Making Groceries

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Growing up, my mother was the height of organization and cleanliness.  My mother was a stay-at-home mother that cleaned and cooked. A lot. She’d fuss if we didn’t make the bed in the morning and if we dumped our school books on the kitchen table in the afternoon.

Twice a year, my mother would take all the food out of the pantry to touch up the paint that got scraped. She’d spring clean the closets and strip and redo her linoleum floors once a year too.  All the while, she was preparing dinner for us every night.  With five children, we rarely had leftovers.

I thought all mothers cooked and cleaned as vigorously as my mother.  I learned that was not the case.  We’d have friends over and ask if they wanted to stay for dinner.  They’d inquire what we’d be eating, and I’d go look at my mother’s calendar—she always had her menu written down for the coming two weeks.  My friends were amazed.  Their mothers didn’t know what they were having until about an hour before they ate—no pre-planning went into it.  But with a large family on a budget, planning was essential.

So, every two weeks my mother went to Schwegmann’s.  She wrote her grocery list, organized by the order of the aisles, on an envelope and put her coupons inside.  She’d buy so many groceries, she’d need two baskets.  When the first basket was full, she’d take a note she’d tucked into her purse out and place it on top of the bursting basket, “Please do not touch.”

During the summer, I’d go with my mother to Schwegmann’s. I LOVED going to Schwegmann’s.  We went to the store in Gentilly.  This was their largest store; it was once the largest grocery store in the nation. Can you imagine?  The Gentilly store had two stories; the upstairs had a pet store and the administrative offices.  My sister and I would visit both.  The women in the offices gave us candy.

Downstairs, there was a lunch counter (frequented usually by the working men in the neighborhood), a shoe repair place, shoe store (Shoe Town–remember Crazy Johnny?), hair salon, post office, florist, and even a bar room (also frequented by those workmen).  The Gentilly Schwegmann’s was such a special place.  It was just so big!

It was so big, in fact, that as a child it was the biggest indoor place to which I had ever been (apparently I never went to the Superdome as a child). And in my child’s eye, it was the biggest place on Earth.  Once, I told my father I loved him and he asked, “How much do you love me?” And I responded, “Grocery store much.” He laughed and asked what I meant.  I explained.  Schwegmann’s was the biggest quantifiable thing I could imagine existing.  It became our thing, for me to tell my father I loved him “grocery store much.”

I have many memories of time spent in Schwegmann’s, and all of them are positive.  It was more than a grocery store, more than a Sav-a-Center Rouses or a Whole Foods. It was a way of life. And for us New Orleanians, it is very much missed even still, both the grocery and the way of life.

Update: Thanks Dail_m for the link to a few pics of the inside of the Gentilly store–click here and view the last one, No. 13, for an idea of the size of this place.

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