Best of the Midwest: Costco Lunch

For most of us, the holidays are all about tradition: we prepare spiral-cut ham and serve it on the good china, or watch Home Alone while eating kettlecorn and drinking hot toddies, or go caroling, or whatever. It’s no different for my family, except one of our traditions is eating lunch at Costco.

That’s right: my sister and I have made a habit of eating a Lunch of Samples at Costco. Here’s how it goes down: we choose a day when we know the pickins will be good,* drive our patooties to Costco, and bolt from sample station to sample station, grabbing our snax before they fall prey to the grubby hands of ten-year-olds. Do I feel bad about elbowing 10-year-olds out of my way? Hell no! Do you think those 1o-year-olds are paying for Costco memberships? Again, hell no! They can wait a damn minute to scarf tiny pizza triangles.

Per our own set of instructions, Ali, Mom, and I hit up the Coon Rapids Costco just after noon on Xmas eve. The parking lot was full; we knew our competition would be fierce. We weren’t worried, though: we’re seasoned pros, and we can throw elbows with the best of ’em.

We were in luck as soon as we stepped through the massive door: a lit’l old lady was serving miniature cups of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider. It had been years since I’d sipped this stuff; aside from being a bit sweet, it wasn’t bad. (Note: the juice’s sweetness isn’t enough to prevent me from drinking it in the future; it’s more subdued than all sodas and many of the zany cocktails I get.) My mom tossed a four-pack of bottles in our cart, and we moved on.

This lady greeted us as we waltzed through the door.

The Deli Area is the best sampling zone: the stations are condensed, requiring less movement on the part of the diner, and there are no tall shelves that might block the diner’s line of sight. As is typically the case, Sys and I found the best tidbits near the deli: Cabot Habanero Cheese (which was actually, legitimately spicy — and good), Basha hummus served on an elongated tortilla chip, and “Margherita” pizza, plated on an oil-streaked paper napkin. Margherita is in quotation marks because I detected neither tomato nor basil atop the pie. In fact, the crust tasted more like a lukewarm Ritz cracker than anything resembling pizza dough, but oh, well: you get what you (don’t) pay for.

The hummus was so-so — pretty typical store-bought hummus, if you want to know. What puzzled me was the sample lady’s addition of salsa to the snack. Is there anyone out there who serves (watery, Pace-picante-style) salsa with hummus? If so, what’s your motivation? I’m curious — really, I am.

Hummus with tortilla-chip wands and runny salsa. It's tradition, baby.

Stage II samplingtakes place in the frozen and paper goods sections. Back near the pallets of Brawny, I grabbed a dainty cup of Boylan’s all-natural root beer and slugged it back, fueling my quest for MOAR SAMPLES! (Note: I’m no root beer connoisseur, but this stuff was solid: spicy, not too sweet, and highly carbonated. Max carbonation is one quality I dig in a soda.)

The tiniest pizza slice in all the world. Note: it contains no visible basil.

Stage III sampling — the final stage — takes place from the end of frozen all the way to the checkout lanes. In this region of the store, sample stations are placed at the ends of the aisles; they’re more densely clustered in the snack food area (which abuts the checkout zone). During Stage III, Ali and I nibbled ultra-sweet canned Dole pineapple (which, OK, who in this country has not tasted canned pineapple before? This was a total throwaway, IMO), mild cheddar on pretzel thins, and antipasto on crackers.** I feel as though I’m forgetting something — indeed, I know I’m forgetting something. I want to say we also ate pretzel M&Ms, but that can’t be it: if that were the case, I wouldn’t have forgotten, so deep is my love for those candies.

Of the noted samples, the Cabot Habanero cheddar was the clear winner. It’s the only product I’d buy voluntarily, the only product that was, to put it simply, appetizing. To be fair, the frozen pizza wasn’t cooked long enough, but it also didn’t contain its namesake ingredients. Canned pineapple does nothing for me (except when frozen and used in lieu of ice cubes in tropically themed cocktails — then it’s fine). The cheddar on a pretzel thin was total nursery-school fare, and the root beer was just root beer.

As you’d imagine, the joy in this tradition derives not from the quality of the foods sampled, which is highly variable, but from the rush of excitement the process brings. Driving to that giant, concretey warehouse store, Ali and I were aflutter with anticipation: Would the lecherous Muffins Roadshow dude be there, luring us to his table with giant chunks of Chocolate-Chocolate Chip? Would the Deli Hunk be at his post behind the plate-glass windows? Would we have to barge through a group of toddlers to get the last pieces of deep-fried eggroll? Only time would tell.

Of course, it’s not a trip to Costco without a behemoth slice of cafe pizza. When Ali and I used to live in Western Mass, we’d drive to the Springfield Costco, where we’d stock up on Babybel cheeses and then get pizza slices for dinner. Even now, I grin when I think of this homey tradition. With its fantastically chewy crust and inches-thick cheese, the pizza was only so-so: bland at best, oil-slicked at worst. But, it was a food we could agree on — a food of our youth. Tearing open that foil packet of red pepper flakes never fails to transport me to the distant past.

This time around, sys and I split a piece of pizza. (In the photo above, you’ll note the bifurcation line, made by the cashier at our request.) The slice was exactly as I’d expected it to be, and from this constancy I derived great joy: I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipe had changed — of course it hadn’t. Costco pizza will always be Costco pizza, progress be damned, and that’s why I love it. Reactionary food for the masses: it’s what Christmas traditions are all about.

***

*The days prior to major holidays are a safe bet; last-minute shoppers will be out in droves, and the sample ladies will be at their posts, offering Dixie cups of Chex Mix and one-inch cubes of Monterey Cheddar. So it begins.

**Upon learning that this sample contained tuna, I tried to pawn mine off on my mom, telling the sample lady that I’m allergic to tuna. “She’s not allergic to tuna,” my mom countered, “she just doesn’t like it.” Which isn’t true: I like tuna! But I do not like the tuna surreptitiously included in weird, prepackaged, pseudo-Italian spreads, OK?

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5 responses to “Best of the Midwest: Costco Lunch

  1. This really made me smile. I regularly take my 80-year-old dad to Costco for his favorite pastime – sampling!

    I’m so glad you liked the Cabot Habanero Cheddar. Thanks for trying it! (I substitute it in my mac & cheese. Yum!)

    PS: Did you know we’re a cooperative owned by 1200 farm families? 🙂

  2. YES: sampling is one of the greatest pastimes!

    I did not know that Cabot is a cooperative — thanks for the info. I’ll definitely be looking for the habanero variety out here in SF 🙂

  3. ha. loved this post. as someone that goes to costco on a regular basis, I totally know the joy of sampling. our latest trip also featured some Cabot cheese (definitely the best of the bunch, it wasn’t habanero, but something milder) Mango Nectar (tasted like drinking the syrup from canned fruit, way too sweet, but of course my kid loved it) and chocolate covered granola bars (that the lady told me were a “great snack” though it seemed more like a dessert to me.) i usually end up skipping the frozen foods section entirely but the deli and snack sections are solid. nothing like some kettle corn to really end the shopping trip on a good note. and I’ve actually never eaten anything from the cafe but the giant churros sign always tempts me.

  4. I’ve also never tried the churros, though they tempt me, too. I’ll say one thing: the cafe pizza isn’t great, but neither is it bad — it definitely outclasses frozen pizzas.

    Also, I totally forgot to include this tidbit in the entry, but the woman offering samples of sweet potato chips said, “Eating these counts as eating vegetables.” Say WHAT?

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