Revisiting the issue of food and class…a visit to Trader Joe’s

Living in Maine is an experience, Maine is a rural state but at the same time it’s a place with class. It’s a place where the pace of life is definitely slow but at the same time due to its natural beauty and relative closeness to places like Boston and New York City, there are tons of transplants here. While this is a rural state it’s rural with a cosmopolitan feel especially in our largest city, Portland. We have a growing well respected foodie scene, shit even the New York Times says we have some of the best bagels here. (This place is fucking amazing).

That said, Maine is slow to catch on as far as the big national trends and places…hell, we don’t even have billboards in this state. When I first landed here almost 8 years ago, you could count the number of Starbucks on one hand and it would not have been full. The first year I was in serious coffee withdrawals since the closest Starbucks meant heading to the next county over. Thankfully after a year here, Starbucks opened in my town…the upside of living in a tourist destination, the tourists like decent coffee. (Sorry New Englanders, where I come from Dunkin Donuts is what you drink at 3 am when you are drunk as a skunk and need to start the sobering up process).

Other national places that were slow to arrive here include Whole Foods, hell that took several years to arrive. Those of us from away were jonesing like crack addicts waiting for the next fix and let me tell you it was a big deal when Whole Foods landed in our fair state. But nothing and I say nothing could have prepared me for TJ madness…that’s Trader Joe’s in case you don’t know.

Now Trader Joe’s is a place I had only been in once before on some trip many years ago, hell the Spousal Unit is a California boy and he had been to them but clearly in the time since we lived in close proximity to one, their legend had grown. I have had buddies in Maine tell me how they drive monthly two states over to go to Trader Joe’s. I admit I am lazy; the idea of traveling like that to spend my money leaves me scratching my head. To each his own though, in my early years in Maine I trekked monthly to Boston just to get my hair done, so who am I to talk shit?

In recent years there had been all kinds of talk about bringing Trader Joe’s to Maine and it finally happened. They officially opened a few weeks ago; a colleague from grad school actually got up to stand in line at 6 am to shop there on opening day. Um….nothing short of a sick child or a flight will get me up that early. I admit the energy over Trader Joe’s was contagious, the way folks talked about their beloved Two Buck Chuck, the treats, oh my…shit I was expecting a magical experience.

Well today the Spousal Unit and I decided to have an early date while the kidlet was in school and hit up some of the new Maine chain places. First stop Cracker Barrel…that was ummmm interesting. Breakfast didn’t quite rock my world though the hash brown casserole was intriguing, though I admit I will go back, they serve catfish and I do love me some catfish. Enough about the Cracker Barrel though, on to TJ’s.

So we arrive in the parking lot of the Portland Trader Joe’s and it was real clear that just the act of parking the car was going to take some time, thankfully after a couple times circling around a space opened up. First thing I notice people are flying in the doors as if they ate a McRib and their bowels were about to open up, but I think they were just excited to go in. I admit for a moment it felt exciting. I grabbed my cart and away we went, I won’t bore you with the details but I did drop $100 on items that I am not sure I would have normally have bought, after all will I really eat those dark chocolate mints?

What I was struck by though was how much TJ’s reminded me of Aldi, the no frills grocery store where folks who tend to be short on cash shop. It’s my understanding that the two stores have some type of connection though it’s not entirely clearly but what I was struck by is that just like Aldi caters to low income folks allowing them to splurge on cheap faux peanut butter cookies, canned ravioli and pizza rolls. Trader Joe’s caters to the well heeled who like to eat hummus and pita and kick back with a cheap wine but not too cheap. Once the wine can be opened with a cap its officially low class.

I have talked here before how much our food choices are tied to where we sit on the class ladder. I will openly admit that once a year I like to kick back with a glass of grape kool-aid and a fried bologna sammich on Wonder Bread, it’s the comfort food of my youth. Truth is in the past decade or so since I officially moved up the class ladder leaving my working class roots behind by virtue of my education, I have worked hard to change my palate. If left to my own devices I will eat the shit out of fried whatever, smothered in gravy with a side of bread product with a limp green vegetable on the side.

The thing is I know now that such foods are bad for me so guess what? I rarely eat them, they are now officially treats. I literally have willed myself into liking sushi, there are times I ask myself is this really good? Yet as I have shared here before it was in graduate school where I learned to eat it since not eating it made me stand out even more, besides I like spice, with enough wasabi my mouth is on fire so it glides down the old shoot.

Yet it’s funny where food is as much about comfort as nutrition certain food choices are seen as less than and the eater seen as less enlightened yet if you are high enough on the class ladder your junk food is seen as better. Take Cheetos versus the Pirate Booty that the well heeled feed their progeny. Truth is I will takle a damn Cheetos or Cheez Doodle any day over Pirates Booty, yet now that I no longer am a card carrying member of the working class, I feed my kid Pirate Booty. I admit I fear being judged over this stuff, though occasionally we share some of Mommy’s off limits Cheetos.

I must admit I often like looking in people’s carts at grocery stores and today’s maiden voyage into Trader Joe’s was no exception. I found myself thinking that most of the patrons myself included had quite a bit of processed food items in their carts yet unlike many there I have no problem buying the occasional junk food from a regular grocery store. In most stores when I see someone with processed food items I figure they either have no time or talent for cooking, but what I was struck by today was that most of these same people with carts piled high (and I saw a few folks I know personally) would never be caught in say Wally World buying some off brand frozen burritos yet in the right and oh proper setting, buying such things are a sign of how hip you are.

Take the famous Two Buck Chuck wine; while I am not a wine snob, I am not big on California wines so after reading the label I took a pass though the Spousal Unit grabbed a bottle for himself. Yet I found myself wondering how many of these same folks grabbing up bottles of Two Buck Chuck would be caught dead with some Julio and Earnest Gallo? Not many I bet.

So like most things in America it all comes down to class, even our taste in junk food is segregated, while I didn’t see any good ole fashioned bologna at Trader Joe’s I did see plenty of deli meat that would definitely be higher up on the class ladder.

As for me, while it was great to check it out and I admit tonight’s Mandarin Orange Chicken was tasty as hell, not sure TJ’s will be a weekly stop though it might be nice for the occasional treat. I will continue to eat much like I live wedged between my working class by birth roots and dangling in the middle class, quite an interesting place to be.

11 thoughts on “Revisiting the issue of food and class…a visit to Trader Joe’s”

  1. I finally took my first trek to Trader Joe’s since living for a time on the west coast, and I must say that I appreciate it’s accessibility. So many of our resources have been from places that try to gentrify our community while appealing to our obligation to healthy living. But I also feel confused by the first paragraphs: we have so many coffee shops in Maine, besides Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. Because of this abundance of independent coffee houses, most of us natives protested the arrival of Starbucks to such an extent it was the subject of jokes on late-night talk shows. And long before Whole Foods and Wild Oats, there was The Whole Grocer, The Greengrocer, The Public Market, and a natural food co-op in almost every county.

  2. Shay, I LOVE Trader Joe’s and purchase most of my groceries there (except for some vegetables and fruits). But you have to shop wisely there, otherwise you will end up with a cart of processed, junk food. TJ’s sells as much junk food as the next store (it’s just dubbed “upscale”). I stick to their cheeses, olive oil, salamis and other dried meats, breads, fresh whole chicken, rice pork chops, and their nuts. They have a great nut selection. Also, I buy my toothpaste there (Tom’s) as it’s considerably cheaper than the one sold at Whole Foods.

    I used to indulge in their mandarin chicken a lot, but not anymore. It’s processed chicken (but, oh so good!). Have you seen how chicken nuggets are made? Eeew.

    They came out with a new, more “upscale” wine: the Rutherford Meritage! Mmmm… I LOVE IT! It’s $10. I could no longer endure the post two-buck chuck headache.

  3. I’m with Chi-Chi on this. I prefer to put by all my veggies over the summer from the local/backyard farm, but for those pantry staples like nuts and nacho-flax seed chips, and great yogurts, TJ’s is a great alternative. I can’t see myself buying a lot of veggies there, however. I refuse to shop Whole Foods. As you know, my dh makes most of our wine.

    You mentioned billboards. Maine is without billboards by choice and banned them in 197. It was a decision reflecting Maine’s wish to preserve our beauty and scenery, so it’s not that Maine is a backwards state that just hasn’t caught on to the trends yet.

  4. I was in Portland today and I went to TJ. Everyone was just friendly there. My cashier was awesome. Some people were a little crunchy looking like they should be playing a guitar around a camp fire but it was all good. I love hippies. And they were way more friendly that Whole Foods crew. And it’s cheaper than WF and for me the shopping environment is less hectic. There’s just too much going on WF, reminds me of Wal-Mart. lol

  5. Yes, you can go into TJ’s and buy a whole bunch of processed foods but for me, TJ’s represents a way to feed my family better quality food without busting the bank. I can buy their sprouted wheat breads for about 20 cents cheaper, the nuts are cheaper, I can get some organic produce like carrots, celery and green peppers, salmon (canned and frozen), tuna, soy sauce, organic yogurt, organic blueberries and strawberries . . . if I had to buy all that at WF (like I was) my grocery budget would not be enough. So I love TJs, yes ma’am. I suspect that after the initial trip, you’ll find TJ’s a great resource.

  6. I am so there with you! I do have to say that TJ’s does have alot of great choices and good prices. However, the snobbery around ‘healthy eating’ is the ultimate class disassociation. The average working class family can’t afford to eat healthy and keep their kids full, and kids DO enjoy the feeling of being full!! I spend the majority of my time in Boulder, CO, which I would say is in the Top Ten of lifestyle snob cities! Can’t even imagine them with a TJs..LOL

  7. I will bet that you will be shopping there more often when you realize how much cheaper it is for many of the staple things that we (at least me) use in everyday cooking and eating such as cheeses and nuts. I have to drive 35 miles to the nearest one and am glad that it isn’t twice that far because I would still do it. One thing I notice above all is the staff is friendly and helpful. Now in Maine you might find that everywhere but not around here.

  8. I think about this a lot actually. Definitely guilty of peeking into other shoppers’ carts! But my bias isn’t by “classy” foods- it’s by healthy food. If I see white bread, red drink, a family sized Cheetos bag, and 2 weeks worth of Kraft singles, I immediately assume you are to overweight and will be dead by age 40 of clogged arteries. Then I usually flounce away with my cart full of fresh fruit, veggies, green tea, and tofu. Is there such a thing as a shopping snob?

  9. tj’s is owned by alids, like one brother owns aldis and the other tj’s. i did a lot of research to see if it was secretely evil, and i didn’t find anything too bad.

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