Tag Archives: Shopping

Notes from the Waste Stream #7: Giant Metal Hippo

This is the story of how I came to carry a 8.2 pound metal hippopotamus on board five flights from South Africa to Alabama. It is a story that begins, in a roundabout way, in North Africa, but I’ll get to that part last.

Istanbul

I learned to haggle in the winding passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been told all my life that it was extremely rude to haggle. But the Turkish travel guide I read on the airplane was quite clear on this point: it would be rude not to haggle. So I did what I normally do in uncomfortable situations and entirely overthought it. I memorized haggling tips and picked at the partially comprehensible Turkish-language keyboard of the lonely shared hotel computer into the prime hours of jet lag.

Few places on earth can prepare you for Istanbul’s old city. The layers of history pile on each other in ways much more haphazard, strange and lovely than any textbook can explain. The Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans (sometimes more pragmatist than the usual narrative allows) decided to keep the church and just cover the blasphemous frescoes. Rebranding, they might call it now. Where actual Vikings carved something like “Erik was here” into the floor while passing through. The wasp-waisted towers of the Blue Mosque, where enterprising vendors will try to sell you special socks to wear inside, even though any socks will do. Unless they have holes. Check for holes. If you go into the basement of the souvenir shop next door, you might discover an actual Roman cistern where rich-smelling water drips slowly down rows of dozens columns each wider than your embrace. If you are rich, you can stay at the Four Seasons, located in a renovated Turkish prison. If you are not rich, you can at least go drink at their bar and read the English language newspapers (how I’ll miss the International Herald Tribune) before retreating to your more modest lodgings.

Istanbul is the first place I ever really heard the call to prayer. You don’t so much hear it as become suffused by it, the symphony of muezzins calling the faithful over loudspeakers both tinny and rich bouncing off old and new buildings, into corridors and breakfast nooks. I was there once during Ramadan, when every kind of food cart lines the streets just waiting for fast to break and lines to form – a joyful end to the day, when twinkly lights are strung between trees and poles.

Then there’s the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost Orientalist by definition to write about this place: The exotic array of goods! The seen-it-all merchants! The foreign scents and foods! I prefer on the whole to think of it as a mall long predating Victor Gruen’s great and terrible idea without the baggage of urbanisms old and new. It is, fundamentally, just a place to shop. More to the point, it is a place for foreigners to shop. It is a place where the shopping is both exactly and totally beside the point. Visitors are not just shopping for goods – they are shopping for a very particular experience of shopping for goods. The Grand Bazaar may still occupy its original warren of tunnels and side streets, but it’s clearly a performance of a specific version of itself conceived by and for others.

In this respect, it is sadly like Doha’s Souq Waqif, which is “fake” in the sense used by the late Umberto Eco. Doha is accelerating at a pace where the hyperreal is only an event horizon. In a place like this, there’s no point in seeking authenticity. But they’d like to sell it to you anyway. The Souq Waqif, as various promotional materials are happy to tell you, is in fact a centuries-old site for trading. They are less likely to mention that the site was abandoned, then burned down, and then reconstructed to look authentic so that this former village might claim a soul, or at least a history, as its armies of indentured laborers busily erect all manner of temples to commerce and excess. As Eco writes, “The industry of the Absolute Fake gives a semblance of truth to the myth of immortality through the play of imitations and copies.” Check.

Souk Waquif

Souk Waqif

You can buy good saffron here, the Iranian kind not allowed in the United States, for reasonable rates. If you do your research, you can even bring this home through customs. Also there are a surprisingly large number of vintage radios in gorgeous bakelite cases, so miraculously preserved from the elements that it seems possible to tune into broadcasts from World War I. And of course the Souq feels real, whatever that means. It feels as real as the chocolate fountain at the Intercontinental Hotel’s sumptuous dessert buffet. Trying to pin down its realness is entirely beside the point and, besides, may distract you from small children sticking their hands into the cascading sticky goo.

At the Grand Bazaar, I dickered over, walked away from and ultimately purchased a bracelet ostensibly made of silver and amber. If you like old things, as I do (records, radios, paper newspapers), then you’ll appreciate my interest in amber. In retrospect, it is clear that the seller did too – and despite my best efforts, I surely overpaid. Still, it was fun to negotiate, and I like the bracelet (though its silver content was, at best, wildly overstated). On another visit I made the mistake of displaying too much interest in a piece of fabric I thought I’d wear as a skirt. It’s now an overpriced table runner for those biennial occasions when I might need to dress my Ikea tables up to impress someone else.

I mention my time in Turkey because by the time I met the hippo I fancied myself a bit of a haggler. I’d even negotiated over white gold in Dubai with an impatient man who swatted away my tourist Arabic until a Lebanese friend who wasn’t about to give me any false compliments congratulated me on my score. Then I met my match.

Capetown

By the time I got to South Africa, I was well into my 30s. I considered myself very experienced in international travel. I was also supervising a group of high school students – something that for a time took me all over the world to enviable destinations where I would normally stay in the hotel at night failing to navigate the hotel’s useless Internet connection while hoping that the students didn’t roam the streets of Santiago, or Athens, or wherever, and get me sued.

Capetown is magnificent, but the trip had some hiccups. First, although the hotel we stayed at was called the Ritz, I am sure that it was not one of “those Ritzes” in the same way that the “Diplomat Inn” down the street from our house in one of Montgomery’s sketchiest neighborhoods is probably not where the actual diplomats stay. Second, it had never been explained that we would be given the opportunity to climb around on Table Mountain. This would have been fine, except that I ended up getting the privilege in a skirt. With the added weight of my personal computer, which I could not leave in the room because of a wave of thefts reported at the conference hotel. I would very much like to return to Capetown. I would not stay at this particular Ritz again.

Going up Table Mountain

Going up Table Mountain

When you take students to these unending debate competitions (ten days, if you can believe it, with two debates a day – you drink all the bad coffee just to stay conscious), there are precious few moments to enjoy the company of other adults and actually see the city. I treasure the afternoon I got to explore the Parthenon by myself, taking pictures of anarchist graffiti in the streets below and getting to know the many feral cats of Athens. In Capetown, an old friend and I seized the chance to escape for a few hours to a local market. The people at home need souvenirs, and I always want to buy one thing for myself to remember each adventure.

The market was set up in a square, densely layered rows of stalls selling all manner of crafts – tiny paintings, florid textiles, preposterous wooden utensils, every possible thing that could be made from metal bottlecaps. We turned a corner and I saw the hippo in a collection of animals and objects made of scrap metal. I’ll admit that I fell just a little in love. My first misstep.

Of course there is a backstory. Like many morbid children, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Some of my most formative early memories include seeing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the National Gallery in the 1970s and then discovering a beautiful copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my grandfather’s library. When we were children, our parents entertained us with the story of William, the Met’s famous hippo. I was primed to like the hippo.

IMG_2210 copy

I loved his rusty and pointed exterior, his wide eyes, his comic nose, his heft, his rounded belly. I joked to my friend that he was so heavy I could probably use him as a deadly weapon. I picked him up. I was, in short, a mark. But I would never buy such a thing. I had a ton of luggage and an excruciating trip home. Still, just curious, I asked the sculptor for the price. Strike two.

To this day, I can’t remember the price he quoted me. And it gets fiddly in other countries, because no matter how good you are at doing exchange rate math in your head, in these moments the stuff begins to seem a bit like monopoly money (I still have an ATM receipt somewhere from the time I withdrew 10,000,000 in Turkish lira). I do remember that, to be polite, I offered him exactly half of the price. Which I thought would end the deal, because he would go higher and give me a chance to walk away. It did not. The students made fun of me.

IMG_2209

I wrapped this unwieldy thing in a sweatshirt and ran it through every metal detector and bomb swabbing apparatus from Capetown to Atlanta, via Johannesburg, Frankfurt and Heathrow. At every stop it was pulled aside for inspection, muttered over in cadences which I did not always understand but seemed to sum up to: “Can you believe this giant metal hippo?” He now sits by my fireplace. I named him Rand, after his birth currency and to remind me that money in other countries is actually real.

Morocco

I think I know why my parents forbade me from haggling. It has to do with a giant and ornate birdcage made of metal and wood that was a fixture in my many childhood homes. This is a birdcage that my mother populated with a stern-looking stuffed black vulture. She would often produce it at parties or use it as a prop to burst in and scare groups of children during sleepovers. Anyone who knew my mother will remark, unprovoked, on her unusual sense of humor. She once let a gaggle of pre-teens watch Psycho after midnight, allegedly unsupervised, bursting in at the crucial moment with a knife. I lost a lot of friends that evening.

She was a military wife. This included any number of activities: complicated dinner parties, herding children back and forth between continents to visit family, worrying about a deployed spouse, negotiating the commissary system. It also meant that sometimes she would go with other military wives on vacations organized to both enrich their lives and stop them from going quite mad. When we lived in England, she went to the Soviet Union and came back singing the praises of the Winter Palace while complaining about how difficult it was to acquire Coca-Cola there. I still have a stash of kopecks from this visit.

When we lived in Spain, she went with other wives to Morocco – a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. I know this because one night when I was old enough to split a bottle of wine with her I finally asked about the birdcage. Evidently she, too, had been raised not to haggle. One key difference: she had not done her homework on the matter. One key similarity: the homework did not, in the end, make much of a difference. Evidently she admired the birdcage in the market, picked it up, showed it to friends. Until her death she claimed that she did not make an offer. She did, as she pointed out, cling to every penny in those days (and long after).

The first part of the transaction is lost to time. The second is a matter of record. She and her friends turned and walked away. The proprietor, enraged at what he perceived as a broken deal, chased them through the market with the birdcage as they fled. She was in her early thirties at the time, with two young children at home, inconceivably far from the small town of her birth with no grasp of the local language or custom. I imagine her fear at that moment, the sharp thrill of being scared and lost in another country, the worry of coming home with something so extravagant. In the end, she paid the man. As I did, without the chase.

The birdcage is lost now, a bit of debris stripped of pedigree and set loose into the broader waste stream that absorbs death and the stories it splinters. The bird is also gone – a story for another day, attached to another and similarly painful loss. I can’t say I’ve learned my lesson.

Notes from the Waste Stream #3: One-Armed Silver Torso

It’s time again for those bells to ring in support of donation to the Salvation Army. I don’t give. I never give, and have been known to explain why to the bell-ringers in detail. But the bells persist, and they are everywhere. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about thrift stores this month. Lost in Montgomery started with thrift stores. Having moved here from the godless West, I wasn’t prepared for them to be closed on Sunday and was surprised that there wasn’t an online catalog of thrifting options. I furnished a Seattle apartment entirely from thrift stores, and went to college in Atlanta with friends who are thrift store ninjas (Pro Tip: Dress in leggings and tank tops so you can try clothes on at the rack instead of in the nasty dressing rooms), so I had high hopes for our local options. Sadly, they are not that great.

The modern thrift store is an artifact made possible in large part by the advent of garbage collection services. It’s strange for us here in the rich countries to think about the world before municipal garbage collection. We take it for granted that someone will regularly drive by and take our trash. We also don’t think much about where that stuff goes, other than sometimes caring about recycling because of philosophies of environmentalism or economy. But there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no such thing as a city sanitation department and we were responsible for our own waste.

In practice, this produced and sustained an entire secondary economy of people who picked through trash to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a living, and continues to be a miserable way of life for people in the majority world who live without basic sanitation services like clean water, let alone the fancier business of trucks to whisk away our dinner scraps and Amazon boxes. But it was big business, especially among poor and immigrant families. It was also dirty business, often populated by needy children picking fiber scraps and other waste for bosses to aggregate and resale. But it was a kind of self-sufficiency for the poor.

In her wonderful book The Victorian House, Judith Flanders describes one of the innovative advertising strategies used by “rag-and-bone men”:

The youthful Sammy, dressed in light-blue trousers, gamboge [bright yellow] waistcoat, and pink coat, is throwing up his arms in rapture at the ‘stylish appearance’ of his sweetheart Matilda, who, like Sammy himself, is decked out in all the chromatic elegance of these three primary colours, while the astonished swain is exclaiming , by means of a huge bubble which he is in the act of blowing out of his mouth, ‘My gracious, Matilda! how did you ever get that beautiful new dress?’ To which rather impertinent query the damsel is made to bubble forth the following decided puff: ‘Why, Sammy by saving up all of my old rags, and taking them to Mr. -, who gives the best prices likewise for bones, pewter, brass, and kitchen-stuff.

Here are some of the things I love about this advertisement. First, it illustrates the link between dress and class so perfectly. Second, it mirrors today’s emphasis on thrifty clothing purchases. I continue to be surprised at how common it is that upon complimenting someone for their clothing, you get a report on how much it cost. My grandmother – heck, even my mother, who sewed most of my clothing while I was growing up – would have called such talk gauche. To say what you paid for that scarf or those boots? So rude. But now it’s a measure of your canniness to say that they were only $15 at TJMaxx or whatever. And you don’t have to save up at all. These days, we’re more Macklemore than Matilda.

Garbage collection destroyed the trash-picking industry. Partly on purpose. Progressives were appalled by the piles of waste littering the streets and, in particular, the homes of the poor. Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash shows how the municipal waste collection movement was energized by often plainly racist and xenophobic language about the unclean lifestyles of immigrants and annoyance with their domination in the secondary waste market. Immigrants were so associated with trash that they were even described as waste on the Statue of Liberty (“the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”).

Along with municipal waste collection, charitable donations meant that trash would not be left outside, or reused in the household, or dickered over. Some was donated for a better cause – to provide jobs for the poor, and a place for old goods to travel down the value ladder. Here’s Strasser’s take:

Donating to charity, the better-off could free themselves from the social discomforts that might arise from identification or intercourse with beggars, scavengers, and ragmen … The organizations also fostered new ways of thinking about the sorting process: people could now avoid the trouble of repair and remaking and get rid of unwanted things without having to define them as worthless.

The truth is that most of the clothing we find at thrift stores is cheaply made. That’s because we’re turning over unbelievable vast amounts of clothing every day to charity to make room for more stuff – stuff which, in turn, is more cheaply made than anything our parents wore. Most of us donate clothing to thrift stores under the assumptions that someone else will wear and cherish it. This is pretty far from the truth. Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed shows that an astonishing 80 percent gets sorted out into the waste stream. Some things end up for resale in poor countries, undercutting their ability to develop indigenous textile industries.

We’re living in a world of surplus fabric – something that might amaze the American colonists, whose rag shortage was so acute that citizens did their patriotic duty by saving rags to make paper in support of the Revolutionary War effort. What would they make of the millions of tons of fabric now entering landfills across the world?

I can remember feeling amazed by thrift stores when I was younger – set free from my parents to be my own economic agent. It felt empowering to have things. I couldn’t walk into the mall and buy anything, but here I could leave with everything: plates, cups, lamps, a coffee table, a dresser, a coat, gifts for friends.

And then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but I think it had to do with reaching peak stuff. I got married, and we merged our households, and suddenly we had boxes and boxes of things I could not identify. Then there’s the aging factor – as you get older, you have more things. Even if you’re diligent about patrolling the piles on your coffee table, you accumulate: letters, ticket stubs, gifts, furniture, shoes.

The tipping point was unraveling the maze of things that filled my mother’s house. Once they were sold off and distributed, I still had a truckload to drive across the country and deal with. She collected Lladros – you may not know the name, but you’d recognize their distinctive blue and white finish if you saw one. She bought them in Spain, one by one at the military commissary. Most of them had the original box and price sticker. Having grown up poor, she treasured each of them for their delicacy. They must have seemed unspeakably rich to her, the fineness of the hands rendered just so, the tiny flowers sometimes strewn across the base. They were seasonal, particularly the Christmas ones we brought out every year to arrange on the mantle. And it was my job to sell the lot of them. Partly because I promised my brothers I would, partly because they’ve never been to my taste, and mostly because I simply needed to be rid of them.

There were other boxes, too – so many files that needed reading, shredding, saving, weeping over; the records of our childhoods mixed in with postcards and lost gloves. All of it occupying space in my home like an unwelcome but surprisingly bulky ghost.

I used to enjoy thrift stores, but I really don’t any longer. I fear seeing things from my childhood home there amid the coffee cups. I worry that I will find my mother’s robe and slippers or a familiar lamp. I know that there are people there who are shopping because they must, not because they can, and somehow this fills me with shame. Because I want to be freed from the things I have, the keepsakes that seem to keep me instead, and when I remember that the plague of too many things is not something most people in the world will ever experience, I feel deeply sad.

After all this, I bought a life-sized one-armed silver torso for $6.99 at the Goodwill over by Maxwell Air Force Base. We were there to see if they had comic books (a subject for another post). Finding none, we poked around listlessly to explore the contours of our city’s waste stream. The faceless model spoke to me from across the room somehow. Seeing the price, I felt like it had to come home with us. Even the cashier was bemused.

TorsoAs I write, I can see him (I have come to think of it as male, for no particular reason) in the living room wearing a Santa hat. I have no good explanation for this purchase. I think it spoke to me because it had absolutely no utility – an improbable decoration, a bizarre addition to the household, an admission that it’s okay to have things that you love.

At some point we will probably tire of him and find him a new home. If we put him on the curb, as folks in our neighborhood sometimes do with their non-torso items, he’d be gone in a minute. If we sold him in Brooklyn or Austin, we might be able to make a hefty profit. For now, he reminds me that not all stuff has to have a purpose or memory as impossible freight, and that’s a good enough reason to keep him around.

Montgomery’s Best Milkshake

You’re in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. It’s hot. You want a milkshake. Your Google search of the terms “Montgomery Alabama milkshake” provides, not information about which establishments have tasty ice cream-based concoctions, but rather, information about revolting sex acts. It’s time to change all that.

The Montgomery Advertiser’s rankings of the best milkshakes in Montgomery have Hardee’s at #1, Chik Fil A at #2, and Dairy Queen at #3. As with many of Grandma Advertiser’s “best of” rankings, we totally disagree. We hereby offer you a breakdown of the ultimate truth of the milkshake landscape and we crown a legitimate winner of the title of Best Milkshake in Montgomery.

Chick Fil A – (915 Ann St.) – Loathsome purveyor of advertorial concentration camp humor. Georgia-based chain owned by right-wing super Christians. Refuses to sell food (and milkshakes) on Sunday because of ancient traditions regarding rest dating back to book of Genesis. Still, we were told by a trusted source that the peach milkshakes were “just like home-made ice cream.” We got one peach and one chocolate. Unless you are into 7-11 diabetes-inducing “Mega Gulp” sizes, take the small. Small is still plenty big. Both came with whipped cream and cherry on top. The price is good. For two, we spent $3.50.

The peach was not “just like home-made ice cream.” It had good little giblets of peach in it, and was pleasant, extremely sweet but not cloying, and easy to drink through a straw. The chocolate was better, even though it didn’t have a super rich chocolate flavor. Overall they balanced thickness and flavor, didn’t seem to be full of artificial ingredients (though we’re sure they were), and were affordable and good. The texture was nice and it didn’t melt too quickly. Stephen gave them between a 6.5 and an 7 out of 10, and Kate rated them an 6.

Sonic – (2025 Carter Hill Rd.) – You drive in and order at the box. They bring you your stuff. Easy & straightforward, and you don’t sonic shakesneed to idle your car. No, really. Please don’t. We went to the Sonic at Montgomery’s Worst Intersection™ – the absurd chaos of the place where Carter Hill meets Narrow Lane meets Mulberry. We ordered caramel and chocolate. The caramel was really good – nice and thick, with a caramel flavor that wasn’t overpowering or chemical-ly. The chocolate wasn’t too rich and was a bit thinner. Both were good and more than enough shake comes in the small size. Sonic offers a variety of frozen & ice cream treats, as pictured in the menu here. Kate gave them an 6.5 out of 10 – they were very good, but lacked that “wow” of a really great milkshake. Stephen rated them an 6.

Bruster’s – (6835 Vaughn Rd) – Stephen ordered oreo. Kate ordered strawberry cheesecake. The list of flavor options is dazzling. The Bruster’s shakes put the emphasis on the milk. They’re creamy and thick, but also have the ice crystals that add that “milkshakey” texture. It flows through the straw easily. There’s no aftertaste. The prices are reasonable. The only complaint is that a “regular” is quite large and is too much for a person us to drink in a single sitting. Then again, with Alabama the second fattest state in the nation, many people probably think that these milkshake are too small. They are delicious. Almost certainly the best in the city. 9 out of 10.

 

Very large milkshakes

Zolo’s (2055 Carter Hill Rd) CLOSED – We really wanted to write this place up.

Marble Slab Creamery (7929 Vaughn Rd) This is the one in the Hellscape, over near the Rave movie theater. We had high expectations for our chocolate shake, if only because it seems unfair for the purposes of competition to compare a milkshake that costs $5 to one from a fast food place costing less than $2. Yet, here is a case where the extra expense does not befit the resulting product. Not worth the time, money and effort.

In particular, I really didn’t like watching the preparation process. The bored lady behind the counter started by pouring some kind of clear mystery fluid from an unmarked bottle. This stuff (simple syrup?) went into the mixer before the milk. Gross. I do not want mystery liquids in my shake. The use of real ice cream is good, but the end result is way too thick. You can’t pull it through the straw. Further, there are no tasty ice crystals, so you basically have your giant cup of mostly-solid ice cream, whipped through with suspicious liquid, and you’ve got to wait for it to melt or go at it with a spoon. Oh, and there’s a slight coating on your mouth lining after you’ve decided you’ve had enough. Glop, glop, glop, pass. 4 out of 10.

Cold Stone Creamery (7240 East Chase Parkway) – I had Milk and Cookies. She had Lotta Caramel Latte. Our description of both: “outstanding.” The purchasing process is quite an exercise in pretension. We cracked up about how the advertising signs use three umlauts to spell German Chocolate Cake. There are three sizes, each linked to desire: You’ve got the $4.09 “like it,” the $4.49 “love it,” and the $4.99 “gotta have it.” No word on future plans for a $7 “will kill for milkshake” size. But we do commend the Creamery for being able to monetize the distance between like and lust. Hey generations of poets, suck it. The answer is $1.

The PB&C (peanut butter and chocolate) flavored milkshake at the Creamery made headlines recently for being equal in nutritional content to 68 pieces of bacon. Yes, really.

End result of driving to the Hellscape and waiting on these shakes? Tasty, but it’s no Bruster’s. 8 out of 10.

Dairy Queen (Atlanta Highway) – These are sort of the baseline archetypes of the modern Montgomery milkshake. The ice cream is better than very good, verging on great. It’s that soft serve stuff you know so well from your trips to the DQ. But the flavors aren’t eye-popping. Sure, you get a few other choices when ordering, including pineapple, but our ultimate reactions to the chocolate and strawberry were mixed. On one hand, they were quite good and really improved our mega-hot day. On the other, we had to drive a good way to get them and were somewhat nonplussed with the power of the flavor. The chocolate was the better of the two but did not have an especially rich taste. The strawberry did have tasty bits of berry (risking straw clog), but it was just that packaged, probably once-frozen “berry sauce” stuff they keep in the tub next to the fudge and other toppings. We decided that the shakes were great, but probably not as good as the more famous DQ offering, The Blizzard. And yet, the shakes made us happy to the point that we were delighted to be writing reviews of milkshakes, even as we said that no decent shake could be worse than the DQ baseline. Rating? 6 of 10.

Flip’s Uptown Grill (Atlanta Highway) – We’ve never actually set foot in the Uptown mainstay that is Flip’s (check that hilarious website). We’ve heard they have good breakfast food, but we were there for one reason only: a Jiggle. That is what Flip’s calls the small size milkshake they serve. We were not entirely sure how to react to this news, much less how to react to the Flip’s employee who seemed dead set on forcing us to say the word “Jiggle” into the order box. Finally we just mumbled something about how we wanted two of those, one chocolate and one vanilla. The size-that-shall-not-be-spoken is actually perfect. The shakes themselves are great. They taste like milkshakes, not just whipped up ice cream. The chocolate could have been more chocolate-y, but otherwise we liked our, um, milkshakes just fine. The difference between these and the Bruster’s shakes could be chalked up to a difference in ice cream, but Flip’s does use the ever-reliable and tasty Bluebell, so it’s a close call. Quite tasty, although next time we’ll just say, “give us your smallest size” and take it from there. 7 of 10.

Hardee’s — Hardee’s is one of those fast food milkshakes that used to be like, well, average fast food milkshakes. The kind you grow up on. They used to come in the same sizes as the drinks. And you’d have your basic trifecta of flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Well, some marketing jerk got a hold of the Hardee’s brass and told them that they needed to specialize and start advertising “hand-dipped shakes.” Now, they only offer one size and have tripled the cost of shakes. Thing is, aside from serving them in new kinds of plastic cups and spraying some whipped cream on top of them, they sort of taste the same as they used to. And that’s not good. Our recent order (a strawberry without whipped cream) turned our conversation to the oil dispersants being used in the Gulf by BP — as in, what they may taste like. The shake, stunningly voted the Best in Montgomery, by the readers of Grandma Advertiser, tasted like a coagulated sugar carpet. This made us think about Krusty the Clown’s notorious fast food franchise from The Simpsons, where instead of milkshakes they sell patented Krusty Partially Gelatinated Non-Dairy Gum-Based Beverages. 3 of 10.

McDonald’sWe did not sample the McDonald’s milkshakes.

Final rankings (in order): Bruster’s, Cold Stone Creamery, Flip’s, Sonic, Chick-Fil-A, Dairy Queen, Marble Slab, Hardee’s

Publix: British food section

One of the nice things about our neighborhood is proximity to grocery stores. We are within a short drive of three. We’re not so keen on the Piggly Wiggly, which is our closest grocery store. We’ve always liked the Winn-Dixie at Montgomery’s Worst Intersection™ and its recent remodel (the subject of an upcoming post) has made it even better. Winn-Dixie does double coupons every day. They give generously to local neighborhood associations in support of community picnics and other events. Their website has the predictable “sustainability” page to rep their corporate green credentials, but if you look a little closer, boy are there a lot of weird links on there. To personal blogs, some of which seem to be organized around selling stuff on Etsy. This makes me like Winn-Dixie more. Also the people who work there are super nice.

But there are some things you just can’t get at the Winn-Dixie. Like the various vegetarian products we need to get our daily hexane intake. Publix just has a bigger selection of veggie dogs (the cheapo Smart Dogs as well as the larger, more expensive ones). They have tempeh, and even though they stopped carrying the good tempeh (the kind that didn’t come pre-marinated), they are still the only tempeh game in town. Finally, perhaps because Publix is larger, there are a lot of things they sell that Winn-Dixie does not. Like Arborio rice. And fresh-baked bagels (well, sometimes). And ponzu sauce.

Let’s say that you want to get some ponzu sauce, perhaps to mix with sambal oelek and lemon wedges for delightful spicy edamame like your friend Amber makes. In this case, you would go to Publix’s ethnic foods zone where you would find items for Asian foods (including a new and expanded Indian food section), items for “Hispanic” foods (including not a single decent jarred salsa – RIP Bruno’s if only for your bountiful supply of Mrs. Renfro’s Habanero Salsa), and the newest addition to the Publix Ethnic Rainbow: what seems to be a British Food Section.

That’s right. British food. Because there is a large collection of expats here in Montgomery jonesing for salad cream and traditional onions? Because the store somehow ended up with a surplus of strangely flavored HP sauces? You can’t get an organically grown potato this side of the Boulevard but you can buy several flavors of Malteasers? Is this for real? The first time we saw it, we were pretty sure the section was a joke – maybe some kind of grocery store hack. We grabbed a ginger beer and giggled. Which ginger beer was awesome and is now, in classic Publix style, no longer stocked.

Reed Books – Birmingham, AL

You live in Montgomery. You like to read. So far, so good. Lots of nice places to sit and read, plenty of shady trees and so forth – a good city to have a reading habit. Sometimes you like to buy additional books to read. This will be less great, especially if you like to physically go to bookstores and browse what’s available. Montgomery’s just not a good bookstore town.

CAVEATS: (1) Capitol Book & News. Our wonderful neighborhood bookstore has a great collection, extraordinarily helpful staff and a fantastic sale room, but they stock all new stuff, and sometimes one just can’t afford new books (especially on a non-profit salary). (2) New South Books. Close to work, with a delightfully retro Montgomery Book Factory sign above the entrance, every part of this bookstore makes a fun visit. New and used are in the same shop, which is a definite plus. Alas, many of the books are rare and thus super-spendy. Also the collection is pretty small. (3) Trade ‘N Books. But only if you’re into genre fiction, which we really aren’t. (4) Big Chains. Yes, we know that there’s a Barnes & Noble in town, also Books-A-Million. Look, both of these are big mega-chains (strike one), and not even the good big mega-chain bookstore (that’s Borders, strike two), and while you can find a lot of stuff at them (well, at Barnes & Noble … Books-A-Million deserves its local nickname Books-A-Dozen), you’re just as likely to be confronted in an unpleasant way by the massive self-help section and any number of coffee table books featuring glossy photos of military airplanes. (5) Religious Bookstores. There seem to be a lot of these in town. Haven’t been. Not planning to go. (6) Friends of the Library Bookstore. Haven’t been. Really want to go.

So, you want to look at some used books. Perhaps some other ephemera as well? Get yourself up to Birmingham and visit Reed Books [aka The Museum of Fond Memories]. It’s an entirely overwhelming experience. Not just for the books (the collection is eclectic, heavy on the childrens’/young adult lit, and is definitely not for someone looking to pick up a Grisham paperback for the road), but also for the stuff. The dizzying, crazy variety of stuff. There’s no way pictures can do the place justice. It’s as if every cool garage sale in the world decided suddenly to merge, colliding in a giddy explosion of plastic Santas and statues and cheese graters and matchbooks and trading cards and old brochures and campaign signs and tiny boxes that hold other tiny boxes.

And then there are the personal effects. There are at least two banks of postal boxes at the front of the store, with each cubby holding, well, stuff. Letters, mostly, and pictures and postcards. So to call it “stuff” is the biggest insult in the world, frankly, since each cubby contains dozens of memories, some probably treasured, some disposable, but all crazily archived here for you to look over in wonder. In just a few minutes standing at the letterboxes, I read a letter from a pastor’s wife in Tuscaloosa to a man in Montgomery, a letter from an army cadet to his brother from training camp, a Christmas card, part of a Standard Oil work diary, and looked at a few dozen photographs – each one poignant, special, and still discarded somehow to end up here, saved and for sale and browsing. I bought a few photos for a project I’m working on. I also bought a book for my boyfriend and a great Modern Library copy of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

It’s a magical place, part bookstore, part haven for lost and wandering memories. Well worth the drive and a long, long afternoon.

Health Wise Foods

Way out in the wastelands of the Atlanta Highway, just as you’re about to get to the sketchy Goodwill, is Health Wise Foods, billing itself as the largest and oldest natural foods store in Montgomery. We weren’t sure what to expect. So many “health food” stores end up being collections of weird, dusty supplements, like a healthwiselow-rent GNC or your crazy aunt’s medicine cabinet. Really wonderful natural foods stores, with groceries and stuff you might actually eat, are super hard to find. We were spoiled by living close to Manna Grocery up in Tuscaloosa, and hoped to find a similar place here in Montgomery.

To be fair, the Montgomery grocery stores (at least the Zelda Road Publix) have a massively better selection of vegetarian and specialty food items than the grocery stores in Tuscaloosa. In particular, the Zelda Road Publix makes the Tuscaloosa Publix seem like a low-rent 7-11 by comparison. We have been thrilled to find all the fake meats and soy products we could really ask for at Publix.

We were happy to find that Health Wise is not solely (or even mostly) in the dietary supplements business. There’s a produce case with some produce supplied by local organic farmer Gary Weil’s Red Root Farm, and produce is 30% off on Sundays. There are some specialty items in the case … we’re not sure how to use burdock, but might be interested in learning, and there were also some nice looking rutabagas. The freezer case is pretty okay – lots of the usual suspects: Amy’s pizzas, organic frozen waffles, wheat-free things. There were some tasty-looking frozen entrees like vegetarian shepherd’s pie in the case, but they were pretty spendy. They also had Boca’s veggie bratwurst in the refrigerator case, which you don’t see that often.

The canned goods aren’t that great, and there’s not much there you can’t get elsewhere (ok, maybe the Bragg’s). But the main section of the store has a lot of great bulk foods and spices, including hard-to-find stuff like umeboshi plums and quinoa. I bought a big bag of Frontier tellicherry peppercorns for less than I would have paid to order them online.

Other notable finds: Stonewall’s Jerquee, in a variety of flavors. So salty and good! Also good soy sauce and Tom’s toothpaste (otherwise only available at Wal-Mart, and nobody wants that).

Although refrigerated produce is outstanding to have, it’s no Manna. Chiefly because there’s no deli, and Manna’s got all that great food they make on site. But the people were super nice. And there’s a good selection of organic personal care products (Dr. Brenner’s soap in the big jug, things like that). It’s not a substitute for a grocery store, but seems like it will make a fine supplement to the corporate options available. Plus, they make it pretty clear that they’re happy to order whatever you want that they don’t already stock. Well worth the trip up the Atlanta Highway.

Monday Thrift Stores

We went back. Even though it was Columbus Day, we managed to find two things open – first up was the Montgomery Rescue Mission Bargain Center. It’s a mixed bag. There was some nice furniture there, including a lovely couch, several pianos (one of which was actually close to being in tune), and a lot of end tables. All the furniture was reasonably priced. Not so the used books. They were, in general, the kind of sorry selection you find at most thrift stores –  a romance novel here, a self-help book there, a whole load of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books with their groovy tapestry/deco covers, and so forth. The whole lot was WAY overpriced, and erratically so. A bizarre and profoundly sexist “manual” for husbands written in 1959 (Chapter 2: “Wives say the darndest things”) was $10, even though there were multiple pages torn out. Meanwhile, a hardcover first edition of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth was $2. Bizarre. Probably not a lot of demand for tracts on the abolition of nuclear weapons down on Mount Meigs road. Anyway, no dressers here (or none that we wanted), and no Halloween costume materials either. I did buy a cool hanging wire planter thing for $1.98.

Next we went to the Eastbrook Flea Market. It’s across from the Pizza Perfect on Coliseum, which S assures me is perfectly nasty. This is a cool place – if you’ve been to other “antique malls,” you know what to expect – a bunch of booths ranging from the very expensive to the reasonably priced. On several occasions we wished we’d brought the camera – especially when confronted with the wonderful records for sale. We did manage to find a very reasonably priced dresser for much less than we expected to spend, and a few fifty cent books, including a lovely coloring book of Palestine with stamps.

Overall, a successful trip. No Halloween costume materials yet, but there’s still some more time to shop. I’ve set up a Google map of Montgomery thrift stores – if you’re interested, please contribute stores and comments. We’ll update the map as we go.

Sunday Thrift Stores

We’re looking for a dresser. Nothing special, just a larger dresser than the one that S now has, to hold various overflow items. We found one on Craigslist, but it was mammoth and completely unwieldy. So off to the secondhand stores! I’m a big believer in furnishing this way. When I first moved to Tuscaloosa, I brought exactly two chairs with me. I got a few things from IKEA, and everything else came from CL and thrift stores. Confidence is high. Alas, our plans are foiled by God. Isn’t that always the way?

We find ourselves across the street from Frazer Methodist on the Atlanta Highway. We’re stopped. Traffic has to wait while cops escort churchgoers slowed considerably by the weight of their worship experience across the street to dine at Arbys, Jim and Nick’s, Captain D’s. We are patient. Also a bit lost. Thrift shopping was  considerably easier in Tuscaloosa, in Birmingham, or in Austin, Seattle, or any of the other places we’ve lived. Not so Montgomery. The thrift stores are more spread apart than you might think, difficult to locate online, and – here’s the important bit – not, generally speaking, open on Sundays. We hadn’t really considered this. I’m neither “churched” nor from here, but probably should have known better.

Google reveals this list of Montgomery-area thrift stores. Notice how they’re all around the city – a big ring, with the exception of the Montgomery Rescue Mission Bargain Center (closed on Sundays, but looks pretty darn good from peeking in the windows). We drove by some of the highlights, and will go back another day when it’s religiously permissable to buy secondhand goods. Stay tuned for more thrift store reporting.