It was a Saturday.
On Memorial Day weekend.
I had the list with me, which meant at least an hour looking for items for our annual picnic. And true to form, when I got down near the end of the list, there it was: the mystery item.
I’m good with going grocery shopping. Ask me to pick up eggs and milk on the way home, no problem. Ask me to do the family shopping for the week, no problem. Ask me to pick up several things for a particular dish to be made… problem.
Every time my wife gives me the list there is always something vitally important on the list that she can’t do without. Sometimes it’s a particular food item, other times it’s a personal care item. Sometimes it’s a very specific brand, which has been proven by generations of women to be the only ingredient that will work – despite the fact that a dozen seemingly identical substitutes are readily available.
Today, the mystery item was broccoli slaw.
For those of you have have never been married or partnered, let me illustrate the situation. When we were first married, Mrs. Tom would give me the list, ranging from half a dozen to two dozen items. Invariably, one item – and always one of crucial necessity – would not be found at the grocery store. Early in our marriage, the resulting conversation went like this:
Her: “Where’s the ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste? I need that for the special recipe I’m making.”
Me: “They were out.”
Her: “They’re never out of ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste. You must not have been looking.”
Me: “I’m telling you, they were out of it. I looked in the canned tuna aisle, the fish aisle, and the sauce aisle. There wasn’t any.”
Her: (exasperated) “They don’t keep it in the fish aisle; It’s in the school supplies aisle.”
Me: (dumbfounded) “But… but… why the hell would it be in school supplies?”
Her: “Because the kids mix it with rubber cement for their construction paper projects. Everybody knows that. I knew I should have gone myself; you’re hopeless.”
And here she would treat me to a withering look of scorn and go off to buy a can herself.
After a few years of this, I suddenly realized that the one mystery item on the list represented a dragon quest of sorts; it was her way of testing my worth as a husband. So armed with this new insight, I eagerly awaited the next trial. It came – they always come – and once again I was on my way, determined not to return home without every single item on the list.
Nine hours later, the conversation went something like:
Her: (angrily) “Where the hell have you been? You were gone all day!”
Me: “I was looking for your ‘Auntie Em’ Anchovy Paste. ”
Her: (still angrily) “And that took you all day?”
Me: “Well, I went to Stop’n’Shop and it wasn’t in the school supply aisle, or in Notions or in the Ethnic Foods aisle. I even asked the assistant manager. He said that they haven’t carried that brand in years. So I went to Foodmart. Then, when they didn’t have it, I went to Foodtown. When they didn’t have it, I went to Shop’n’Save. When they didn’t have it, I went to Stop’n’Save. They didn’t have it, either.”
Her: “But you’ve got a whole bag of it! Where did this all come from?”
Me: “I went to Shoptown. When I found it, I bought a whole bunch so we’d have some on the shelf.”
Her: “Shoptown? But there’s no Shoptown stores in this state!”
Me: “Yeah, that was a bit of a problem…”
So, the “dragon quest” paradigm had mixed success; plus ten points for style and determination, but minus a hundred for practicality. But I persevered, each time hoping to figure out just what to do with the mystery item on the list. Hunt for it? Guess at a substitute? Or – last resort – call her from the store lobby and ask her what to do?
* shudders *
Such was my mindset on Saturday morning as I stared at the array of items in the Produce section, searching vainly for “broccoli slaw” so that my wife could make a particular salad for the upcoming picnic. Pawing through pre-wrapped packages of mixed greens and chopped celery (and c’mon, what’s with that? Is celery really that difficult to prepare that one needs to buy it pre-chopped?), I accidentally found a small package of organic broccoli slaw. Okay, it’s neither the size nor brand she had on the list, but it was slawed broccoli, and at the moment I wasn’t going to let it get away. I needed at least three packages this size to equal the two she asked for on the list. I combed the rest of the aisle, dodging the automatic spritzers.
Most guys know that one of the last-ditch efforts is to ask for directions; the cousin to this is asking where to find items in a store. Sucking up my pride, I found a green-uniformed store employee nearby, and asked.
“Oh, we don’t have any this week.”
I pointed to the lone package of organic slaw in my carriage.
“Yeah, well, normally we get it every week, but that’s probably left over from last week. Whatever you happen to find here is it. Sorry.”
I walked back to the fresh, newly spritzed produce; a light sweat forming on my brow, my face taut with concentration. It’s a no-win situation, I thought to myself, she won’t believe that there was no broccoli slaw, and this little package just is not enough.
And suddenly it came to me – that flash of insight, the sudden loss of equilibrium as a paradigm shifts under your feet. This was not a “dragon quest” at all.
This was… the Kobayashi-Maru Scenario!
Star Trek aficionados will surely recognize the Kobayashi-Maru Scenario as the simulated no-win situation used by Star Fleet to test their flight officers – not for specific skills, but to see how they respond to impossible situations. It dawned on me that all those years of lists of very specific (and seemingly mythical) items was a test, but not the kind of test I’d thought. I wasn’t being tested for my ability to bring down a dragon, but rather for the way I handled myself while in these impossible situations.
My mind was suddenly clear.
Scanning the moist bags of chopped plant life, I selected a bag of carrot slaw, and a bag of chopped cabbage. Mixed together with the broccoli, they would change the recipe only slightly, but the interplay of colors would make this a very eye-catching salad, indeed.
I wrestled the food from the check-out lane into the re-usable grocery bags, and brought them home. With an air of serenity, as befits one who has attained enlightenment, I sorted out the contents of the bags on the kitchen table.
Her: “You got the little bag of organic broccoli slaw. I wrote down that I needed the larger bags.”
Me: “They were out…”
Her: “They’re never out of broccoli slaw. You must not have been looking in the right spot.”
Me: “I’m telling you, I checked with the produce guy. They didn’t get any in. But look…”
And here I pulled out the carrot slaw and the cabbage. “You can mix these, instead, and it’ll be very tasty and colorful,” I explained. “Besides, you’ve been making the broccoli slaw for years, now we can mix it up a bit. I got the big bag of sunflower seeds and some sliced almonds to make it crunchier. With a little balsamic vinegar dressing, it’ll be delicious.”
Her: “ What a man! You’re so imaginative and resourceful. In fact, I find myself strangely aroused...
Her: “Hmm. Yeah, that might work. Now go peel these onions for me.”
It only took me 17 years of marriage to figure that lesson out. The grocery store is totally owned.
Next, I plan to work on why there are 23 colors of pantyhose, all labeled as “beige.”