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Why I can't resist Whole Foods

It’s hard for her to admit, but guest blogger Stacey Ballis prefers the pricey grocery store to its less tony competitors.

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Ballis argues that for fresh produce, Trader Joe's can't hold a candle. (Flickr/swanksalot)

Okay. I am going to admit to something that I am sure will get me no end of hate mail. Or, since we were never allowed to say “hate” when I was growing up, strong-dislike mail.

I don’t like Trader Joe’s and I love Whole Foods.

There. I said it. I shall not be ashamed. And it isn’t that I am some label queen, nor am I unfrugal. I am, in the annoying parlance of the day and for lack of a better label, a foodie, not a food snob. I know that there are insanely delicious burgers for $4, and juicy food-friendly wines for $7. But I also know that there are tiny, whole artichokes the size of the tip of your pinky finger marinated in extra virgin olive oil with herbs and chiles that go $25 a jar (roughly $1 per bitsy vegetable) that are TOTALLY worth the ridiculous expense. I like whatever tastes best, is freshest and hopefully is not participating in the desecration of our planet.

I have tried to like Trader Joe’s, really I have. I have gone and spent money and eaten of their bounty, and I just, um, can’t get it up for them. The produce usually makes me sad – wan, limp and lonely, and on more than one occasion, seething with fruit flies. The meats always seem vaguely suspect. They are great for random snack foods, and some canned and frozen goods. But the truth is every time I have ever been to a Trader Joe’s, I have left the store and gone directly to a Whole Foods to fill out my coffers.

Which is not to say that WFM doesn’t have its drawbacks. Obviously Whole Paycheck is eleventy million times more expensive. And things like an amazing cheese selection and delectable prepared foods sections are very dangerous for someone attempting to keep her butt smaller than Wyoming. I have been known to leave with two small bags coming in at more than $200 and gotten home to find that I don’t actually have the makings for one complete Nutritional Pyramid Plate appropriate meal.

But when the über-Whole Foods opened at North Avenue and Kingsbury Street, I fell madly in love.

I don’t do my regular big shopping there; I have a couple of wonderful local supermarkets that do not require one to hock a kidney in order to afford their wares. I would no more buy toilet paper or basic canned goods or other staples at WFM than I would order a gold-plated toilet. I go for specialty items, treats and organics, and often for produce, which I try to buy if not every day, every other day as a means of combating my natural instincts to hoard food, which results in endless melty fruits and vegs that need to be tossed out.

But then there is the clientele. I much prefer the gang at Trader Joe’s for companionability. While it seems likely they are all stoned to the gills 74 percent of the time, and one sees a much higher incidence of the truly unfortunate “white guy dreads,” at least at TJ’s I would never have overheard this conversation between a five-year-old and his mother.

Five-year-old (in very loud, whiny voice): “But Mooooom, I don’t LIKE the Merlot, I LIKE the CABERNET!!!! Nanny Suuuuusie knows that.”

Mom (taking break from her iPhone to shift her Bottega purse to the other shoulder, rolling her eyes as best as one can with a Botox-immobile forehead): “Lucien, precious, they are out of the Cabernet, you can have either the Merlot or the Chardonnay.”

I stood there thinking that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into France, wondering if she was going to hand the kid a cigarette next.

Lucien (stamping little feet in little Toms and beginning to wail): “I don’t LIIIIIIKE the Merlot or the Chardonnay, I LIIIIIKE THE CABERNET AND NANNY SUUUUUUSIE ALWAYS BUYS ME THE CABERNET!!!!”

Mom, with teeth clenched, causing little temple ripples in otherwise motionless forehead: “Lucien, if you do not stop this right now you will get regular grape juice AND a TIME OUT when we get home.”

Since when is juice punishment? I mean, can you imagine YOUR mom saying such a thing? Punishment is no television (or a grounding I once suffered for a whole freaking year due to being a brat of gargantuan proportions). Punishment is extra chores, no dessert or having a favorite toy taken away. Or having your birthday party cancelled. (Which I also suffered through, again totally deserved, and someone please remind me to call my parents and thank them for putting up with me during my raging mini-bitch years and not selling me to gypsies.) But somehow the HORROR of REGULAR GRAPE JUICE eludes me. But I digress.

Lucien, weeping softly, and attaining the cadence of a caricature Jewish mother: “I’m sorry Mommy. Never mind. I won’t have any juice.”

Mom, picking him up and cradling him: “Okay, little man, we can stop at the other store on the way home and see if they have your Cabernet. Okay?”

Lucien, having learned important lesson about manipulation: “Thank you mommy. I love you!”

In case anyone is curious, Whole Foods is now carrying varietal grape juices, regular old plain grape juice not being good enough for the delicate palates of today’s toddlers, and in fact, apparently now considered punishment in some circles. Good thing they are closing Gitmo before the next truckload of Welch’s arrives.

Now, I love that kids today are being exposed to more and more healthy, organic items not filled out with chemicals and extra sugars. My seven-year-old goddaughter loves a stinky goat cheese, bless her heart. But at more than $4 for 16 ounces, I have to call shenanigans.

It’s almost enough to make me shop at Trader Joe’s.



And now, a recipe:

Stacey’s Smoky Mac N’ Cheese

The perfect partner for everything from an elegant roast to burgers straight off the grill. Buy the ingredients wherever you like, and feel free to serve with a the varietal grape juice of your choice.

Serves 2-4 as a main, 8-10 as a side dish

1 lb. – cavatappi pasta (gemelli or elbow macaroni are also fine)
5 T – unsalted butter
6 T – flour
5 cups – whole milk
4 oz. – fontina cheese, grated
4 oz. – smoked gouda, grated
8 oz. – extra sharp white cheddar, grated
1/2 c – sour cream
1 T – mustard powder
½ tsp.– grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. – smoked paprika
S/P to taste


½ cup – Cheezits crackers, crumbled
3 T – melted unsalted butter
4 slices extra thick bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

Preheat oven to Broil setting.

Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions to just shy of al dente.

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium high heat until foaming stops. Sprinkle flour evenly over butter, and whisk to combine. Add mustard, paprika and nutmeg, stirring and cooking for about 1 minute. Whisk in milk briskly to combine, heating and stirring until the mixture thickens, about five minutes. Off the heat, stir in cheeses until melted, and then whisk in sour cream. Add pasta to pan, and put back on heat, adding a ladle of the pasta water. Cook over medium heat just a few minutes to finish cooking the pasta to al dente. Pour into a buttered baking pan. Toss the Cheezit crumbs with the melted butter and bacon and sprinkle over top of the mac n’ cheese.

Broil until topping gets golden brown and you can smell the bacon, about 3-4 minutes. Serve.

Stacey Ballis is a Chicago-based blogger and writer of foodie fiction novels. Her latest, Off The Menu, tells the story of a celebrity chef’s assistant trying to balance work, love and a naughty dog named Dumpling. The book includes over 40 pages of original recipes for all the dishes mentioned in the story.

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