The Intimate Story of Your Grocery List | “Smelt”

At the intersection of memoir, story, and intimacy we find… the grocery list. A fascination with this treasure chest of an overlooked art form bloomed from a chance encounter with a stranger’s grocery list thirty years ago.

While at a retreat center nestled in the vast Oregon forest, I went for a hike in the rain and a yellow slip of paper caught my attention. I picked it up (of course I did; I’d been trained from an early age to respect nature and never to litter). The paper was someone’s grocery list.

I’d made shopping lists all my adult life, and I’d focused on developing my writing skills since I was a pre-teen, yet it wasn’t until I examined that damp piece of notepad paper and felt a rush of eager curiosity that I realized the potential of the shopping list to tell an intimate story.

I crave people’s truest stories, but they are not always easy to come by. The exposure of telling is a calculated risk, due to the suppressive forces of societal expectation, family beliefs, and painful experiences. By the time we’re writing our own grocery lists, we’re often laboring under multiple false layers taken on board to keep us compliant per the perspective of our safety-obsessed subconscious mind. We can thus lose track of our rock-bottom realness in our daily interactions, including in our relations with ourselves.

I like to peek under the rocks of what society says is “normal” or “right” or “best” to find the realness of people, the solid earth beneath. When I made a living as a bookkeeper, most of my clients’ intimate financial decisions weren’t shared with anyone else in their lives but me. I honored their trust by not judging, and I always had a waiting list — my bookkeeping skills weren’t stellar, but people yearned for help without criticism. Our trained-to-survive reluctance to reveal ourselves makes genuineness show up in spaces where we don’t fear judgment or observation. As such, a person’s total financial picture and their grocery list constitute two unsung niches of memoir.

Here’s the piece of paper I found that rainy day in the Oregon woods. Yes, I’ve kept it for thirty years.

This list struck me as a private journal entry I had permission to read (the likelihood of finding the owner to return the list, or of them wanting it if I did find them, seemed nil). The story unfolds as a series of questions.

Whose phone number is near the top? (I masked part of it to protect privacy.)

What are the numbers written diagonally near the bottom?

Why are “oat snacks” a question? Is the author trying to cut back? Do they want to try something new, for when the old “corn snacks” get boring?

Was “Smelt” (a type of fish) an afterthought, there at the top?

The list appears to have been created over time, using different writing utensils. It’s a sticky note, so I imagine the pad magnetized to a fridge, jotted onto between shopping trips.

The misspelling of “hangars” makes the author seem vulnerable, and the final entry makes me smile every time: “veggies — many.” This is a person I think I would like. I’m also a many-veggies person.

The lack of answers, or, rather, the fact that we will never know the answers, infuses the mini-memoir with intrigue and with an element of nostalgia, as if the person, someone we once knew, is now lost to us.

Check your own shopping list. What might someone learn about you if all they had to go on was that list? How honestly do you compose your grocery lists? What do you reveal?

I’ve been collecting found lists ever since that first one — nabbed in grocery stores and bookstores, lifted from the doctor’s office, plucked from library books.

Once, at the small food co-op I belonged to in Vancouver, BC, I found a grocery list. In my excitement I mentioned it to the cashier, who got excited back, to my surprise, going so far as to pull a found list from his own wallet and have a conversation with me about our shared nerdy hobby while the check-out line lengthened. That cashier and I always had special smiles for each other after that.

This is my point: Every small bit of truth creates a reverberation of intimacy. Take the calculated risk to tell your real story, even as you craft your shopping list. Connect with solid earth. Make an authentic mark. Hear yourself.

You never know who your story might touch.

Alice Archer is the author of The Infinite Onion and Everyday History, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new releases, giveaways, and more.

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