sha! I'm at the airport Hilton all week, folks!)

Okay, on to what you really care about: What about that Three-Buck Chuck? I tried each of the varietals Trader Joe's was offering on my visit: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, all priced at $2.99. I was quite impressed. Well, the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon was awful, with a sort of asphalt-oak aftertaste, but the other wines were all good. My favorite red was the Charles Shaw 2005 Shiraz; it had rich, plummy, ripe fruit-punch aspects, with lots of forthright nice, round grapey qualities, making it a great summer barbecue and pizza pick. (2005 was the biggest California harvest ever, though, and I've read of spectacular quality, so my advice is to try anything else you see in Three-Buck Chuck from that year.)

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