In Search of EVOO: Adventures of a Monastic Shopper Part 1 .....by Sr. Anna-Camille
We're off to do the shopping... !
We are blessed at St. Placid to have a wonderful chef, Nicolas Koska, cooking our meals. He has been with us for about a year and a half now and continues to surprise and amaze us with his creative, delicious meals. He also makes desserts and pastries and makes all our bread; sourdough, rye, dinner rolls, slider buns, you name it, Nico makes it. Because he makes heat-and-serve dishes for us to reheat on the weekends, he is pretty busy cooking and baking.
I was asked recently to do the food shopping. I said yes, and that’s when things got interesting. Before I entered the monastery, I used the microwave to heat my frozen entrees. I used bagged salads. I could somewhat reliably pick out a good apple. That was the extent of my shopping expertise. But how hard could it be? And so, I began.
On my first shopping trip, it became clear to me that grocery stores, particularly the produce section, are places housing deep mysteries. What exactly is a shallot? (a type of onion; apparently any 17-year-old working in the produce section can tell you that) And how do you know if it is a good one? (it’s large, plump, and firm with no black mold).
What kind of meat is Teres Major? (Tenderest cut of a cow’s shoulder.) Or is that an ancient cartography term that was accidentally placed on the grocery list? (No, it is not.) How is it possible that a store can run out of chicken breasts? (I don’t know, they just do, especially on Wednesdays.)
But even as I was trying to figure out these baffling questions, I realized that I had a mindset shift to make. My first grocery list had ‘chicken thighs’ on it. I bought a package of 4 very nice range fed chicken thighs. As we were unloading the groceries and putting them away, Nico took out the chicken. It was the first time I saw the look on his face that was to become a familiar sight. He is the soul of kindness, and that look was the one that such a soul gets when they are trying to find a tactful way of saying something.
“Are they okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I am going to need more. I’m cooking for 20 people.”
Hmmmm…true enough, I had previously shopped for a family of four. A regular size bottle of canola oil would last a family of 4 for a month or more. At our monastery, maybe 2 days. So, the first shift in my thinking was “remember, you are buying for 15 – 20 people.” So, the next time canola oil was on the list I bought a 35-pound (yes pound, not gallon) jug. By this time, I had discovered the “Chef’s Store.” The place where restaurant people go to buy things like food, serving items, paper, and cleaning goods, etc. all in quantities that do not exist in nature. Nico got “the look” again and gently told me it was great, and he could use it, but that it was designed for directly dropping into a deep fat fryer, the kind they have at restaurants and fast-food places.
It has become Nico’s practice now to put down specific amounts of any item he needs. Sometimes they are epic in their proportions. I am sure I can claim the title of the only person to ever clear the produce section at Safeway of its entire supply of zucchini.
One day, after I began sharing my shopping adventures with others, I received a package from Amazon. I opened it to find a small but thick paperback book titled “Field Guide to Produce.” I still have no idea who sent it, but it has been amazingly useful as it tells what a thing is, how to buy a good one, best way to store it and even ideas for serving it. Everything I know about loquats; I have learned from this book.
I think my biggest and most helpful learning from those early days was the wisdom of looking at the list and asking questions before I went shopping. On my second or third shopping trip the second item on the list was “EVOO.” I assumed that was a brand name, but I had no idea what it was. We have a lactose intolerant sister in the community so I wondered if it could be a lactose free item or brand. Instead of EMOO, it was EVOO. The V perhaps standing for some kind of plant/veggie thing. I looked thoroughly in the dairy section, found nothing, and finally gave up. I would go home, ask Nico what it was and go back to get it.
When I got home, I pointed to the list and asked, “What is EVOO? I figured it is some lactose free cheese or something, but I couldn’t find anything with that label.”
Nico got the look. Then, “Um, it’s extra virgin olive oil.”
Now I always go over the list before I shop, I am committed to there never being another EVOO incident in my shopping ministry.
I wish I could say that there haven’t been any other mishaps but that would not be honest, as you will see in Part 2: Finding God in the Brussel Sprouts.