Holy Shiitakes!

Even though I love to cook, I never thought a grocery store could change my life. Central Market has—and twenty varieties of mushrooms are only one reason.

June 2003By Comments

WHAT I LIKE TO DO when I’m not doing what I like to do best is eat. It follows that I also like to buy groceries and cook. Getting good groceries hasn’t always been easy in Texas. Thirty years ago, if I had a recipe that required, say, pancetta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and shiitake mushrooms, the easiest way to procure those ingredients was to fly to New York and take a cab to Balducci’s. I was born to a generation for whom bread meant Mrs. Baird’s white, and lettuce that didn’t come from the garden was unfailingly iceberg. Chickens came from the chicken house out back, and extra-virgin olive oil was not something you talked about in mixed company. Then, in 1994, H-E-B, a grocery chain that I’d never thought of patronizing, changed my life by opening its first Central Market location on North Lamar Boulevard in Austin, a five-minute drive from my house.

Ever since, Central Market has been one of the poles on the axis of my life. Whole Foods is actually a few blocks closer, and I shop there too, but I’ve come to think of it as a smaller, less exciting, and more-organic-than-thou version of Central Market. The Central Market experience, you see, is without parallel. Every time I pull into the parking lot, which usually approaches gridlock, I feel that wonderful surge of childhood remembrances of sounds, smells, and possibilities unlimited: of Christmas morning or a circus pulling into town with lions, elephants, and clowns. There is a sense of apprehension too: the heart-pounding thrill of encountering the unknown. No wonder tour buses—tour buses!—stop out front. (A second Central Market is open in Austin, and there are locations in Houston, San Antonio, and the Metroplex, but the original stands alone. It’s one of three places, along with the Capitol and the Bob Bullock state history museum, that Austinites take out-of-town guests.)

I bought a new car about the time Central Market opened. To date, it's got less than 30,000 miles on the odometer; my wife, Phyllis, jokes that I'm like the little old lady who drives only between her home and the church and grocery store. Okay, I also go to the gym and to the Texas Monthly office in downtown Austin, but you get an idea of the comfortable perimeter that Central Market has woven around my days. All that I need or desire is no more than a short drive away.

Shopping at Central Market is not for the timid. With its high ceilings and exposed girders, the building has the feel of a gigantic warehouse—a massive, pulsating sprawl of eatables, drinkables, accessories, and surprises. Adjusting to its chaotic flow takes practice and a Zen-like attitude on time and space. I have a friend who claims that he can't set foot inside without first ingesting a dangerous quantity of tranquilizers. Another friend boycotts the store because he refuses to master its checkout system, which expects shoppers to price produce and bulk purchases by punching four- or five-digit product codes into a scale. The system is an experiment in human honesty, because a shopper could easily fill a bag with expensive Kona coffee from Hawaii but use the code for much cheaper beans from Mexico; nobody would know the difference. Trust issues aside, some shoppers are simply confounded, creating traffic jams around the scales. I accept the travails of Central Market humbly, just as I accept the Texas heat or the inevitability of the Rangers finishing last in the Western Division.

Here's how I approach Central Market. First, I linger for a while outside, among the verdant explosion of flowering plants and clusters of chocolate mint, lemongrass, and Greek oregano. Breathing deeply, I close my eyes and allow the smells to calm my central nervous system. Guiding my grocery cart through the front door, I let myself be sucked into the belly of the beast, oblivious to the teeming masses jockeying for position with their bulging carts. I flit effortlessly around a produce section larger than most grocery stores and, it should be obvious by now, better-stocked. Red Dulce Mediterraneo peppers, Chinese cabbage, kiwano horned melons, taro roots, and jungles of leafy things compete for my attention. The selection of apples—fifty during the peak season of fall and early winter—nearly induces vertigo. In this rarefied environment, seasons vanish. Though it may be the dead of winter in Texas, the corresponding Chilean summer is perfect for peaches and plums, and Central Market has them airlifted to Austin. A Central Market employee, or "partner," offers me slices of unbelievably sweet tree-ripened peaches. So numerous are the free samples that it is possible, theoretically, to eat three balanced meals a day without spending a penny.

I move serenely past long cases of iced-down fish, some with names I can't pronounce, passing many types and sizes of shrimp, whole baby octopuses, crab cakes, salmon cakes, and various marinades. Down the middle of the aisle that separates the seafood from an enormous meat counter are displays of bargain wines and tanks of live shellfish: lolling lobsters, restless Dungeness crabs, Cape Neddick and Rhode Island oysters, three varieties of clams, and wild Mediterranean black mussels. I've never learned to shuck oysters or pick crabs, but Central Market has guys who do that for me.

I walk in a dreamlike state past long rows of breads and cheeses, barrels of olives, bins of seasonings, salsas, sauces, dips, pizzas, quiches, beers, sausages, and mustards of the world. At a display of 1.5-liter bottles of Smart Water, with vapor-distilled electrolytes and a scale printed down one side of the package measuring how much smarter you get with each gulp, I pause to meditate on conspicuous consumption. By the time I reach the checkout station, I've chosen a jar of Texas 1015 Onion Glaze, a quart of freshly squeezed carrot-celery-beet-spinach juice, a bag of Chilean Kyoho grapes, four peaches, half a pound of Japanese squid salad, two filets of pepper-seared salmon with raspberry sauce, five small bags of assorted chile powders, a loaf of black Russian rye, two bottles of red Italian wine, and a small bouquet of pink tulips. The tab is $107.

A word about that wine: Though I buy by the case from my friend Greg Soechting at the Austin Wine Merchant, I can't resist browsing and inevitably grabbing one or two of the 2,800 selections stacked along the dark, cool corridors of Central Market's beer and wine section. Connoisseurs have learned to watch for the color-coded tags that designate wines favored by the members of the market's staff of tasters. "All of us are wine geeks," one explains. "We are passionate about wines. We study wines, read about them, talk about them." A taster might sample up to two hundred bottles a week. Recently I noticed a section reserved for "allocated wines," limited editions targeted to collectors, once relegated to the back room but lately made public. A collector I'm not, but this display is nevertheless fascinating. A bottle of Napa Valley 1999 La Sirena Cabernet, for example, is priced at $172. Eight years ago I bought a bottle of 1990 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon for $35. Now it sells for $122.

To the caveat "Never go to the grocery store hungry," I would add: Never go to Central Market without a well-planned list. When you must choose from 500 varieties of cheese, 140 different olive oils, more than 40 kinds of coffee, and 20 varieties of mushrooms, discipline is essential. Unspoken is a threat: You break it, you buy it. Recently, I noticed a coffee called Jamaican Blue Mountain, priced at $39.99 a pound. A sign advised would-be purchasers to "please ask for assistance." No experiments in human honesty in that price range.

I can't help worrying that Central Market might eventually collapse under the weight of its own ambition. With such a vast and constantly changing inventory, spoilage must be a huge problem. Melissa Porter, the store's director of sales and marketing, acknowledges that it is. "We incur more of what we call 'shrink' than traditional stores," she told me. "To mitigate losses we use tools to predict demands and order the right amounts." I suspect that customers unknowingly share the burden of the shrink by paying dearly for such quality and freshness. But if you have to ask how much it costs, you shouldn't be shopping at Central Market.

One of the market's more devilish ploys is placing rows of fresh flowers by the checkout, so they're the last thing you see before leaving. This has proven useful in a way I never anticipated. Regarding that vague remark at the beginning of this column about what I like to do best, let me put it this way: Since the opening of Central Market, I've discovered that bringing home tulips helps it happen.

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