Once upon a time, Daddy made the money and Mommy made the dinner, and Junior and Buffy would come home from school and do their homework while Lawrence Welk bubbles floated through the living room and the dog helped set the table. Daddy would ask what was for dinner, and Mommy would answer, "Oh, I whipped up a little roast with hand-mashed potatoes and just-baked bread and a beautiful lime-green Jell-O dessert ringed with tiny marshmallows. I'll be serving it on the nicely ironed tablecloth draped over the oak table I spent all morning polishing with a cotton ball."
Mommy don't play that anymore.
Nowadays, most Mommies I know are lucky to find a pressed shirt to wear to work, and for breakfast they often grab a barely defrosted bagel to nibble in the car during rush hour. (Some Mommies I know only have time to shower every three days, but that's another ugly story.) By dinnertime, both Mommy and Daddy would rather fall asleep on the couch than slave over a hot stove; as a result, sales of microwave burritos and home-delivered pizzas have soared. Sooner or later, though, a craving for real food sets in--which is why reasonable facsimiles of home-cooked meals have become all the rage at grocery stores. Stop in for milk, get a whole roast chicken with all the sides. The prices are easier to swallow than the cost of a typical TV dinner offering fake Salisbury steak and apple-goo cobbler, and for the most part, the food is, too.
After all, grocery stores have the ingredients lying around, anyway. And depending on the grocery store, those ingredients can be more natural and more healthy than anything Mommy started with. Bringing home dinner from one of Denver's homegrown organic chains is like being Donna Reed and Euell Gibbons rolled into one.
Wild Oats Market, in particular, seems to be breeding faster than nitrate-free rabbits, particularly considering its humble start. Libby Cook, her husband, Michael Gilliland, and their friend Randy Clapp bought a tiny only-organic-by-accident vegetable market on Baseline Drive in Boulder in 1984. Five years later, after watching the nearby Alfalfa's build a healthy business, they decided to get into the grocery game. Since 1989 Wild Oats has expanded to nearly twenty stores, including five in Colorado and the rest spread throughout California, Kansas, Nevada and New Mexico.
Wild Oats hasn't sacrificed service for size, however. At the stores I've visited, the staff has been incredibly helpful. When I dumped my cup of coffee all over the floor, for example, employees said they were sorry and made sure I got another cup. And it's a good thing they're so eager to please, because you need a road map to find your way around the new, state-of-the-art Wild Oats store in Washington Park.
The prepared food is in the back, but you pay for it in the front: While I shopped the shelves in between, I could have eaten enough food for a family of twelve, shoved the evidence behind the make-your-own-peanut-butter machine, and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, I did the honorable thing and picked up my pizza at the back of the store (after a fifteen-minute wait for its preparation), then took it to the front to pay for it, then juggled it and my purse and my coffee--which I soon spilled--to the coffee-and-juice bar in the middle of the store, where I ate my sizable snack. Whew.
I suppose I could have waited until I got home to eat my four-cheese pizzette ($6.99), but I was starving. Fortunately, the pie turned out to be big enough for two, with an olive-oil-slicked, whole-wheat crust the size of a loaf of bread that was loaded with mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola and cheddar cheeses and sprinkled with fresh herbs. For the folks I'd left behind, I'd fixed up a big plate from the mix-and-match pasta bar ($5.99), choosing the puttanesca over the spinach fettuccine. The pasta was fresh--Wild Oats uses one store for its prep work, then delivers the finished, usually uncooked, product to the rest of its stores--and prepared (properly) on the premises. The sauce was light on olive oil and thus low in fat; it also contained a good balance of capers, anchovies, garlic and olives, and packed an easy punch of crushed red-chile flakes. (Okay, I didn't wait to get home to taste it--but then, I had to know if it was worthy of my new-age-Donna Reed delivery.)
Pasta in hand, I then juked through the defensive line of customers (in addition to stinting on signage, Wild Oats is stingy with space--the amount of room left between displays and aisles is sufficient only for supermodels and pickpockets) to the sandwich/salad station, where I was confronted with enough salads for a church picnic at the Vatican. Thai noodle salad, cranberry currant couscous salad, zucchini salad, dill potato salad, salad made from small animals who ranged free until they didn't run quite fast enough. The black beans with saffron salad ($5.99 a pound) was as unusual and tasty as it sounded, and the orzo primavera ($6.59 a pound) had a non-mayo creaminess and was filled with crunchy veggies. But the antipasto ($7.99 a pound) was weird: bow-tie pasta sprinkled with little bits of red pepper and olives and not much flavor.
And it wasn't just homeward-bound Mommies doing the buying here, either. A seventysomething couple stood gazing at the spread for a long time, until finally the woman looked at her mate. "Does anything in there turn you on?" she asked. "Yep," he answered.
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It could have been the spanakopita ($1.69), an individual phyllo-shelled pie engorged with spinach and feta. Or the "fire and ice" sandwich ($4.99), a winning combination of roast beef (the nitrate-free, corn-fed type), red onion, cucumber, roasted peppers and jalapeno Jack cheese on thin-sliced farm bread (although thicker slices would have held everything together better). Or the "city sprouts" sandwich ($3.99) of sun-dried tomatoes, smoked mozzarella, zucchini, feta and, naturally, sprouts--soooo good, and good for you. A huge mound of blue-corn chips and a natural dill pickle spear came with each sandwich.
I rounded out my family's meal with a collection of sushi ($8.95). Sorry, but grocery stores--even organic grocery stores--have no business selling sushi. I'm sure the fish was fresh, but everything in my sampler of tuna, salmon, shrimp and several rolls of indeterminate ingredients tasted like wet paper towels on rice.
Donna Reed would have been pissed. But she could have worked through her tension with the shoulder massage available at Wild Oats next to the produce section. Five bucks bought me ten minutes of pure bliss and helped me forget that red bell peppers were $4.29 a pound. When it was over, I gathered up my dinner for three and went home with a smile on my face.
Now, if only Wild Oats would do the ironing.