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Food & Drink

Weird Produce: Why We Hate To Confuse Grocery Store Cashiers

That thing where you buy the vegetable that earns a "WTF?" at check-out time.
A woman puts groceries into a reusable grocery bag in the bagging area of the checkout line.
A woman puts groceries into a reusable grocery bag in the bagging area of the checkout line.

Food nerds: this is a cry for help. There is an entire segment of people in my life who I respect, appreciate and spend a lot of time with, who I appear to be alienating left and right. I make them frustrated, confused and I'm never sure when I should help them and when I should leave them to their own devices. I am talking about grocery store cashiers.

I developed a freakishly early affinity for the grocery store. I liked looking at all the food, especially in the produce section. I liked the smells, the changes in temperature and knowing that we were gathering snacks. We were a pretty weird produce-heavy family, and always seemed to grab something that would raise an eyebrow upon checkout. Sometimes it was artichokes (this was a suburb of Albuquerque in the late 1980s, so), sometimes it was my fault, requesting that my treat from the grocery store be a starfruit, rather than a cookie or cupcake.

The routine was pretty much the same every time. The cashier would pick up the offending fruit or vegetable, consider it, look for a sticker and finally look to one of my parents with an air of slight exasperation. My mom or dad would make a joke about importing it from an alien planet, I would giggle, it would get rung up and we'd go about our day. Pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of human relations.

But then it kept happening. Everywhere. Nearly every time. In every city. And now, I'm just looking for a little commiseration -- is it happening to all of us?

A few months ago, I was in a Whole Foods in New York City (a pretty far cry from the Safeway in 1980s New Mexico). I unloaded my basket onto the conveyor belt and the familiar beep-beep-beep began. I was digging for my wallet when it stopped. "What is this," the cashier asked me, "parsley or cilantro?" It was parsley, the beeps continued. Then stopped again.

"What is this?" It was a parsnip. Beep. Beep.

Then, the final straw. Wordlessly, he held up a huge, knobby horseradish root. The look on his face was somewhere between revulsion and sleep. "It's a horseradish root," I said. He sighed a big sigh, and put it into the basket, without ringing it up, so eager to end our transaction that he'd just given me the thing free of charge. I giggled nervously, "Sorry that I bought all the weirdest produce in your store."

"Total is $18.99."

I want to be 100 percent clear about this straight away: I felt really bad. There are hundreds of produce SKUs in a store of that size, no one should be expected to memorize them all. And I have served time in customer service, and I know how it can feel to be at the end of a long shift full of people who need you to do things for them. But also, you work in Whole Foods, man. In New York City.

This happens to me a lot. Not usually with the gravity of that Whole Food's cashier's exasperation, but probably once every trip to the grocery store. Does it happen to you guys? Does it bother you? I've been trying to pin-point exactly what it is about this experience that really gets to me, and I think I may have hit it, finally.

I try really, really hard to be nice to people when they're working, no matter what job they're doing. I pay a lot of attention to being spatially aware in crowded places, especially grocery stores. I try to stay out of the way. I try to put things on the conveyor belt in an arrangement that makes it easy to pack into bags. This is just a part of who I am and how I grew up. So, when someone doesn't know something about their job, like whether that's cilantro or parsley, I never want to act like a know-it-all or a jerk. I never want to assume that they don't know. But then, because I'm also who I am and the difference between cilantro and parsley is just very, very close to being the only thing I care about deeply on this earth, I also want to explain how you can tell which is which by smell, or by the width of the stems, or the shape of the leaves. A thing, I am quite sure, no grocery cashier on the tail end of an eight-hour day really gives a shit about, quite frankly.

All of this takes place in my head until someone says, "Total is $18.99." I pay, say "Thank you very much, have a great day/night," and go on my way. Here's the thing: I'm never going to stop buying the weirdest thing in the produce section. And it will never stop being annoying for a customer to hand you something that proves there are things you don't know about your job. So I suppose, what I'm wondering, is if any other carambola-eating, artichoke-steaming, watercress-garnishing food nerds out there have found a social salve to this particular irritation. Or should I just move on with my life and go grate my horseradish?

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What Is That Vegetable?