Spaghetti with clams. It’s a Friday dinner tradition that goes back in our nuclear family for decades and, as hyphenated Americans of the Italian variety, is shared with generations of other families.
Tonight was no exception to the tradition. Unfortunately, there was a change for the worse in the ingredients, something that we hadn’t planned on, but one that I could see coming, and should presage a change in habits.
In the city, I can go to a fish purveyor and either pick out myself, or pretty much watch, the selection of the bivalves, ensuring a pretty high degree of quality. And, until recently, I’ve been able to do the same at our country home while making small friendships with the guys in the seafood department of the area’s biggest supermarket.
There is a history to all of this. Going back to my life as a wage slave, the family used to arrive at our country house most Fridays typically late–9 or 10 p.m.–and the dinner tradition was kept alive by using canned clams from Korea, an easy preparation while the water boiled the pasta and the freezer chilled the white wine.
But since my emancipation a couple of years ago, we’ve had the luxury of buying fresh clams, allowing their natural juices and real flavor of the sea to meld with the olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes, providing a delicious stew for the pasta.
This was no small change for me, since the purchase of the fresh clams essentially ended my rear-guard opposition to shopping at the area supermarket in the first place.
My problem boiled down to one of semantics, because the supermarket chain is/was called Price Chopper. The name alone sent me off into a tirade against exploitive capitalism. Let’s face it, if this chain is trumpeting unbeatable its low price for the consumer, someone or something else along the line is paying the real price, be it in exploited wages and working conditions or the inhumane treatment of our fellow creatures from the animal kingdom.
Eventually, of course, I came to terms with the system. The purchase of reliably good clams simply greased the skids of my descent into a broader acceptance, silencing my conscience. Vainly, I tried to maintain my cred as a socially-conscious shopper, but the clams turned out to be the bait for my ever broader range of purchases at “the Chopper.”
But things change. This past winter, the supermarket began what would become a major overhaul and rebranding. The store was essentially gutted even as it continued to operate–think of having open heart surgery while still at work–and it was rebranded as something called “Market 32.”
The first sign of trouble with the reincarnated supermarket was with its layout. Gone was the more or less rational division of product types. Instead, what the chain was now pushing was pre-packaged prepared foodstuffs, a segment of the food industry notorious for incredible waste. If customers were shopping for items they actually wanted to cook themselves, well, good luck finding them.
And the butcher and fish departments suddenly were shrunk and mostly hidden from view. But, hey, I could still go to the fish guys and order up a dozen or so Little Neck clams, selected by hand under my watchful eye. So, what to worry about, right?
Then, last week, one of the guys I’d been dealing with regularly had to give me special service for my order, as the clams suddenly were being sold only in pre-bundled amounts in a display case. Since the display case was empty of the dozen I needed, he managed to select my clams by hand from several hidden bundles. He also alerted me to the new reality at the store.
Today, he wasn’t at work. The display case had only one bundle of a dozen clams, and that one had several cracked shells among the netted creatures. Not so good. I asked for help, and a fish department worker (I’d never seen her before), obliged by going into the freezer room and returning with a package of a dozen pre-packaged but seemingly okay clams.
Back home tonight, dinner preparation time arrived, and the clams came out of their netting to be cleaned. One was already opened and didn’t look all that appetizing, so it was discarded. The rest were cooked in the usual broth.
But the success rate continued to drop: another one refused to open despite the intense heat, and several others that had opened on the stovetop smelled sort of funny. Not safe to eat we decided; we wound up consuming far fewer claims than we’d bought.
Fresh clams are not inexpensive, but they are essential to our Friday usual night dinners. But I can no longer trust the supply from Market 32 (aka Price Chopper). I will now have to drive further from home, and probably have to pay more, for my dozen. But I have learned a lesson. There are options beyond the mostly illusory lure of lower prices. And, if I am an educated consumer, I will choose them.