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Supermarket Wars
In our family, it’s Wegmans vs. Trader Joe’s—unless, of course, you need dish soap.

It’s Sunday and I’m in Exton visiting my mother-in-law. A pot of meatballs and sauce is simmering in the kitchen; on the counter, there’s a loaf of crusty, brick-oven bread with a dusting of artisan flour.

“That bread looks wonderful,” I say, “Where did you get it?”

I know the answer: Wegmans.

In case you’ve recently dropped in from, say, another country, Wegmans is the crème de la crème of Chester County’s food scene. A supermarket with the girth of a big-box store, Wegmans has taken food shopping to a new level. My in-laws rave about it—and they aren’t the only ones. It seems every person I meet west of Route 252 has a Wegmans story.

One woman from Malvern told me she used to be a vegetarian. Now she eats steak, but only if it’s from—you guessed it—Wegmans. Another said she drove 90 minutes to buy Wegmans baba ganoush. Where I live in Media, there’s no Wegmans, and I couldn’t boast about Acme’s baba ganoush because, as far as I know, they don’t sell it.

My underprivileged status was reinforced at every family get-together, where my Chester County inlaws were beginning to sound like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin as they discussed the merits of Wegmans black truffle butter and mile-high brie.

Mercifully, the culinary tide changed when Media became the proud parent of a Trader Joe’s. Up until then, I’d never been inside Trader Joe’s, but I liked their catalogs—in which every product, no matter how insignificant, carried a compelling description.

I know it’s not fair to compare Trader Joe’s to Wegmans. The two stores are about as similar as Thoreau’s Walden cabin is to the Taj Mahal. Yet Trader Joe’s provides shoppers with something Wegmans can not: a dietary conscience. In his book, On Paradise Drive (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages), journalist David Brooks writes, “Trader Joe’s is for people who wouldn’t dream of buying an avocado salad that didn’t take a position on offshore drilling.”

I must admit I was prepared to feel uncomfortably mainstream when I first entered the one in Media, but that feeling soon passed. The shoppers I saw were people my grandparents’ age, reading labels, comparing ingredients. I sensed they were trying to follow doctors’ orders and eat healthy food. You don’t need to take a position on non-tilled soil to appreciate Trader Joe’s organic produce. And those suffering from, say, celiac sprue are likely to find something they can eat at Trader Joe’s.

Granted, the store is, at times, a bit too cozy, but everything is accessible. Walk into Wegmans and you’re likely to feel a surge of vertigo at the enormity of it.

But is one really better than the other? Naturally, that depends. For a special feast, nothing beats Wegmans for its quality and unusually diverse selection. The store, however, is so large and so deep, it might take half a day to gather the ingredients.

Trader Joe’s has good deals on most of its items, but the selection is sorely limited. There is comfort, however, in not having to choose between 15 variations of one product. Trader Joe’s sells one type of cheddar cheese, not 20 different subtypes.

I was at my mother-in-law’s house again this past Sunday. She surprised me by saying she’d been shopping not at Wegmans, but at a supermarket I assumed was passé: good old Acme.

Turns out Wegmans doesn’t carry the type of dishwashing detergent she likes. Go figure.

Carolyn McGlinchey last wrote about her husband’s full-blown beer obsession in the October 2006 issue.

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