My recent experience of Trillium Natural Foods in Lincoln City on the Oregon coast, made twentysomething years after I came to the US, threw into relief colorful strands in the weave of my Bulgarian-American identity.
I had learnt of co-op stores soon after my arrival in this country. I was having a conversation with Will, a fellow graduate student, about my plans for my first Christmas in the States. My Bulgarian roots held firmly to an idea of a strictly set traditional Bulgarian menu: vegetarian bean stew; rolls of pickled cabbage stuffed with rice and dill; and phyllo dough pastry filled with roasted pumpkin, walnuts, and raisins, sweetened with honey, and flavored with cinnamon and cloves. I quickly got immersed in a complicated and somewhat tangled explanation that I had preceded with the statement, “I don’t like the taste of beans and pickled cabbage, but I must have them at Christmas.” I followed this with a passionate description of the above dishes that the Bulgarian in me felt compelled to prepare pretty much from scratch.
My American pal looked bewildered to say the least. Only recently, I had declined his invitation to grab a bite at a Mexican restaurant on the pretext that the menu featured mainly beans, rice, and tomatoes. Will reminded me of this. He tried to suggest, with much good intention, that perhaps I could try a festive dish on Christmas Eve with ingredients that would be easier to both procure and prepare; a move that would not only simplify my rigorous life in graduate school, but also offer an added benefit of a first American Christmas dinner that I would actually relish. At this well-meant proposition, a cultural chasm gaped open between the two of us. I was just about to expound on the virtues of combining walnuts and honey in a dessert when I paused mid-sentence to size up our cultural differences — differences that at this point seemed insurmountable. In the face of an American ethos of maximizing pleasure and eliminating discomfort, the Bulgarian side of me insisted that you did what you had to do and not what would bring you joy. My father’s voice rang in my ear, “Americans know how to be happy.” And so did I by eating what was right and not what gave me pleasure. I shook my head at my pal to express a “no.”
Accommodating Will smiled obligingly at me. After all, we, Americans, are flexible, skilled at negotiating our idiosyncratic individual food preferences, and hopeful that those who have just joined our ranks would eventually learn themselves to do so. It was at this point that he brought the co-op into the conversation. He said that we could probably find the right kind of dried beans and pickled cabbage at a certain store where people with a daily yoga practice shopped. Adept at making incongruous connections, my mind immediately conjured up a vivid image of a practitioner of yoga who commanded her body to adopt contorted postures on a daily basis in the exact likeness of a Bulgarian who, once a year, commanded herself to eat beans and pickled cabbage despite her obvious distaste of them. To me, it was beyond dispute that one could compare mangoes to strawberries. Weren’t they virtually one and the same thing if one kept in mind that both were fruit rich in vitamin C? So off to the local co-op store Will and I went, and I sure did eat beans and pickled cabbage for my very first American Christmas Eve dinner.
My visit to Trillium Natural Foods just this past week was made under different circumstances.
The rental of our choice for a get-away on the Oregon coast had come with a promise of a gourmet-style kitchen. I had left on the trip with the intention to cook our dinners from scratch, taking my time to chop vegetables while gazing through the window in the direction of the ocean. Our car had been packed with boxes full of foodstuff. Imagine my consternation when upon our arrival, I opened the kitchen cabinet to find a large collection of Teflon pots and pans, each one damaged beyond safe use. Mr. J, my travel companion, emailed the host, but she was nonchalant about our concern. In her opinion, we could surely find at least one pot that was in good enough shape for cooking. The local restaurant was closed due to technical issues, and my spirits were about to hit rock bottom when Mr. J, as usual, lifted my mood. After doing some research on his cell phone, he discovered Trillium Natural Foods in Lincoln City and was willing to drive the thirty minutes that would get us there.
The chimes above the front door of Trillium Natural Foods announced our arrival in the store, and a welcoming male voice said, “You want to wash your hands in the bathroom across from the door.” You want to do something is an American idiom that has continued to impress me twentysomething years after my arrival in this country. For me, its ability to elicit compliance even from the most stubborn person is nothing less than magic. Should Will have known to say, “At your first American Christmas, you want to eat ham and potatoes,” I want to believe that, back then, I would have obligingly given up my Bulgarian beans and cabbage for standard American carnivore fare.
After washing my hands as a form of COVID precaution, I headed straight to the bulk bins for some raisins and walnuts that I wanted to add into my breakfast oats the following morning. Then, I proceeded to explore the rest of the store. Upon turning around, I was suddenly amazed at how spacious and light the space was. From the outside, the store structure had appeared to be fairly small and crowded, but once inside, it felt like a large garden maze with enticing nooks and crannies to look into. I went up a ramp whose wooden floor reminded me of the Bulgarian Revival-period houses that I knew in Koprivshtitsa. The straw baskets hanging from the ceiling brought up ideas of foraging wild fruit, mushrooms, herbs, and greens. Collecting nature’s untamed bounty to serve on designer restaurant plates seemed to be all the rave in sophisticated cuisine at the moment. My mind was quick to make yet another quirky connection. Miraculously, the space conjured to me babas (Bulgarian elderly women who had been socialized to make themselves small to the point of invisibility), the American version of the sustainable food movement, and Claud Meyer, the owner of the Great Northern Food Hall at NY’s Grand Central Terminal. And what’s more, the luminous glass containers full of raw honey at Trillium Natural Foods brought up memories of beehives in lush pastures rich with tenacious bees.
I turned a corner to face an isle of boxed goods, at the sight of which I suddenly froze. Caught by surprise, I had a flash-back to a memory of visiting Ben’s parents, another fellow graduate student. I vividly recalled standing in their kitchen with Ben’s mother telling me, “In this county, potatoes come in a box!” Ben had grown up on Jell-O, Hamburger Helpers, peanut butter sandwiches made with Wonder Bread, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, and hot dogs. I should have known that my arrival at his mother’s house with a sack of raw potatoes would not go down well. Ben’s mother claimed Virginian roots, an accolade that she believed entitled her to maintain she was the one and only true American and everyone else in her country was an imposter. Just half an hour into my visit, I wondered whether it could indeed be that I had actually met an unaccommodating American. Or was it rather that she was irritated by the attention her son paid to me?
Deep inside, I felt an affinity for Ben’s mom. I, myself, was suffering from stove-envy. Rare use had left her top-of the-line electric range spanking clean. I would have cooked up a storm if only she would have let me use her stove. How would Ben’s mom have treated me if she had realized that she and I, in fact, had things in common? Towards the end of our stay, she did let me use her oven to bake a classic American banana bread. It was actually a Bulgarian-American banana bread full of scrumptious walnut pieces.
It was time to pack a few items in my basket, pay up, and leave Trillium Natural Foods. Before we headed out the door, I took a last look at the bulk bins, marveling at the variety of flour types now available: sorghum, rice, quinoa, chickpea, whole wheat, potato, almond, oat, and cassava. It used to be commercially unviable to cultivate some of these flours in the States. However, small farmers introduced them to stores like Trillium Natural Foods. I had baked with most of these flours with satisfying results.
At that moment, I recalled the many conversations I had had with people working in a co-op store about locating hard-to-find ingredients; the suggestions they had made; their willingness to go over and beyond to help me, looking things up on the computer and special-ordering ingredients for me. I wasn’t even sure how many times I had been given things to try with an assurance that I could bring them back if they didn’t work out. Oftentimes I would go to my local co-op store just because it made me feel at ease. I would chat with the people working there. We would share a joke and touch upon the daily news. Sometimes I would have a cup of tea either with a friend or on my own, then head out back into the world.
Trillium Natural Foods does exist. All other names in this story have been changed for reasons of privacy. If you liked this story, you would want to read Bulgarian Mineral Water, Baking Soda, Poisoned Cake.