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Stumping the Clerks

Since moving to Kentucky I have a favorite game I like to play- Let's Stump the Grocery Store Clerk. It's always fun and fascinating. I have been here three years now and haven't tired of it yet. The game started accidentally. You see, being from California, I am used to having an abundance of produce to choose from. Conversely, the selections are somewhat limited in Kentucky.

Although the produce here in Kentucky is getting better, when I first arrived what was sold in the stores looked like what would be thrown away in any California market. My sister and her family arrived 5 years before me and she says it was quite shocking for her and I am fortunate that it has gotten better. To be honest, I didn't realize how battered and forlorn a zucchini could look by the time it made it to the store. Thank the Lord for Farmers Markets and vegetable gardens.

Slowly, as the quality of the produce has improved, the variety has increased. You can recognize a big city transplant by the way they caress a pristine vegetable or delight in seeing an "old friend" in the vegetable case. My sister and I feel obligated to purchase the newly introduced selections, no matter what shape they are in, in an effort to reward the store for doing the right thing. The fun part comes when you go to check out.

I first discovered this pass-time when I found some artichokes in the store. I was delighted and willing to pay nearly $3.00 a piece for them even though they were scrawny and scarred. I got them to the checkout stand, grinning from ear to ear. The clerk was clearly baffled. "What are them?" Now I was confused. "They're artichokes." She inspected them, obviously fascinated. "What do you do with them? I ain't never seen 'em before. Are they good?" Never seen an artichoke? The poor woman. She's been deprived. "They are delicious! You can steam them or boil them until the leaves are tender and can be pulled off easily. You dip the end of the leaf in mayonnaise or garlic butter or your favorite salad dressing and then use your teeth to scrape the meaty pulp off."

Amazed by what I told her, she responded in wide-eyed wonder, "Really?" I couldn't help but giggle a bit as I assured her I wasn't pulling her leg. I was beginning to feel a bit self-conscious about holding up the line, but in rural Kentucky folks are still very friendly. The bagger and the lady behind me in line were both studying me to see if I was serious. There in the checkout stand I got to sing the praises of artichokes, explain where and how they grew and exactly how to clean, cook and eat them. In three years I have only purchased artichokes one time without being asked, "What are these?"

I have a lengthy list of produce that stumps the clerks- bok choy, Swiss chard, Napa cabbage, jicama, cilantro, shallots, eggplant, spaghetti squash, scalloped squash and endive to name a few. Avocados used to be on the list, but folks have gotten used to them now. Finding a decent avocado in south central Kentucky is a real treat.

The locals have a good time poking fun at me too. I ask how to cook collard greens, turnip greens and dandelion greens. Exchanging culinary grimaces over strange sounding food I promised one woman that I would try pickled bologna at least once. She assures me it is yummy. I haven't been brave enough yet. Some think it is funny that I am willing to drive to 150 miles to buy salami. (How does an Italian-American woman survive without salami?) Or that I have my sister in California ship me my favorite taco sauce and coffee beans. When I fly back to see my kids, I beg for pizza, Chinese and Mexican food. On my return flight, my carry on bag is loaded with real San Francisco sourdough bread.

All in all I love living here. Where else can you have so much fun buying produce?


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