On Saturday I discovered the sweet, sweet magicalness that is Trader Joe’s.  Oh my.  I think Andy Taylor said it best:  “I ought to never, never.”  And I probably oughtn’t.  But…I did anyway.  Hee!  And, to quote Gomer, “Surprise, surprise!” — Mama likes.  Mama likes a whole lot.  Mama googled.

(You may be wondering why all the Andy Griffith Show references.  Well, y’all, YouTube will most obligingly help you enjoy that which is shameful by light of day and a joyful obsession under cover of night.  Having read that back, I realize it sounds slightly weird.  But, if loving Aunt Bee is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.)

Anyway, Trader Joe’s.  My sister Sara turned me on to TJ’s, as it shall henceforth be known.  Sara is notorious for her frugality, and she shops there on a regular basis.  So I knew it would be inexpensive.  But I had reservations.  You see, I tried to visit a TJ’s in a neighboring city several years ago and did not have a good experience.  I don’t usually panic in crowds, but this was…scary. 

I remember packed aisles, a ringing bell and  a huge tower of cheap wine.  Then the focus started to pull and go all swimmy.  There was swirly bright light and people in my face, yelling in slow motion about simmering sauces and the store’s apparently awesome low-calorie banana chips.  I was standing cart-to-cart with everybody else,  and I couldn’t make sense out of anything because, for example, the cookies were stacked all crazy-like above the frozen foods instead of sitting quietly in their own aisle, and, and, dear Lord in heaven,what the friggity-frack is Two-Buck Chuck?  I managed to get a carton of Greek yogurt and a bag of organic broccoli into my cart before bolting for the door, drenched in sweat and vowing never to set foot in that yuppie madhouse again.  I could damn well get my Greek yogurt at the Kroger and not have to die doing it. 

But, fortunately, another TJ’s opened some time ago in a larger location.  And I finally girded up my loins to try it.  And, oh, it was magical.  The thing about TJ’s is that the products it sells are reasonably priced.  Now, what does this mean?  Well, as you know, Walmart’s products are awesomely priced.  And that has been my primary reason for shopping at Walmart.  Because, shopping at Walmart?  Not awesome.  And completing my weekly shopping trip there often involved a two-hour navigation of minefields of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, Red Dye #4 and other icky ingredients my friends and family are growing weary of my bitching about.  Also: surliness, bad lighting, screaming children and many clean ups on aisle 5.  But, the prices.  Oh, the prices.  Nobody can beat ’em.

Except maybe TJ’s.  Like I said, reasonable.  Does that mean Walmart prices?  No.  What it does mean is that I can pretty much rest assured almost anything I put in my cart at TJ’s is at the very least free of all those icky things and at the most organic, free-range, locally produced, blah, blah, blah, my dad is rolling his eyes at me again.  These things are important to me, and I don’t mind paying extra for them.  (Soapbox: If more people didn’t mind as well, eventually they wouldn’t cost any extra.  Capitalism, baby!)  But the great thing about TJ’s is that I’m not paying that much extra.  I’d say most of the prices are comparable to a high-end chain like Harris Teeter but a lot are even lower. 

What about the food?  Last night I heated up some their ravioli stuffed with artichoke, olives and cheese and served it with a homemade cream sauce,  sautéed baby peas, bread and a glass of perfectly dry Chardonnay.  Y’all.  So good.  Everything has been good.  Even the little unassuming flavored yogurts I threw in as a matter of course are really, really good.

And it’s so much fun to shop there!  Granted, it is crowded.  But the place is so funky and quirky and offbeat, you don’t really mind.  In fact, it makes you feel sort of funky and quirky, too — in a good way.  And also kind of good to be surrounded by people who love looking at, touching, cooking, reading, thinking and talking about food as much as you do.  And who knows?  You might befriend a stranger at the dairy case who has the same tortured, desperate reaction you did after her discovery of TJ’s peanut butter cream cheese spread (Come on, you evil, evil little store – make it hurt so good).

TJ’s doesn’t open its stores just anywhere.  I feel lucky to have one close to me.  When I checked out on Saturday, I noticed the cashier behind me had pigtails sticking straight up off her head and was wearing a polka-dotted corduroy jumper.  Everyone in her line was smiling.  My cashier had hot pink hair and fabulous eye makeup.  I offered to help bag my tremendous pile of groceries but she refused saying, “Honey, you just stand there and relax.  I’ll take care of this.”  She then proceeded to place everything carefully yet quickly into sturdy brown bags.  She handled my bag of wine like it was a newborn baby.  She sympathised with me about the peanut butter cream cheese.  Then she winked at me, called me “darlin'” and sent me on my way.

Y’all, seriously.