Written by: CHRISTINE O
After living in the Virgin Islands for 2 1/2 years, I’ve become pretty accustomed to most of the challenges and joys that make up life in the Caribbean. My initially intense longings for a Starbuck’s coffee have subsided (what are they even serving now, peppermint lattes???). And just when I stopped yearning for a stateside drugstore, the island got our very own Walgreen’s. There was an actual parade for its opening day… I’m not kidding. However, the one thing that I can’t seem to shake that I still miss terribly is stateside grocery shopping.
Just before we moved from Chicago, Whole Foods opened up a brand new store in our neighborhood that was a replica of their flagship store in Austin, TX. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it for what it was worth, but the island girl I am today now realizes that store wasn’t just any grocery store, it was heaven on Earth.
Upon entering the store, you were treated to an aerial view of the produce department – near bursting with vibrant, colorful, fresh, (not mention – organic!) fruits and vegetables of any sort you might need and several kinds you will never need.
Beyond the sheer abundance of groceries available, this Whole Foods also included a wine bar, a coffee bar, an actual bar (serving hip micro-brews, but of course), a diner, a sushi/Chinese food station, a gelato station, Panini stations, a full bakery, two soup stations, and an enormous salad bar of seemingly endless variety. Oh, and the meat and seafood departments were fully stocked with any cut or type of fresh meat you could ask for – just flown in from any given part of the world.
It was a destination. People would literally go there to hang out. Seriously, what more could you need? These days I can only dream of it, a lovely rainbow of health and a wonderland of nourishment I wish I could visit.
Now here I am, doing my grocery shopping on St. Thomas. Why do I miss Whole Foods so much still, you ask? Where do I begin? Well… think of the store I just described, then think of the exact opposite, and that’s where I’ll start.
As a quick aside, if you haven’t seen this genius music video parody, you’re missing out. Watch here – it’s time for it to get real in the Whole Foods parking lot:
People often speculate on the variety of healthy, tropical food I must have access to living on an island. In their fantasy, I’m enjoying freshly caught fish every night and snacking on local fruits throughout the day. However, the simple fact is that there is no commercial fishing down here and most of the fish we’re eating has been flown in from other parts of the world – and frozen. As for the fruit, we do get some mangoes and a few other exotics like soursop that is definitely most excellent (especially right off the trees in the backyard), but we don’t have the land on this little island to produce enough for commercial re-sale. We are nowhere near a self-sufficient island – nearly everything is shipped in.
Here in the VI, if you want “fresh” (and I use that term loosely – mostly meaning non-moldy, non-fly-ridden food), you really can only go to the stores immediately after they get their shipment in, which is typically on Sundays. But I’ve found it’s best to wait until Mondays so they have a chance to unload all the goods.
Keep in mind that if it wasn’t flown in, then it was shipped in on a cargo barge by sea, which can take 2 weeks from the states. Imagine those bright, beautiful blueberries that you just bought at your local grocer. Now imagine them after they’ve been sitting in your refrigerator for 2 weeks – wrinkled, with a bit of fuzzy mold starting to grow. Or, imagine them 2 1/2 – 3 weeks later, should you not be able to make it to the store on Monday. Would you pay full price for them in that condition? Needless to say, we don’t really eat blueberries anymore.
Speaking of full price, it is worth noting that much of the time, our prices are fuller than stateside full. The shipping issue is obviously a huge part of this and that trickles down to the consumer big time. I once paid $20 for a liter of olive oil. Ok, well maybe it was $19.99 (no sales tax here!). Granted, this was at one of those “fancy” St Thomas grocery stores (ie. the ones for the tourists and yacht provisioners) that I only go to when I can’t bear the thought of having to go to one more store to get everything I need, but still.
I’ve learned some tricks in my few years here, and I’ll pass them along to you.
Here are my 6 Shopping Survival Tips for your island pleasure…
- There is a substitute for everything. If the store doesn’t have it, Google it. Don’t abandon that recipe – you can make do if you’re willing to get creative.
- Inspect everything – touch, look, smell. Take a long hard look at those onions or tomatoes before you buy them. If they don’t look appetizing now, don’t buy them even if you need them. Just go with what’s available and make do (see above). You’ll just have to wait and hope for better next week.
- Check and re-check the expiration date. The shelves are often stocked with expired (by years, even) food.
- If they have it now and you think you may need/want it in the near future, then buy two of them. I’ve never regretted this.
- The checkout lady is still going to be rude to you even if you say the requisite “Good morning-afternoon-evening”. Try to get to know who the nicer ones are and get in their line, even if it’s longer. It’s always worth it.
- Bring instant hand sanitizer like Purell with you every time. The chicken will juice you. As a side, you will get a dirty look from the cashier when she sees that you have put the chicken in a bag from the produce department.
Complaints aside, I’ve come to realize that somehow, not having a coffee bar at the grocery store has still worked out for me. It’s not as pleasant of an experience to be sure – the store I go to has a distinct smell that I have grown to dread – but life here has been a big eye opener for me. Before living here, I didn’t realize how easy and quick companies made it to consume and how easy it was to allow that to consume your life.
When I lived in Chicago, I could lose an entire weekend shopping for material goods. This is how I would spend my leisure time – shopping for clothes, for furniture, for food, etc. It was a pastime. Had I not moved out of that heavy consumer-driven climate, I would have had a stunning condo, full of beautiful furniture, rugs, dishes, etc. (which I admittedly still very much long for). But, I’d be spending my entire life in a store.
Here, the store is the last place I want to be. It’s dreadful. I want to get out of there as soon as possible. So, while I won’t be eating organic food for awhile, I’m thankful that I will be nourishing my life and soul with the things that really matter – tons of sunshine, salt water, friends, and… wilted lettuce.