On Saturday mornings across America, dedicated snackers have a routine they like to disguise as mere shopping. They pile into big chain stores, weighing down carts with gallons of milk, loaves of bread, lunch meats, and produce for their families. Between selections and reflections upon the scribbled lists they keep pinioned under purses and bags in the baskets of their carts, they pluck a light breakfast of gratis nibbles from the card tables and trays tucked among the store's aisles and displays. The free samples -- cheese cubes with toothpicks, tiny paper cups of soup, chips with dips, and so forth -- make shopping for groceries a lot more fun than trolling malls for mattresses, knee braces, and power tools. You know this because -- at least from time to time -- you've done it too.
Yet, while the rampant snacking rarely inspires you to purchase exactly what you're tasting, it does sufficiently whet the appetite: you're hungry when you arrive, and the eating of very small amounts doesn't tide you over, but merely makes you hungrier -- and more likely to buy snacks to inhale on the drive or bus-ride home. It's a bit of a trick, and those without a strategy risk giving more than they get -- a prospect as appealing as fossilized melba toast.
As a kid, I eagerly went along on weekend shopping missions with my parents, knowing I'd have to ferry bags of groceries into the house upon our return. Compensation came in the form of foods I didn't normally get at home. That was enough. I was raised on whole grains and garden vegetables, and Kroger housed a cornucopia of processed, unhealthy delights: breakfast sausage crumbles, ice cream scoops in miniature cones, warm biscuits, and wedges of frozen pizza crisped up in a toaster oven.
When I was young, I liked free samples. Now, as an adult, I truly love them, in no small part because I have to buy my own groceries. When I am out shopping, I aim to eat enough samples to render lunch unnecessary -- so I'm tempted to buy less, not more. I suppose munching a little breakfast before leaving the house would serve the same end, but that would be, of course, somewhat less free.
On weekends, you can often stuff yourself at Safeway. Trader Joe's is also a pretty good bet -- when the sample window opens to reveal masala mashed potatoes, green chile taco bites, or some other wretched pre-packaged fantasy convenience food the company has dreamed up. The locally-owned, community-conscious small fry Bi-Rite has snacks too -- namely tidy slices of fruit and pieces of fancy cheese with helpful cards revealing origins and suggesting uses and pairings. I like asking -- on rare occasion -- for a sample sliver of the deli's meltingly smooth $99 per pound jamon iberico de bellota.