Posted by Cassondra Murray Nov 19 2012, 10:57 am in Book series, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Holidays, Small town settings, small towns
Y’all know, by now, that I am a country girl.
Okay, yes, I am a coffin-sleeping, full-moon-worshiping, black-wardrobe-wearing, goth-Bandita country girl. But still, y’all know that I love the country.
When Steve and I got married, we moved to the country as soon as we could. But I find myself a little spoiled by the present day, when even out here in the country, I’m not too far from what I want or need. I usually end up going to town once a day to pick up something.
When I was a little girl, that was not so. We lived on a farm, and my mom shopped at the Houchens grocery story in “town.”
“Town” was eight miles to the north. Eight miles was a significant drive back then. Even though my mom worked at a factory on the edge of that same town, she drove to work, and she drove home after work. No stops at a store on the weekdays. It just wasn’t done.
“Town” was a special trip.
We made the drive to town once a week, on Saturday, to wash clothes at the Wishy Washy, and to shop for groceries at Houchens. Sometimes we’d stop on the square at the Ben Franklin, and just every now and then, we’d go to the diner for a burger. But that was a rare treat. The only other reason we went to town, was church on Sunday, or prayer meetin’ on Wednesday night.
Things have changed.
These days, the farmers around here drive into town every day for one thing or another, even just for breakfast or coffee. Families have more than one car. If someone decides she wants to fix spaghetti that night, and she’s out of pasta, she drives the ten or fifteen miles to the store and back, and doesn’t think twice about it. That’s what I do, but when I was a little girl, that would NOT have happened. If you forgot something, you usually did without it for a few days, until the next trip to town.
So although I live further out now than I did then, the miles that separate me and the “town” seem far shorter now than they did when I was growing up.
When you live in Southern Kentucky, small towns punctuate the rural landscape the way ground black pepper spots good homemade mashed potatoes.
Just enough for what you need.
I’m happy to live in the country between two towns. One, to the north, is a big town. It has a university, two WalMarts, three Kroger locations (that’s the big grocery chain around here) and a mall. It also has a few liquor stores, which also sell wine, for which I am MOST grateful.
The other, to the south, is a small town. More like the one where I grew up. It has a town square. But it also has a WalMart, and just recently, a Lowe’s. It’s a dry county. No stores that sell alcohol.
But still, it has my favorite grocery store ever.
It has a Piggly Wiggly.
It’s small. The produce section is about the size of my kitchen table. It never has, and never will, stock fresh cilantro, fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, exotic mushrooms, or a spice like saffron, that costs a stupid amount of money per ounce. Because they don’t have room, and the people who shop there, generally, don’t buy that stuff. If they need that stuff, they shop at the WalMart, which has a huge (though not high quality) produce section, or if they want a higher quality ingredient, they drive to the big town 20 miles north, to shop at the Kroger.
I love Piggly Wiggly because it is everything a small town grocery should be.
It has all the stuff you absolutely need, and almost none of the stuff to fix a recipe from Food & Wine magazine. And for some reason I can’t entirely explain, I’m glad about that.
I subscribe to Food & Wine, for the record. But I know that if hard times came around again, I’d go back to my raisin’, and I’d eat just fine without those hoity toity ingredients. When I fix a Food & Wine recipe, the only thing I expect to get at the Piggly Wiggly, is the meat.
Because here on the upper edge of the buckle of the Bible Belt, nobody cuts meat nowadays. I asked, last summer, for the Kroger meat department to grind some sirloin for a new meatloaf recipe I wanted to make. They laughed at me.
“If corporate caught us grinding meat here, my ass would be grass,” the meat man said. I looked through the window behind him. There was an industrial-size meat grinder bolted to the stainless steel table back there.
“What’s that for?” I asked. He looked behind him, then back at me. “We don’t grind no meat here,” he said, and walked away.
At that point, I realized that as far as Kroger was concerned, I could eat what they packaged, or I could starve. And they didn’t care which option I chose.
At the small town Piggly Wiggly, they have a real, honest-to-goodness meat man. Okay, it might be a meat woman, but although I am a feminist at heart, “meat woman” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Ahem…
The meat man understands meat. He’s worked as a butcher of some sort for years. He knows the cuts. He knows their challenges. He can discuss my recipes and what I’m after, and can make suggestions on how to cook the different cuts if I have trouble. And if I want a two-inch steak, if he has the sirloin in the back, he’ll mess up his clean equipment to cut the steaks I want for the company I’ve invited that night. I am impressed that he is willing to do this for me.
At the Piggly Wiggly, young high school boys sack the groceries for me just as they did for my mom when I was a little girl. And they carry these groceries out to my car for me. I don’t know any grocery store anywhere that still does that. Those days are gone, same as having somebody around to pump your gas at the gas station. When I was a little girl, and my mom shopped at Houchens, they carried her groceries to her car. Now, only at the Piggly Wiggly.
The aisles are narrow at “The Pig”, and the entire store is smaller than the homes of some of my friends. The lights are fluorescent. The computer system at the checkout counter is…well..we’ll just call it retro.
But I go back there, week after week.
In part, I return for the people who work there. They say hello to me and I know they actually recognize me. I’m not just the next customer in line. If I’m absent for a few days, they say, “haven’t seen you in a while. ”
At Kroger, they know I’m there only because there is some computer entry, somewhere, in some corporate office, that says my Kroger Plus Card has been scanned. I can call the Piggly Wiggly, mid-afternoon, and ask them to cut four sirloin steaks, two-inches thick, so I can pick them up later, and they’ll do it. I don’t have to leave a credit card number. They cut the steaks, leave them in the fridge in the back, with my name on them, and I pick them up when I can get there that evening.
Once, many years ago, Piggly Wiggly was the “big” grocery in that small town. As big-box stores took over, and small-town squares turned into shells of their former communities, not many small grocery chains–or small anything else–survived.
There is a rumbling around here, that Kroger will put a store in that small town to the south. It would be a lot easier to shop there than driving to the big town to the north. But do you suppose they will actually be any different than the Kroger in the big town? The one where “you can eat what we prepackage or you can starve” is the bottom line?
I’m thinkin’ not.
I hope, even if the small town does get a Kroger, that the Piggly Wiggly survives.
I’m working on a series that is set partly in a huge city, and partly in small towns like the one where I shop. One of the things I’m using in the story is that contrast. The way a character deals with moving from the city to the small town, and how it changes her.
I love reading series that are set in small towns. It seems like the settings and characters stick with me, long-term, more powerfully than do most big city adventures. I think it’s easier to get attached to small town characters because those “character communities” that authors set up seem to fit in small towns more easily, and I love those communities.
I think some of what I get at the Piggly Wiggly is also what I get when I read a series set in a small town. Of all book series, those are the ones that I tend to finish–I get every book–and when the author moves on to another series, I still want more. I think it’s a connection to the people and the places in the books.
I was browsing the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly a few weeks ago, and came across a display of those thin children’s books like ones they used to sell in the Houchens when I was growing up. In the Houchens, I’d spend the whole time my mom was shopping, standing beside that circular, spinning rack, checking out those little books.
I was sad to see that Piggly Wiggly’s book rack was way up at the top of the magazine rack. Maybe to keep little fingers from tearing up the books when Mom isn’t looking. And maybe, because times have changed, it’s not safe for mom to leave the little reader alone to do her shopping. Bad people hang out in small towns too, after all.
Outside the Piggly Wiggly, there are boxes full of real estate magazines and the local “swap and trade” weekly. Beside those are some drink machines, a kiosk where you can trade your empty propane tank for a full one, and off to the side, there’s Thunder.
Thunder is a plastic horse, and if you pay your money, he’ll take you on the ride of your life. He’s a little faded from years of sitting there, waiting for the next rider, but even in 2012, you can still get a ride for a quarter.
Okay, confession time.
I didn’t know that this is Thanksgiving week.
I thought it was next week. I think of Thanksgiving as the 25th or 26th of November, usually. Which should be, according to my internal clock, NEXT week. Not this week.
I got home from West Virginia on Friday and I started cleaning up the house and yard. Then somebody reminded me, last night,that this Thursday is Thanksgiving. I panicked a little.
And I got in the car and went straight to the Piggly Wiggly. They had three fresh turkeys left.
So tell me Bandits and Buddies…
Do you live in a big town, or a small town?
What grocery stores do you have?
What is your favorite place to shop for groceries? Do they know you at “your” store?
Have the big box stores taken over where you are? Or do you still have small community groceries?
Do you live where there’s a butcher and a green grocer? I admit that I turn a little green, myself, with envy, when I think of food sold by a specialist, and the wider choices that might mean.
Or do you live in a place like I do, where you have to depend on whatever they have at the big grocery?
Does your grocery still have a little rack of those thin children’s picture books?