Of Brunch and Brethren: Finding Connection in the Aisles of Aldi
It’s 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. I wake up late, and the prospect of getting to church on time is vanishing. As my two children, clad in their furry pajamas, scurry past my husband and me at 10:15, we agree to skip church and stay home.
We exhale and embrace this impulsive decision to rest, and then I declare, “I want to make French toast for brunch, with toasted Brioche bread!” My husband nods his head. This sounds like a good idea.
We need eggs, half-and-half, and fluffy Brioche to make our favorite French toast. So instead of heading to church, I jump into my car alone and head to Aldi, a cinder-block building where organic opportunities to connect with members of my community manifest alongside clusters of modestly-priced produce.
Recently, I’ve realized that I not only go to Aldi for food but to indulge in pocket-sized doses of spontaneous social interaction -- interactions that carry tastes of community and connection, like what the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania experienced during the first half of the 20th century.
Roseto, a tiny town nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania, was largely populated by immigrants from the Italian village of Roseto Valfortore starting in the late 1800s. They named their American town after their Italian home, and during the first half of the 20th century maintained the norms and customs of their culture, including the nightly ritual of passegiatta--the evening stroll through the streets to connect and communicate with neighbors.
West Lafayette, Indiana is a far cry from Roseto, with its seasonal fluctuation of college students and wind-whipped winters that cause many who remain in town to hunker down when the fall semester ends. But as I click my quarter into a cart's slot and wheel it inside Aldi, I can't help but connect my Sunday morning stroll through the supermarket to the passegiatta. I stroll past boxes of food stacked Tetris-style, and roll past the packages of chips that leave grease blotches in their makeshift cardboard box displays, past the selection of pre-packaged breakfast items, and grab a carton of eggs from the back wall’s refrigerated case.
As I round the first corner into the second aisle where baking ingredients and holiday presents flank both sides, a young woman wearing a hijab makes eye contact and asks, “Excuse me, but do you see the price of this dinosaur anywhere?” Her voice exudes a gentle kindness as she points to a box labeled “Mighty Megasaur” in rocky, prehistoric font.
I stand next to her, and together we carefully survey the red price tags, but there is no price for the dinosaur.
“I think my nephew would like this a lot,” she says.
“It lights up and makes sounds,” I tell her. “I was here the other day and saw someone playing with it.”
She presses the dinosaur’s “try me” button, and its beady eyes flash red while a raucous roar that sounds like it’s trapped inside a tin can erupts from its gut. We never find the price, but we both giggle at the dinosaur’s emphatic display of terror and wish each other a good day.
I continue past the toys and up the next aisle where holiday treats are stacked across from the produce, grabbing a box of German cookies and then a bag of carrots and a carton of grape tomatoes. I remember the half-and-half and approach the dairy case slowly because a woman with a puff of white hair stands motionless in front of the glass door. I pause for a few seconds not wanting to intercept the door’s handle the same time she does, but her stillness is steadfast.
“Do you mind if I squeeze in here real quick to get some half-and-half?” I ask.
“Oh sure,” she responds and steps back while continuing to gaze at the case’s contents. I grab a carton, and she responds to my “thank you” with a head nod. Walking away, I am drawn to a seasonal display of fondue. I reflexively grab two boxes.
When I approach the cashier, she smiles and asks the obligatory “Did you find everything alright?” I respond “yes” while placing items on the moving conveyor belt, setting the French toast ingredients and the fondue down along with the spongy chocolate-covered gingerbread cookies with the name “Winternacht” splashed across the side of their cinnamon red box.
“Where’d you get the fondue!?” The cashier asks while inspecting the box.
“In that back case,” I point toward the back of the store.
“The-reach-in-cool-case?” She asks.
My mind tries to translate her words but what I really hear is “reicht en cül case.” I don’t know German, but I think I recognize its lilt and tone, and I swear I hear an umlaut.
“Is that… German?” My usually dormant valley girl voice emerges.
She laughs, and only then do I understand what she is really saying.
“Oh, yes,” I exclaim. “That’s the case! The fondue is in the reach-in-cool-case.”
“I’ll have to go get some,” she says, placing both boxes into my cart. “I’m lactose intolerant, but fondue is worth it.”
All of these brief exchanges remind me of the Roseto Effect, a medical anomaly illustrating the health benefits of social connection experienced among those living in Roseto.
Medical and social researchers began examining this town in the 1950s to learn more about the paradox between lifestyle and health. They realized that residents of Roseto experienced a low rate of heart attacks resulting in death despite indulging in foods cooked in lard, smoking excessively, and drinking liberally. What differentiated Roseto from the neighboring towns was the flavor and frequency of social connection between residents. Studies since the 1960s attribute the social cohesion between Roseto’s townspeople as protective: “People are nourished by other people,” Dr. Stewart Wolf, one of the physicians who studied Roseto, stated in an interview with The Chicago Tribune.
Maybe my interactions at Aldi lack the breadth and depth of those that took place on the streets of Roseto during passegiatta, where I imagine everyone felt satisfied while talking about life and sipping wine, night after night. Here at my neighborhood grocery store, we roll through the aisles not always intending to interact, yet spontaneous exchanges thaw our tendency to remain rigid and closed. Maybe what the Rosetans excelled at was recognizing the extraordinary in their ordinary, and seizing the opportunity to connect and share on a daily basis.
Not that I’m expecting it, but it would be great if this morning’s modest, unorchestrated dose of community connection could cancel any negative health effects of the buttery Brioche French toast I’m about to enjoy with my family. I push my cart through falling ice and snow, unload the bags into my car’s trunk, and return the cart to its tethered train. This Sunday morning trip to the grocery store reminds me that connection is still possible, still tangible, and still part of our culture’s fabric. This nourishes my hope that a modern-day reincarnation of the Roseto Effect could happen, and maybe I am experiencing a taste of it right now.