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An ode to Baltimore's grocery stores

The day before our last major snow storm, I went to Trader Joe's to stock up. While some offerings were sparse, they were completely out of kale and bottled water. Not too many years ago, before a major storm, stores typically would run out of bread and milk. Not only have our food tastes changed, but our shopping habits have changed as well.

We've come a long way from the days when people grew fruits and vegetables (and canned them for the off-season), slaughtered livestock, fished in brooks and streams, and got their milk, butter and cheese from their cows, their eggs from their chickens.

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My earliest food shopping memory occurred in a small town in New Jersey. Approximately once a week when I was about 7 or 8, I would walk two blocks to the town's only grocery store and buy Fisher's cupcakes — three with pink icing, three with chocolate, which I then would charge. Everyone knew each other, and it was not a problem.

The bulk of my family's grocery shopping back then was done by my dad. The high school where he taught was next to an A&P, one of few supermarket chains. In fact, it was my dad who taught me how to shop, how to choose, for example, the best produce. I still remember going to Nantucket with a college friend and buying fruits and vegetables at the only supermarket so we didn't have to eat out. The following day nearly all of my friend's food had spoiled whereas mine lasted nearly all week. Dad taught me well.

Here in the Baltimore region, there are food shopping options for everyone. Big box chains are everywhere (except perhaps the inner city, where they are sorely needed) — Safeway, ShopRite, Weis, SuperFresh, and Giant, once locally owned, but now part of an international conglomerate. But none is bigger, and many would argue, better, than Wegmans. I know people who spend entire days there. Maria, my hairdresser, and her husband have dinner there every Friday (the choices are usually more numerous than at an average restaurant). Then they do their shopping.

For the gourmet-minded, health-obsessed, there are Whole Foods, and its less expensive cousin, Trader Joe's. Baltimore also offers seasonal farmer's markets both in the city and in surrounding counties. And then there are Graul's and Eddies, both run by local families for at least three generations. Everyone who shops at Graul's in Ruxton knows its famous checker, Lester, who seems to know all his customers' names — and their life histories. And Anthony, the Ruxton Graul's long-time manager, seems to know all his customers' tastes. For example, once when I walked into the store, Anthony said, "Lynne, blueberries are on sale," knowing I eat healthily. Pat, in the meat department, always greets me by name, even though she knows I rarely eat meat.

Eddie's Market has its loyalists as well. My friend Sita still makes a weekly trip from Broadmead in Cockeysville to Eddie's in Roland Park to purchase smoked turkey and cooked ham for her 15-year-old Persian cat, Licorice.

Indeed, Baltimore not only is a special place to shop for great food and for friendly camaraderie, but for another reason as well: celebrity sightings. Friends have reported speaking to Marin Alsop at Wegmans and to John Waters at Eddie's. Back when Jim Palmer was pitching for the Orioles, I would occasionally see him in Graul's. There was usually one timid child asking for an autograph, which he obliged.

Still, as we advance technologically, there are tools for those who prefer not to go out to shop at all. To that end, cell phone apps allow one to press buttons to order food and have it delivered, never having to set foot out the door or interact with a person. To some that's progress, but to others, myself included, that's sad.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best, Inc. She is the author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing" (Basic Books). Her e-mail is lynneagress@aol.com.

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