Finding nostalgia in your nearby grocery
These days, grocery shopping can and will take you far beyond groceries.
Need nylons? Birthday cards? Blue jeans? A lunchbox festooned with cartoon characters? Your friendly local store has them all.
Not to mention sushi, exotic white wine and Advil (could there be a connection?).
But the other day, as I trundled through the cleansers aisle, I spied an item that made my rotten old heart sing: 20 Mule Team Borax!
I hadn’t thought about that product, or used it, or seen it, in more than 50 years. But I could instantly recall the TV commercial (voiced by none other than Ronald Reagan) and the super-grainy feel of Borax on my hands.
If smiling in a grocery store is illegal, well, lock me up. The display of 20 Mule Team made my day.
It also sent me on a mission all around the store, in search of other heritage grocery products. The good news: In the space of five minutes, I found at least 20 more blasts from the past that made my rotten old heart sing yet again.
In no particular order:
Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Back in the day, ice cream would have been inconceivable without this topping.
Grandma’s Molasses. Still has Grandma’s picture on the label. Still promises to cure whatever ails you.
Morton Salt. Still comes in the blue cylinder. Still has that metal spout that you couldn’t open if your life depended on it.
Jell-O. Remember the raspberry version that stained your lips in kindergarten? The green version that made the second-grade girls go “Yuck!”? They’re still for sale.
Anything by Betty Crocker. She never actually existed, but she was a symbol of all things baked and sugary. Also, all things easy to make.
French’s mustard. It long ago gave way, in the coolness derby, to mustards that are darker and more exotic. But French’s still sits on the shelf, in all its bright yellow glory.
Velveeta. This was Mama’s go-to for an after-school snack. It’s also the centerpiece of one of my favorite jokes. Question: How do you know a city is a hick town? Answer: When Velveeta is in the gourmet food section.
A-1 sauce. An entire half-aisle of today’s grocery is full of barbecue sauces. But A-1 endures, brown and pungent as always.
Hellman’s mayonnaise. Today, it sits beside various lite mayos and flavored mayos. But Hellman’s still bills itself as the indispensable topping for a sandwich. Who’s to disagree?
Chef Boyardee. The clear choice for all who hated to cook, or who simply wanted to get very full, very fast. The “chef” has not morphed into healthiness. No diet versions, or watch-your-carbs versions. Still chock full of noodles and red sauce. Still right there in cans of several sizes.
Rice Krispies. A breakfast staple for 100 years. But even better as the centerpiece of those treats that made summer fun — Krispies baked together with marshmallows. The recipe is still right there on the box.
Skippy peanut butter. When they introduced chunky alongside the traditional creamy, it was as if a folk singer had suddenly taken up an electric guitar. Heresy! But both varieties have stood the test of time. Their many multi-textured competitors take up more shelf space, but the Skips endure.
Domino sugar. Can’t you still see Grandma pouring a bagful into a canister in her always-immaculate kitchen? I can. And I can remember sneaking a pinch of it when she wasn’t looking.
And finally, the granddaddy of them all…Coca-Cola. You do have to hunt a bit, in and among today’s diet versions, Cherry Cokes and what-have-you. But Good Old Classic Coke is still there.
What does my reconnaissance prove? That there’s a market for sentimentality? That despite the modern stampede toward Anything New, people still prefer — and return to — the products they know?
I consulted the obvious source: the manager of my local grocery. “It wouldn’t be on our shelves if it didn’t sell,” he proclaimed.
Yet the guy typing this is not the carefree soul he used to be. If he chose a can of Chef Boyardee today, he might expire on the spot from an overload of calories. If he poured Hershey’s syrup on ice cream, his arteries would scream.
So, as delighted as I was to find all these heritage products, I didn’t belly up to the bar and buy any of them. At least not yet.
But I am about to compile the list for our next grocery run. Don’t be surprised if you see “20 Mule Team” right up top.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.