An Ode to the Free Sample, the Best Part of Grocery Shopping

Graphic: W+G Creative / Karina Maisonet
Before the quarantined days of Instacart, at-home workouts, and mandatory coffee to-go, my ideal Saturday would look a little something like this: 8 a.m. cycle class at the gym, mid-morning stop at the café to read and recharge, and then, after the strategic decision to skip lunch, a thoughtfully mapped-out grocery run, which, on weekends, translated to one highly anticipated event for me—my routine scavenger hunt for free samples.

I would start in my Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago with bites of fluffy baguette from Floriole or tiny blondie bar triangles from Sweet Mandy B’s before moving on to Trader Joe’s. There, I’d feign interest in $4 flowers and frozen quiche as I made my way towards the main attraction—the sample station in the far corner of the store. I prayed I'd encounter the brand’s freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, the ones whose aroma lured me upon entry and transported me back into my own mother’s kitchen, where I’d sip a glass of milk and watch, through the oven door, gooey morsels melt into brown sugar goodness. Greeted by the TJ's associate, I was met far more often with any number of savory, rich fixes—chicken and mushroom pelmeni, gnocchi alla sorrentina, farfalle with cheese and spinach. I’d gratefully grab one, continue my shopping, and eagerly plot my next visit, which would surely be cookie day.

Saturdays were the best of days here, the days when the team would amp up their offerings to include the wine and cheese at the front of the store, too. Interest would quickly grow around tiny swigs of Sancerre and cab franc, especially when they were served alongside aged cheddar or raspberry chèvre. After two sips of each wine and several moments of deliberating between cheeses, I would, without fail, head to the checkout counter one bottle, one cheese block, and one inspiring conversation later (often surrounding exactly how to pair said wine that very evening).

From there, it was off to Whole Foods, where I’d fill my cart with organic and non-GMO treasures while hopping from one sample station to the next. I’d start in the produce section to find the chips and guacamole; then to the baked goods aisle for Niloofar Persian Trail Mix, a concoction of almonds, mulberries, and figs; over to beer for the latest from Chicago brewers Two Brothers; in cheese, a robust gouda; and for fermented grapes, two options from Fit Vine, a “healthier” kind of bottle packing less sugar and sulfites. A win-win wine.

I would come back to my condo several hours later, sated in appetite across the board—in that which craved food, and in that which craved connection. I had come to realize, over the years, that in each sample stop, there is a conversation to be had, a question to be asked, and a story to be told. And I, curious and hungry patron, had always been eager to take it all in, nodding and lifting the box/bag/bottle with interest, as I finished the bite or sip and smiled in sincere appreciation.

When COVID-19 came, it was quick to take much with it—and our creature comforts have been far from spared. In addition to the most obviously heartbreaking of losses that have impacted our society’s health, jobs, education, and interaction, we’ve dealt with grief upon grief by way of many other forms: That trip we had booked months ago. Our cousin’s wedding. My best friend’s book release party (and the cake we ordered to go with it). Hugs. Live audience tapings. Lipstick. And, dare I say, the free sample.

The virus and its effects have quickly asked us all, as a collective and as individuals, to consider what we deem essential versus inessential. As I made my first trip to Whole Foods during pandemic times, it would seem that the free sample would fall into the latter category, with no cute cups or forks in sight, no cheese or chips out for the taking. And, just like that, the challenge had changed. The scavenger hunt was off. No longer was I focused on how many tastes to try within the hour, but instead, on how quickly I could be on and off of premises with all items (and mask) intact. What was once a leisurely and lovely outing had morphed overnight into a strategic, Supermarket Sweep-esque mission. Upon returning home this time, and every time since, I unpacked bags alongside a wave of mixed emotions—gratitude for the groceries in front of me and sorrow for something I seemed to have lost—and that I could not, for some time, put my finger on.

Now, my grocery trips lack those pauses, those brief intermissions to the reality of the all-too familiar to-do list. They are the little moments of joy layered onto an otherwise monotonous or mundane task, capable of bringing comfort and (depending on just how famished you are) relief—not unlike the post-shot sticker at the doctor’s office, the peanuts on the airplane, or the just-brewed coffee at the car dealership. These are items that are extended to us so frequently within these contexts that we are, by now, well-trained—we have welcomed a Pavlovian response to them, now associating the entire experience with the pleasure they pack—no matter how minute.

Therein lies the power of this particular inessential—that no matter how much we have come to expect such joys visit after visit, we are still, without fail, happily surprised to open our hands, receive, and say thank you in return.

And so I will wear my mask, wipe down my cart, and wait, as hopefully as ever, for cookie day to return.

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