This was not how my grandfather went to the grocery store. My grandfather did not keep lists. He did not shop the aisles in a particular order.
The bakery was right by the entrance, and so that afternoon his first stop was to pore over the glass cases of fruit tarts, napoleons, cheesecakes, rum babas, and German chocolate cake.
"What do you think, Little Toad? Rum babas?" I was about to say napoleons, my favorite, when he told the lady, "Fruit tarts. Six, please. Yes, that will be very attractive." She filled a perfect, pink bakery box, while I was sent to fetch a baguette from a brass basket.
"No, best make it two," he said when he saw the loaf I'd brought, and I went back to get another.
Then we came to the sushi counter. He grabbed boxes of nigiri and maki—still exotic then, even in LA—tuna, mackerel, salmon, shrimp, roe—California rolls for me because I would not tolerate the others. At the butcher counter, he ordered steaks, chops, roasts; at the fish counter, salmon filets, swordfish steaks, tiger shrimp, clams, mussels, halibut. A short walk to a cooler, and then small rounds of Edam, Camembert, and a wedge of sharp cheddar dropped into our shopping cart, followed by half a dozen candy bars from a display on a farm table, then peanut brittle and Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, some of which my grandfather would eat in spite of his diabetes and some of which would end up in my lunch box. (He packed my lunch full of candy and cookies every day so that I could trade to make friends, or, failing that, eat them myself. It was usually the latter.)
My grandfather consulted carefully with the green-aproned wine merchant beneath the fake pergola in the middle of the store, moving on with four bottles of white. Then he gathered the foods from England, which he always bought when we went to Bristol Farms: Devonshire clotted cream in tiny glass bottles; Lyle's Golden Syrup; lemon curd; Bird's custard for trifles, its powder packed in a tricolor tin; and, of course, the kippers, flayed and snug in their plastic package.
On particularly unlucky Saturdays, my grandfather cooked kippers for breakfast. I'd waken to the pungent, salty, fishy smell that wafted into my nostrils, headed straight down my gullet, and squeezed my stomach in an iron vise. I was convinced there was nothing on earth—at least nothing edible—that smelled as bad as frying kippers, although now, as I try to think of the right words to describe them, I find only pleasant ones: sea, salt, savory; the smell of wood smoke and lanolin on a wool sweater; the smell of kelp freshly washed on shore. Perhaps it is only that sometimes I miss my grandfather.
He'd eat the fish slowly, pensively pulling stray bones from between his full, oil-slicked lips. He seemed to go to another world when he ate his kippers, lost in some cloud of kipper incense, transported to another place where there was nothing but the smoky fish melting on tongue and teeth. But really, it was just that he'd gone home.
Kippers were one of the strange things my grandfather ate because he was English. He didn't follow cricket scores or English politics; he didn't observe Guy Fawkes Day or Boxing Day. He never got letters from England, never made phone calls. The only way you could tell he was English, besides his accent, was by what he ate. His favorite meal to make for friends was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—the pudding cooked beneath the roast so that it caught the dripping juices. He taught Marilyn to make bubble and squeak, which he made from leftover potatoes, broccoli, and onion, sautéed in plenty of oil and salt. He'd eat jellied tongue and blood sausage, which, of course, were in our shopping cart that day too, sliced and wrapped neatly in white deli paper.
Then, finally, we hit the freezer section (not, mind you, because he had planned it that way, but because some thoughtful person had placed it last on his way to the checkout). Into the cart went boxes of frozen rumaki, stuffed Cornish game hens, chicken cordon bleu, Häagen Dazs rum raisin, Dreyer's mint chocolate chip, frozen Belgian waffles he'd heat in the microwave and serve to me for breakfast with eggs, bacon, and toast.
"Want anything, Little Toad?" he asked.
I surveyed the overflowing cart. I couldn't think of anything we didn't already have.
At the checkout counter, we threw his booty haphazardly onto the conveyor belt, candy bars mixed with lamb chops, ice cream mixed with warm baguettes, sushi thrown between bottles of ginger beer. He didn't care how the baggers filled his plastic grocery sacks. My grandfather couldn't be bothered with coupons.
"Wow, are you having a party?" asked the very friendly checker, her curly red hair gathered into a ponytail at the top of her full face.
"Yes, love," my grandfather said. But I knew we'd be eating most of it ourselves.
She bounced a little as she scanned our items, so that the curls of her hair bounced too, like little springs. I decided she looked like a Cabbage Patch doll. I wanted a Cabbage Patch doll very much.
At the end, she breathlessly called out our total as if she were an announcer at a race, so that the whole store could hear, "Two hundred ninety-four dollars and fifty-two cents!"
My grandfather didn't bat an eye. He spread his checkbook open on the counter and creased it with a long fingernail.
"Got a pen, love?"
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.