some people will eat anything. Not me. There was only one meal that appealed to my appetite. This heavenly prix fixe was served at Yamase restaurant on King West -- until last fall, when cruel fate closed the place and broke my health. Now, to ward off fainting spells and scurvy, I'm forced to go shopping for supplies someplace besides the LCBO. Even as a child, I found supermarkets horribly depressing places full of products instead of food. All those gigantic tubs of peanut butter, crates of powdered milk and pillow-sized bags of puffed wheat meant to save a big family money put me off grocery shopping for good.
Chinese or Indian supermarkets don't make me feel so bad, because I can pick through shelves of pretty packages whose contents are a total mystery to me. But for a real adventure where the random and unpredictable selection and low prices resemble a good rummage sale, it's Grocery Warehouse Clearances, just up Noble Street from Queen in Parkdale.
Wednesday to Saturday from 10 to 5, you can walk down the stairs that lead to an Aladdin's cave of orphaned groceries. Friendly fellows Brooke and Bernie stack and sell the stock they get from grocery stores gone bankrupt or bought out, slow movers and old labels, stuff that can come from just about anywhere.
Brooke's ex-father-in-law started Usher's grocery "salvage" company in 1936. The family constructed this building over 25 years ago, when there were 14 cash registers. Now, these two continue arranging shipments with their practical philosophy: "Gotta take the good with the bad."
Some customers drive down to drop a few hundred bucks. Locals with little to spend are just as welcome. Brooke understands. "Some people aren't working. They come in, wander around for an hour and maybe buy something for 79 cents."
An hour is hardly enough browsing time for all there is to see. Just inside the door, birch beer from the Maritimes, 3 bottles for 99 cents. Currently, there's a particularly fascinating array of jars, bottles and tins representing the end of the exotic imports of a "multicultural" grocer in Mississauga whose rent was too high.
I've already taken home a bottle of wild rose syrup from Poland. The Greek barber next to me recommends the bitter green-orange preserves. There are four brands of vine leaves. I pick up a bottle of Jordanian orange-blossom water for $1.29, and it smells so beautiful I don't know whether to put it in drinks or behind my ears.
According to the food science division of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, "As long as the can stays intact, hermetically sealed, the product is good with respect to health concerns.... A small dent on the can's body shouldn't affect the product unless it damages the double seams."
Brooke graphically illustrates this point by changing the shape of a green bean tin with his fist. He whips out a marker to reduce the price to 29 cents as he delivers a speech about the misunderstood dented can. As to best-before dates, chains get rid of outdated labels, he says, but despite the date some stuff will actually keep for years. "It isn't milk.'
Campbell's soup, for example, has a sell-by or best-before date, while Heinz's best-before info is hidden in the computer code where customers can't see it. A Campbell's rep who wishes to remain nameless won't elaborate on eating beyond the label date and will only insist that "it's just not recommended.' Anna Relyea at Heinz will only say that "it would be unusual for our products to stay on the shelves long anyway.' Hmm.
Right now at the store they have a lot of canned goods bearing the Generation label, discontinued when Provigo of Quebec was purchased by Loblaws. They came in a 25-tractor-trailer-load from Sudbury, 12 of which the two owners unloaded themselves.
There are, of course, mistakes. Like the tofu cheese that went from California up to Vancouver, where it was discovered the reefer (refrigeration container) was 40° F instead of 38°. Brooke bought the load and "couldn't give the stuff away. We don't have any tofu cheese people.' He used to get a lot more items, toiletries especially (I like the Canadian-made Amigo orange or blue aftershave for 89 cents), but now much of it goes to food banks, the major competition for this operation.
In the end, I pick up one can of rosebud beets and linger over the stuff that really attracts me, like the old-style package of Bulldog steel wool from Thamesville, Ontario. Art for 69 cents.
As I'm leaving, the two tell me about the big one that got away. A full boatload of sugar. Sat in a warehouse for a year. In the end, somebody else got it. Brooke looks wistful. But who knows what surprising jetsam next week might bring.