Sunday, October 15, 2006


I was shopping the other day and saw a new-to-me vegetable. It looked a lot like zucchini, with alternating dark and light green stripes, but it was much lighter than any zucchini I've ever seen. And the shape was different, plumper overall and with more of a bulge on one end.

I looked at the sign accompanying it, hoping for enlightenment.

Written in slightly crooked letters with a thick black marker was the word "squach."

Something told me that someone didn't really intend to put a "c" there, and that I wasn't actually learning anything about the precise variety of this item.

Being the former English major/editor that I am, I would normally experience something negative upon seeing such a misspelling in a public place. But in this case, I did not.

It has to do with context.

You see, less than five minutes from our house is a store called Mediterranean Grocery, and that's where I was shopping. Shopping at the Mediterranean Grocery is like stepping into another world, just for a moment.

On this particular day, I went in hoping to exit with gyros to take home for lunch. But when I approached the woman behind the counter, she said, "We not have gyros. No hot food. This is Ramadan. We not selling hot food in Ramadan."

As I said, it's like being in another world.

The majority of the people seen in the MG are Muslim. Many products come from their part of the world, with labels written in languages I cannot make out. As I walk the aisles, I feel like a foreigner, the only person with blondish hair, and often the only woman with hair uncovered. I hear mideastern languages being spoken all around, and occasionally English spoken with a heavy accent.

MG also carries products from other Mediterranean countries, and this is what drew me into the store. My husband's Bosnian co-worker told us about it first, that they were carrying products from Croatia. I buy Napolitanke (I know we have an English word for them but haven't used it in ages and have forgotten....those wafer cookies that look like Lego blocks and are mostly air with sugar and some crunch...) I buy ajvar, a Croatian specialty made with eggplant and mild peppers and other things, used as a spread or as a condiment with meat. I buy Bajadera, a chocolate-hazelnut confection made only in Zagreb. I've found a seasoning mix for cevape,a meat specialty beloved of my husband.

I can sometimes find products from Italy, which bring back happy memories. Or from Germany, that we ate in Italy. I don't know how German products qualify for a Mediterranean grocery store, except that they've exported to those mediterranean countries.

In the back of the store is another reminder of my life overseas. From the ceiling hang huge...well, is carcass the proper word for the body of a slain animal that is going to be cut up and eaten? I'm not sure what word to use, but anyone who has been in a mediterranean butcher shop knows what I'm talking about. I don't go too close to that part of the store.

There are also coffee makers, for good old "Turkish coffee," just like they drink in Croatia, thick as mud. And rugs, and artistic prints of faraway places that remind me of black velvet art, for some reason.

The store is not fancy, and it doesn't have the glaring light you find in most American grocery stores. I can't always count on finding the same products each time I go. And there is the occasional misspelled word. (Unless "squach" actually is the name of this vegetable I bought...)

The cash register is not fancy. The little receipt that prints out is about an inch wide and only lists the necessary information. No give-aways, no website information, no anything except the prices and total. And above the cash register is a sign informing you that at this place you can have videos and DVDs "translated" from the international standard to the American standard for a certain price.

Mediterranean Grocery is, thankfully, unlike the many grocery stores that all look pretty much alike. It's not just a good place to get certain foods at low prices. It'a also a reminder to me that the world is much bigger than what I see each day, and that in the blink of an eye I can transform from "native" to "foreigner." It all has to do with context.

I like that. Somehow it helps me be humbler. Somehow it expands me, too.

By the way, we ate the squach today at lunch. It was good.


Carolinagirl said...

I like those thin waffer cookies. I miss European foods, mostly German foods fixed in those hole in the wall places where you'd never find them if you didn't know they existed. When I was stationed in Germany, we'd always have a girl's night out once a week. We'd walk a few blocks to a German place (of course) and just order whatever looked good. That's where I tried my first taste of calimi (not sure if that's spelled right) - aka - octopus. Yes, I realize that octopus isn't exactly a German food, but still it was served in a German place.

Anyway, many Americans didn't care for the chocolate in Germany as it wasn't as sweet as that in the states. I remember buying kinder eggs and enjoying the taste of the less sweeter chocolate. Kids would enjoy them as the eggs were hollow and contained tiny mystery prizes.

Here's to good food that we've learned to appreciate by being in other countries.

Sheila said...

I just heard from a friend who tells me of another shop for those in the northern parts of Memphis, called Barakats. He writes, "Homemade Pitas three times a day, fresh cheeses with more flavor than ours, fresh lamb cut to order etc. Small but packed. It is off Sycamore View on Memphis Arlington road."