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Say Cheese

Go Local at the Whole Foods Upper West Side

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul overcomes childhood cheese issues to go local in a Whole Foods spending challenge.

Growing up in Dallas, eating local was a choice between Pizza Inn down the road or a slightly further drive to Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Despite living at a crossroads of America’s Breadbasket, it never dawned on us to wonder about the origins of the food stocking the shelves at the neighborhood Tom Thumb.  For many years, I suffered post-traumatic stress from my Dad’s love of summer sausage and chunks of Longhorn Cheddar Cheese.  He’d prance through the house with a Chivas and water in one hand, and in the other some slightly mildewed neon orange queso—a delicacy processed somewhere far away from cattle country.  I’d run the other way when he offered me a bite, while my little dog Winnie happily snapped it up.

So it’s actually with great triumph that I’m now able to appreciate a good cheese platter as the centerpiece of a party spread.  Even more so, when that cheese is not Longhorn Cheddar but from local purveyors.  Yesterday, as I stood staring at the cheeses on offer at the Whole Foods Upper West Side, I was once again reminded that I have a lot in common with these artisanal producers—we’re both crafting small batches of goodness for consumers who appreciate something more personal and not mass-market.  My product just happens to be a book.

My version of the Whole Foods local cheese counter is the Alphabet City Book Club parties that friends are throwing while I’m on tour across the country.  It’s an opportunity to share my passion for storytelling with a small group—and let’s face it, I like to put on a show.  To that end, I arrive with the Alphabet City Party-in-a-Box that includes everything a host needs to throw a book soiree—Alphabet City books, branded cocktail napkins, cheeky coasters, a faux Oscar statuette, and some party nibbles and drinks.  In New York City, for the event that my friend Bryan was throwing at his apartment near the Harlem-Washington Heights divide, the folks at Whole Foods Upper West Side suggested I shop for party supplies at their newest location and show friends that entertaining in style doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank.

Here’s the thing: I have Whole Foods in my blood.  In college at the University of Texas-Austin, I used to shop at the original tiny store on Lamar.  Years later, I call myself a “Team Member by Marriage” since my partner Chef works for them, as does my sister Paige in their corporate headquarters.  I even interviewed CEO John Mackey for a profile in Condé Nast Traveler.  So I know my way around the store.  And while I laugh politely when folks call it “Whole Paycheck,” I also know on my own literary-budget constraints it’s possible to shop there with a plan and with style.

With Bryan in tow, my goal was to load up on enough food and drink to satiate an after-work crowd of 12 for around $100.  Here’s my biggest tip—when at all possible, purchase the store’s 365 brand products.  It’s like buying generic, except that they are guaranteed quality and often are organic.  My favorite is the 365 Hummus—it’s delicious, sometimes the stores can’t keep it in stock, and it’s always a crowd pleaser.  One of my early NYC roommates Shannon taught me, “It’s not a NY party without hummus.”  Spice things up with a couple of different flavors—I like the jalapeno as well as the red bell pepper.  Pair with fresh cut vegetables—to save money, slice your own zucchini, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, and cauliflower rather than buy the prepackaged slices.

A jar of 365 salsa is also terrific—and being from Texas I am picky about my salsa.  Beware: the HOT is very HOT.  Go for Medium or Mild for a party.  Pick up some 365 Tortilla chips and water  crackers that come in different varieties.  Have the deli counter slice some prosciutto very thinly.  Don’t forget to head to the Whole Foods Market Wine Store next door for some amazing bargains.  Even here, there are 365 brand wines—we tried the Madame Fleur Rosé, which was crisp and light and only $7.99.  And I picked out a 1 Liter bottle of Big Woop! red blended wine from Australia for $11.  The name made me laugh, and it turned out the wine packs a punch that even pleased Chef’s palate—and he’s a tough critic.

Bryan asking for cheese help

Now, spend your remaining budget at the cheese counter.  If you’re like me, and have a complicated history with queso that causes you to freeze up and become indecisive, you’re in luck.  The Whole Foods team members are experts—explain your situation and they’ll give you advice, offer tastings, and even applaud you when you tell them you’d like to feature local artisans.  At check out, make sure to offer up your own bags to carry everything home—each one will get you a .10cent credit.  Hey, it all adds up.

All in all, Bryan and I did pretty well within our budget.  The crowd at Bryan’s lovely apartment ate up the food selections along with a generous side of Alphabet City readings.  Now that’s a perfect local match.

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