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To Market, To Market

by Julia Sneden

When my 6-year-old granddaughter accompanied me to the supermarket the other day, I had a scary moment. We were searching for the right kind of cereal when suddenly I realized she was no longer at my side, nor anywhere in the long aisle ahead or behind. Hemmed in as I was by 7-foot shelves, I couldn’t even check the next aisle to see the top of her little brown head. I had no idea what direction she’d gone, but just as I decided to bolt for the front door and throw myself across it, she came skipping toward me. Proud of her new ability to read the contents signs that hang over the aisles, she had simply moved ahead to peer around the end cap to see what products lay ahead. I made light of the incident (“You scared me for a moment – stick close to me so I’ll feel better, okay?”), but as we proceeded, I found myself remembering the dear old Territo Brother’s market in Redwood City California, circa 1943. There was no way anyone could have gotten lost in there, not even a 6-year-old girl (which I was) prone to wandering away from her mother (ditto).

For one thing, the shelves at Territo’s weren’t more than five feet high at most, unlike the towering shelving that reaches well over my head (and arm’s reach) today. You could see all the way across the store, from one wall to the other.
Of course there weren’t as many products replicated in a ridiculous number of brands, so huge shelves weren’t needed. With the canned vegetables and fruits, you had your choice of Hunts or Del Monte, and I seem to remember that Hormel and Armor products were the extent of the canned meat selection (in those wartime days, canned meat consisted of Spam and its clones). The cereal aisle had probably the most diversity, and even that was limited to Wheaties, Cheerios, Corn Flakes (no frosted varieties back then), and Rice Krispies, scorned by my mother as “all air.” There was also Shredded Ralston, a box of two huge pillows of cereal that were the consistency of hay, and very dry hay at that. The hot cereals came in oatmeal or cream of wheat, rice, or farina, with no more than a couple of manufacturers represented.

I’ve forgotten the name of the Territo brother who ran the canned goods and produce section of the market, but it was Joe who ran the butcher shop. He not only knew my mother and most of his other customers by name: he also knew my brother’s and my names, and the name of my grandmother who sometimes accompanied us. Because meat was rationed during the war, he carried a large selection of alternatives like fish or poultry or “organ meats.” The limitations must have been frustrating to a butcher who loved his job. The only time he had a good selection of any particular item was at Thanksgiving. He always had enough turkeys to go around, from small hen turkeys up to the huge 21 pounder we needed whenever we hosted my mother’s family celebration. Far more difficult to stock were the choice pieces of beef or lamb that Joe Territo would occasionally manage to obtain for customers who had saved up ration coupons for a big party.

I remember one time when about eight of our adult neighbors pooled their coupons to get a large rib roast for a Christmas party. We kids were fed early, and my grandmothers kept us out of the way while Mother produced a fabulous dinner for the grownups. She claimed to be worried that she had forgotten how to cook a roast during those years of wartime deprivations, but she managed to turn out a picture-perfect standing rib. The delicious smell wafted through the house, and the guests all but drooled in anticipation. Mother set the roast on the kitchen counter and went to the living room to fetch my father to come and carve the meat, but as they headed back toward the kitchen, Sean, our noble Irish setter, appeared around the corner on dancing feet, with the roast in his mouth. He laid it at my father’s feet, wagging his tail proudly as if to say: “See what I found for you!” There was dead silence. Mother picked up the roast and retreated to the kitchen, where she washed off the surface, and popped the meat back into the oven for a few minutes.

Nobody mentioned the incident or refused the beef, and the party was a great success. That’s how desperate we all were for a good piece of beef in those days.

Another reason that Territo Brother’s market didn’t need to be as big as the current supermarkets is that didn’t carry anything but produce and meat, and a few cleaning supplies. There was a very small dairy case, because almost everyone ordered milk, eggs, cream and butter from the milkman, who delivered his products to your door. There was no case for luncheon meats because we bought those, along with potato salad and macaroni salad, from the deli, or, if we wanted hot dogs, from Magnani’s hot dog stand around the corner.

There was no pharmacy at Territo’s, and no aisle with things like bandages or aspirin or vitamins, because we went down the street to the local Rexall for those.

None of Territo’s shelves held binder paper or paperclips or other school supplies: those items came from the stationer. Nor was there a shelf of books and magazines, which we purchased from the newsstand near the corner or the bookstore down the street.

There was a small shelf up near the cash register that, pre-war, held candy like Paloops, those hard candy suckers with a soft loop handle, but with sugar strictly rationed, there was rarely any candy to be found in 1943. Even at Easter, there were no chocolate bunnies or bright yellow “peeps.” For children like me, one of the worst wartime deprivations was the lack of bubble gum. Heaven only knows why bubble gum ingredients were essential to the defense of America, but apparently the government needed them for something. Nary a piece was manufactured until 1946, after the war was over.

Our town was small enough so that it was no hardship to go from store to store. Things were located within a four-block area, and often we kids would leave our mother in Territo’s and venture out to buy comic books at the newsstand. She always knew where she could find us when she was through with shopping.

Our jeweler, Mr. Hilton, had a shop across the street from the grocery store. He, too, knew us by name. He fixed our watches, pins and broken necklace clasps, as well as keeping a stock of small gifts for birthdays and graduations. When the silver plate began to chip off my grandmother’s favorite tray, she took several old sterling spoons to Mr. Hilton, and he performed the needed miracle of melting and replating.

The shoe repair was in the next block. I’ve forgotten the name of the little man who was a wizard at re-soling, re-heeling, and cobbling together the pre-war shoes that my parents and grandmothers tried to keep intact, because shoes also were rationed. Leather was all but impossible to find during the war. With two growing children in the family, most of the shoe rationing stamps had to go to them (especially since my brother was in the process of growing toward his eventual size 12’s). The composition material that was used as a substitute for leather didn’t last, and made your feet sweat and smell something awful.

Woolworth’s, which we referred to as “The Five & Dime,” was in the middle of the block. I can remember walking along the aisles in utter frustration, when I was very small. My mother and brother would be looking at (and commenting on) all the items atop the down-slanting counters, but all I could see was the brown sliding doors of the storage space underneath them. It’s inconvenient and annoying to be a short adult, but it was positively galling to be a short child!

I recognize that the supermarket of today is more convenient than the multiplicity of shops on the main street of Redwood City, CA, circa 1943. I know, too, that I am grateful for the lower prices a large chain store can offer, and for the incredible variety of choices on the shelves. But I miss the friendliness and the individuality of those old stores. There is enough sentimentality in me to yearn for one of Joe Territo’s dill pickles, dredged up from the big barrel that stood behind his butcher counter. They cost a nickel; they were crisp and delicious; and they almost made up for the fact that we didn’t have bubble gum.

 

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