Flash in the Pan 

Impulse shopping at the Missoula Community Co-op

Two conditions send me grocery shopping: a recipe calls for something I don’t have, or I’ve run out of a staple that must be replaced.

Last time, I went in search of staples (oil, mayo, and milk). But I also made some impulse purchases of smoked almonds, bean sprouts, bulk chocolate, penne pasta, and a bowl of hot soup. Such random grocery acquisitions facilitate my culinary explorations.

While such impulse shopping has served me well, it’s prevented me from joining a group of Missoulians who, for over seven years, have been placing collective bulk food orders and sharing the shipping costs.

You may ask why anyone would choose the hassle of placing an order and then waiting for food to arrive over going to the store. Well, as with gardening, placing a food order helps you become a more thoughtful and involved member of your food chain. It’s cheaper, too, so long as you don’t factor your extra time into the final price. Indeed, it only really works if, as with gardening, you view the extra time spent obsessing about food as part of your reward.

While I respect the foresight, dedication, patience, and frugality of the food-ordering cadre, it never worked for me —in part because I already spend enough time obsessing about food.

Just give me a pack of tortillas, please. I’ve already got the homegrown garlic, the farmer-direct onions, the elk sausage, the backyard eggs and the pork fat (I got by bartering) to fry everything in. I’ve got the canned salsa and pickled peppers to dress up the finished product, too. When all I need is a tortilla in which to wrap my breakfast burrito, I just go buy it.

For seven years, while I’ve been doing my impulsive thing at the store, the bulk-borderers in town have kept up their conscientious planning in living rooms and donated office space. And in the process of organizing their monthly menus these folks have also been planning to turn their buying club into a real store—a Missoula-style version of a well-known model known as a member-owned community food co-op.

“We weren’t experts on co-ops or grocery stores—just a bunch of people who wanted to make it happen,” explains Meredith Printz, one of the original co-operators. “Most of us had good experiences with co-ops elsewhere in the country, so we had an idea of what we wanted, which was a community hub that feeds the local economy by selling local, affordable, good food to its members.”

The dream got a crucial boost when the buying club teamed up with the North Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC), which provided office space, advice, and all kinds of support. The fledgling co-op also began working with the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which added fresh food from local farmers at wholesale prices to the club’s offerings.

I knew about the ever-expanding list of perks all along, and that I didn’t even have to make bulk orders to participate. But I just never got myself into the groove of “place your order by next Tuesday, pick it up the following Thursday.”

Finally, last fall, in a trimmed-out corner of a large NMCDC-owned former Federal Express warehouse at 1500 Burns St., the Missoula Community Co-op opened a small store. At first they didn’t have regular hours, or much inventory. At the annual member meeting in October, I checked out the store and bought some toothpaste. But even when the co-op boosted its inventory and began keeping regular hours in December, I kept shopping at the Good Food Store. I’m not alone. According to Printz, only 25 percent of current co-op members have even shopped at the new store.

Last week I finally decided to figure out if I’m ready to switch. After my impulse run to the store, mentioned above, I hauled my goods to the co-op to see if I could have been satisfied there.

An 17-ounce jar of Montola brand, Montana-made safflower oil cost $7.99 at the Good Food Store, and only $7.10 at the co-op. A half-gallon of rice milk cost $3.59 at the GFS, and $3.90 at the co-op. Is that too much? asked Kate Keller, the co-op’s General Coordinator. “We’re still tweaking our prices.”

And finally, the mayo: I’ve recently switched from Mystic Lakes Creamery brand to Grapeseed Oil Vegennaise (which isn’t even real mayo but I like it better). Alas, all they had at the co-op was Mystic Lakes Creamery.

“That’s what you told us to buy at the product meeting,” said Keller, as she wrote “Vegennaise” on the product wish list behind the cash register.

“Grapeseed Oil Vegennaise,” I corrected. “Regular Vegennaise tastes like Miracle Whip.”

The co-op also had my impulse stimulating chocolate, penne, and almonds—not smoked almonds, mind you, but maybe there is a place for smoked almonds in the co-op’s new bank of virgin bulk bins, which were a gift from Totally Organic Tofu in St. Ignatius.

Meanwhile, a new case of Grapeseed Oil Vegennaise has already arrived.

Ask Ari: Sprouting garlic bulbs fine to use

Q: Dear Ari Formerly Known as Chef Boy:

I’m having garlic woes. My well cared-for and (at least I thought) properly stored garlic is sprouting. Yes, here we are, not even halfway through winter and my big beautiful bulbs are turning soft and shooting out lively green stems. Thing is, I kept them in a cool, dark, dry spot like I thought I was supposed to. Anyway, can I halt the sprouting process and get a few more weeks or months out of these HUGE cloves, or should I just chop them up and freeze them or put them in a jar with olive oil or something?

—Big Sprouting Bulbs

A: Some varieties of garlic will sprout this time of year, BSB, and that’s normal. Garlic is programmed to start sprouting in late winter. Of course, storage temperature, humidity, and light can encourage this process. But the fact of the matter is those garlic cloves have already decided it’s time to sprout. You can’t do anything to change that, so you might as well enjoy it.

Indeed, what’s happening to your garlic cloves is not only normal, it’s fun! That little shoot of green poking out of your garlic cloves is beautiful, isn’t it? I like to slow-fry those sprouted cloves in olive oil, which looks pretty cool and tastes just fine. Or you can mince the green shoots and use as a garnish. Meanwhile, the cloves themselves may be a little soft, but it still tastes and functions like garlic. So treat your sprouting garlic like the garlic it still is. And if you just can’t get over it, then switch to growing a softneck variety, which are known to last longer into the spring before sprouting.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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