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A shopping list story

"It’s the poetry of the everyday, open to interpretation.” Lucy Ireland Gray

The other day I had one of those random conversations in a supermarket. This one was about shopping lists. I can't remember how it started but the lady I was talking to, said that she had left her shopping list at home again! I sympathised. After all we all do it don't we? And, trying to be reassuring, I also said, that it probably didn't matter because having a shopping list was no guarantee of getting everything on the list because often we didn't read it properly and forgot something - often the most important thing. Just because it is the most important. She laughed and said - yes - and there was also the horrible moment when you realise that most of the stuff in your supermarket trolley wasn't on the list anyway.

So many truths that reveal a whole lot of things - all spoken within a minute. So I slotted it away in my head as something worth pursuing for a blog.

Then, as I was 'researching' something else I came across this quote from Nigel Slater:

"Shopping lists are, to me, just wish lists, they are rarely adhered to, and I will often add a recipe simply because I have been tempted by a particular ingredient."

We have just come back from a shopping expedition, which, in my case, was merely an informational visit. I had no shopping list. We have friends for lunch on Sunday and I have not yet decided what to cook so I was exploring what was looking good and what was not. Looking for ideas really. It was something to pass the time, in fact, to cheer me up. Shopping always cheers me up. And it reminded me of my idea of a post on shopping lists.

Also, just a few days ago I had come across these words from Nigel Slater in an article on a typical week in his life.

"Despite our well-laid plans, shopping is really where it all starts ... With a weekly column and a 600-recipe cookbook on the go it has to be. There are ingredients I simply must have, and others I am hoping will be there. But there is also many an inspirational buy. The gold and ruby plums, the tiny fuzzy-skinned peaches, the extraordinary spotted trevise; all these will have a home either on the table or for the column. Often for both."

Obviously shopping for him is rather more important than shopping for me. And I have no doubt, that unlike me, he is not really looking at the price as part of the equation. He is not an 'ordinary' person. Part of my decision making process today was to decide whether to go for good old chicken - perhaps a tiny bit boring? - lamb, pork or beef. Or maybe even fish - I remembered seeing salmon on a special. I chose pork, although this is not necessarily a final decision because there were some very nice looking pork chops on special. I wonder whether Nigel Slater even knows the concept of a 'special'. Not that I really need to worry about this, but I have to say buying organic, grass fed, etc. etc. lamb at $50.00 a kilo is not the choice I would make even though I could afford it. My poor early years just won't let me do it. I may even go back to chicken. So whilst Nigel Slater can say that his shopping list is just a wish list, the rest of us might not be quite as fancy free. Although maybe we should be - if we can afford it of course. Are we just being mean and depriving ourselves of life's little luxuries?

However, in my kitchen I have a small blackboard - a cunning device that hides the electric cables running down the post on which it is placed. I use it to make notes of things when I have run out or am about to run out. And, as you can see, my grandchildren occasionally us it as a message board, cum art canvas.

The things I need for the day's meal are extras that don't appear on that list. The blackboard items are the things that appear on my shopping lists, the day's meal is often made up along the way.

However, today I had no list, so halfway round the supermarket I tried to remember what I had written on the blackboard, but could only remember one item - tinned tomatoes - which I duly bought. It was not important because I knew I was shopping again tomorrow - the Weekend AFR routine. It does indeed demonstrate though that we do need shopping lists if only for basic things like tinned tomatoes that have run out. The things we need to have available to us at all times.

This is one of my proper shopping lists. This one was for last weekend's family feast, and considering I was feeding 12 people, it's a very small list. And that's because it's the last minute, things I had forgotten list. A timely demonstration of the problems with shopping lists. You always leave something off. In this instance when I reread the recipes I found I needed more mozzarella, more parsley, etc. Really it should have just been a dash to the shop for bread. Alas I cannot now remember whether I also bought other things, but I am willing to bet that there was something.

The purpose of a shopping list for someone on a really tight budget though is much more important. It's a reminder to stick to the list and to not stray from it at all, when you see your favourite chocolate on a super special. Although on the other hand if you are really on the bread line, then a shopping list is redundant. What you have to do then is to find all the marked down items and the super specials and work with that.

When I first started on this post - looking for a header picture - I found a vast range of commercially designed shopping lists - some made to look pretty, some with long lists of basic items that I assume you just ticked, some small, some really quite large. Do people really use these I wondered?

And as if in answer to my question the next thing I found was this. Bill Keaggy a collector of shopping lists. It began with just one discarded shopping list that caught his eye even thought it was pretty ordinary, but it gave him the idea of collecting them. Well, he is "a designer and I like observing things". But as he expanded his collection he found that he was not alone.

People began sending their collected items, or random items that they found. Eventually I think his collection was made into a book. And, again, he is not alone. There is a website called The Shopping which posts an example almost every day. The one on the left is today's with a comment from the website author:

"This a combined ‘to do’ list and shopping list. The owner needs to do some office work, manage some storage, attend to laundry and then ‘Call for Tas. Rod’?

The items on the food list include the very vague 'Bfest' and 'dinners' as well as Comger Ale - a misspelling? The website owner translated it as Conger eel.

All of which begs the question why would anyone collect them? Well this is where we move into philosophy, literature, art, social studies, even a kind of archaeology.

"It’s as if all these separate, unimportant things, when put together as a collection, suddenly become revealing ... Grocery lists are like glimpses into somebody’s life ... Lists can tell you all sorts of things about a person. Some of us are organised and divide lists into sections – fruit, vegetables, dairy. Most of us are sloppy. Some are on a budget and you can really tell from their lists. And then, of course, there’s the bad spelling. A lot of bad spelling." Bill Keaggy

So what does my list say about me? That I am planning on making something vaguely Italian. Making something because there is an actual quantity next to the Mozzarella, which implies that I need a specific amount. Not just mozzarella to top up my fridge supply. That I am marginally organised because it's written on an actual notepad. Maybe the fact that the Fred Hollowes logo at the bottom implies I am a donor/follower. Not so. To my shame. I cannot remember where I got it from now. But this does illustrate something that Bill Keaggy says:

"I like to think there is a story behind each and every list I found. Well, two stories: the one I make up in my head and the one that’s the truth I’ll never know." Bill Keaggy

I remember reading somewhere once, that Doris Lessing kept a notebook in which she would write down snatches of conversations she heard on the bus or the train, in a café - anywhere - and that these sometimes became the inspiration for whole novels. So I guess that this is sort of what is going on with these collections, except that so far no-one has actually written the novel based on a shopping list. Well I don't think so anyway.

Then there's Lucy Ireland Gray a British archaeology graduate who had a minor exhibition in the Museum of Brands in London. The photograph at the top of the page is from that. And here in Melbourne, in 2017 Kenny Pittock, a ceramic artist won the Emerging Artist $10,000 Redlands Konica Minolta prize for his work - shown here - which he called Fifty-two found shopping lists written by people who need milk. They might look like actual shopping lists but they are actually ceramic reproductions. Why milk? Well apparently it's one of the most common items on these lists - along with bread - which says something just in itself. Why? Because:

“The manager told me that milk is generally the last thing a shopper will get before leaving the store and so it’s also the place they abandon their shopping lists. Each shopping list functions as both a poem and a portrait, offering a glimpse into the people we pass in the supermarket.” Kenny Pittock

And also because - well bread and milk - books have been written on every aspect of these two basics of life.

Apparently like so many things, written shopping lists are becoming rarer because people put those lists on their phones these days. Or they order their groceries online. We have gone digital. Which does sort of make shopping lists collectible archaeological items. Shopping lists are, after all, ancient. Lists have been found as far back as Ancient Mesopotamia. The website Listonic has a brief history with examples - below are a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet, a wooden list from the soldiers on Hadrian's wall and one from Michelangelo who drew pictures to help his illiterate servant.

The thing is, modern day shopping lists are written on all sorts of things not a clay tablet that is going to last for centuries.. Not always good paper that can be preserved either as the examples in those art works show. And the digital lists will just disappear completely.

I confess I had not thought of all these aspects of shopping lists when I started on this. I was just going to ramble on about how we either forgot to make a list, forgot to take a list, forgot some items on it and anyway often disregarded it and bought other stuff that took our fancy. So in a way it's a bit of a bonus to find that they actually have some kind of cultural significance:

“In a world where people often portray their lives as far more glamorous, a shopping list tells you how it really is. They’re refreshingly honest, even slightly vulnerable. A glimpse of the domesticity behind the mask. " Lucy Ireland Gray

Nigella Lawson goes even further:

"A list is so much more than a reminder of what’s to be done. It’s a record of memories and moments, and a marker of intent"

You'd need to see the items actually bought though to get a greater glimpse into those lives wouldn't you?


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