When I moved to New York City after college, I quickly fell into the habit of living off instant ramen, partly because it seemed like a glamorous, "twentysomething in the city" cliché, and partly because I was too overwhelmed by my never-ending job hunt to cook anything more substantial. It was the first time in my life I was living away from a mom who cooked or unlimited dining hall options, and I found temporary solace in dried noodles and the occasional boring salad. By the time I started earning a steady paycheck and found an apartment with a decent-enough kitchen, I had fallen deep into the routine of eating Oscar Meyer turkey slices straight out of the pack as my daily source of protein. I didn't expected to hear gasps when I casually mentioned to my coworkers that I had never been to Trader Joe's, but the admission was met with shocked — almost offended — faces and dropped jaws. I guess I should have known how seriously my R29 colleagues would take the news, considering that TJ's food is a popular subject for us. After my admission, I was simply told, "Olivia. You're going." So it was decided that one evening, a coworker who happens to be a Trader Joe's veteran would accompany me on my very first shopping trip. The morning of my adventure, I made my usual grocery list. At that point, it looked exactly the same every week — bread, baby carrots, Top Ramen — so I really don't know why I even bothered writing it out. Still, I'm a creature of habit, so I did the same thing before heading to Trader Joe's. What a fool I was. Before leaving the office, I was given another list by the TJ's fanatics I work with. "You need to immediately head to the frozen aisle for dumplings and mac 'n' cheese. And Olivia, do not forget the Cookie Butter. Seriously." It was somehow decided that we would go to the Union Square location —possibly the busiest Trader Joe's in the city — on the Monday evening after Thanksgiving. Marshall, my shopping companion/handler, called it a "baptism by fire." I was nervous, and made even more so by the grimaces everyone gave me as I relayed our plans.
The minute we stepped through the automatic doors, I realized I had every right to be terrified. Did you know that the line is sometimes so long at Trader Joe's, that it wraps around the edge of the store? I didn't. I also didn't know that you can only reach certain items by getting in line and shopping as you go. Well, I think someone actually did try to explain that to me before I went, but I either didn't understand or completely blocked it out for sanity's sake. Anyway, because of this New York City-specific checkout setup, if you get in line and then realize you've forgotten to pick something up from the aisles in the center of the store, you're pretty much screwed. You either need to get out of line or just leave behind whatever item you forgot. But we'll revisit this dilemma again later. My anxious, introverted soul was freaked out by the massive line and urged my body to flee the store and forget about Trader Joe's. No matter what my friend said, this couldn't be worth it. Then I saw the frozen-food aisle. It was my jaw's turn to drop, and ramen packets quickly receded from my mind. This must be what heaven looks like: pork gyoza, salmon burgers, chicken tikka masala. Finally, I could eat like a queen without ever having to adult up and learn how to cook.
I was excited by the idea of switching up my dinners, but lunches were another story. As I learned from the self-help book Who Moved My Cheese? — my mom, a therapist, made me listen to it on tape in the third grade — I'm not great at handling change. And for as long as I can remember, I've eaten the same thing for lunch almost every single day: a sandwich of turkey, sharp cheddar cheese, and mayonnaise on whole wheat bread, baby carrots, and Cheez-Its. I planned on picking up all those ingredients at TJ's, but there was a problem. No Cheez-Its. Who moved my Cheez-Its!? Instead, Marshall grabbed a box of "Cheddar Rockets"off a shelf above the ice cream freezer. "These will have to do," she said as she placed them in my cart. I was resistant at first, but I'm happy to report that they taste as good as my usual cheesy-cracker snack, with the added bonus of an adorable rocket-ship shape (I swear I'm in my 20s). Marshall and I eventually made it to the line and picked up produce, deli meats, and even free sticky-toffee pudding samples along the way. As we approached the cash registers, Marshall turned to me, eyes wide and said, "Olivia, we missed an aisle." Of course, that aisle had to be home to the Cookie Butter. Curses! Heroically, my companion offered to watch our carts as I went to retrieve a jar, but alas when I got the designated shelf, I couldn't find it. Was it possible they were out of stock? Trader Joe's, how could you do this to me? I scurried back to relieve Marshall of her spot-saving duties and sadly explained that I couldn't track down the Cookie Butter. I was ready to throw in the towel and just get the hell out of there, but this seasoned TJ's shopper wasn't about to let me leave without getting my Cookie Butter. She said, "stay here" and ran off. A few minutes later, I saw Marshall round the corner with a jar hoisted high. In an almost too-hard-to-believe twist, she had found the very last jar on the top shelf. Hooray! We finally checked out, and I left the store happy about my purchases, the shockingly reasonable total on my receipt, and the fact that I was finally free from that overwhelming crowd of shoppers. The lessons I learned from my maiden voyage to Trader Joe's are ones I'll carry for the rest of my life. You don't have to know how to cook or have a personal chef to eat gourmet-tasting meals at home, ALWAYS bring a buddy with you to TJ's, and perhaps most importantly, Cookie Butter is definitely worth the hype.