One staple of my childhood in addition to grass stains, defiance and poor haircuts was grocery shopping. It was a grand tradition consisting of me putting all sorts of sugared items in my parents' cart and them putting it back against my serious - if not violent - objections. I'm sure it's something they miss terribly.
It always felt like an event. One of the primary attractions for me was the Sample Ladies. The first time I remember noticing them and what was going on I was transfixed. I remember having the following conversation with my mom.
Me (whispering while trying to sneak 20 packages of baseball cards into the cart): "Whatwhat's going on?"
Mom: "They're giving out free samples and put those back."
Me (pausing to try and comprehend this): "Are the people she's giving the food to, like, dying?"
Mom: "What? No. She's just giving them away."
That's when I began gazing at Sample Ladies like a newborn staring at Christmas lights. Could life get any better? I approached Sample Lady, whose name for the sake of this column was Maureen, cautiously.
"Would you like to try a sample?" Maureen asked, sweetly.
"What's the catch?" I asked, suspiciously. I'll be darned if I was unwittingly agreeing to mop floors re-stock shelves.
"No catch," she laughed as she handed me a tiny morsel of whatever.
"So you, um, just GIVE OUT food?
"That's right. Every Friday."
"Sort of, I guess."
"I'll see you next week, Maureen."
I often wondered where they came from (heaven?). Much like whatever changes the numbers on the gas station signs (gremlins?), they pop up without warning and vanish just as quickly. When I was younger (28) I had just assumed they were released on Friday afternoons from their back room holding cubes, smiles permanently affixed to their faces, ready to peddle their goods.
Like Sirens luring sailors to their doom, to this day they still get me every single time. If criminals wanted to rob my house with me inside, all they'd have to do is hire an elderly woman and prop her up in my living room next to assorted cheeses on toothpicks.
It doesn't matter what they're offering, either. It's food and it's free - two of my all-time favorite things.
"Would you like to try this hide of salamander glazed with Elmer's glue sauce?" Sample Lady could ask.
"Just try and stop me!" I'd reply, wolfing down the tiny square of salamander and possibly the napkin it rested on to boot.
The way I musically flutter from Sample Lady to Sample Lady I'm surprised Disney hasn't tapped Julie Andrews to sing a song about it.
Over the years I've come to realize Sample Ladies are not as adorable as they first appear. If you stop and think about it, their business model is essentially a copy of that used by drug dealers. Sure, the first hit is free, but if you want more, you have to pony up. Soon you're going back, selling your wife's jewelry week after week to feed your mini corn dog habit. And, as anybody knows, mini corn dogs are a gateway food.
While Sample Ladies likely have assigned "stations" I choose not to think about that so they can continue to catch me unawares around random end caps. I prefer it continuing to feel like they're throwing a surprise party just for me.
"What's all this?" I muse, all atwitter. "For me? Well I declare."
I don't know why I turn into a 1940s southern woman.
Once I'm handed a sample I don't dive right in. Like kissing a woman for the first time, you don't want to come off as overly anxious. Additionally, I like to be very thorough and prefer to be the food equivalent of a wine festival taste judge. Eyes closed, low, meaningful bites while looking thoughtful. On the exterior it looks like I'm deep in thought, even if I'm generally thinking "yumyumyum free yummy yums."
Unfortunately an awkward moment inevitably arises once you've committed to the morsel as Sample Lady sort of watches you expectantly as you chew. It's a little unsettling that she gives me the same anxious, manic smile I give my daughter when feeding her something that she might not like. I try and make this awkward period more entertaining by doing an impromptu chewing dance right there in the aisle (to help with your visual my dance contains notes of Bollywood).
I always give an honest opinion. That's just how I roll. If your cocktail sauce is substandard, you can bet I'll call you out on it. After a few grueling yet positively highly entertaining seconds I prepare my review. What will it be? "Oh yes, that's quite delicious" or "my, what a nice combination of vinegar and duck sweat." I don't have to tell you; it's a moment of pure adrenaline - almost exactly what Evil Kenevil must've felt right before jumping busses.
Even if I find the sample delicious, I can never bring myself to purchase it. I think it stems from not wanting to give them the satisfaction that their marketing tactic worked on me. By my estimation, grocery stores have lost upwards of $30,450 on 25 years of samples.
Sometimes in college samples would be my meal. A sample buffet, if you will. Here's a secret Sample Ladies don't want you to know: if you comment positively on the first sample they generally don't stop you from taking a second. You can even squeeze out a third, but only after leaving for several minutes first. Any more than that and you'll get a stern look that makes you feel like you were just caught stealing $20 from your grandma's purse. SOMETIMES you can purchase a fake mustache from a vending machine and return with a fake accent and squeeze out one more. "Fredrico Tortellini" always leaves satisfied.
Kelly Van De Walle is the senior creative & marketing writer for Briscoe14 Communications (www.briscoe14.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Fridays at your local supermarket sampling assorted grilled meats. Follow Kelly on Twitter @pancake_bunny or be ostracized (turned into an ostrich).