Have you heard? Everything is expensive. Prices are the only topic of conversation. Whereas people once discussed thoughts and interests, now they are all, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the rate of inflation dropped six-tenths of a percent from June to July. Pass the freezer-burned peas.”
Gas and airfare prices have eased a bit, but food prices have not. Munchies cost more than ever due to factors including the war in Ukraine, avian flu and sorority TikToks from Alabama rush. It can feel trivial to spend money on a mood booster, and it’s important to acknowledge that some simply cannot splurge.
But let’s say one were to seek a small, delectable treat, un petit luxe, to make life more vibrant. What would that look like? And which grocery store would have appetizing options for the least, ahem, cheddar?
I, your friendly roving columnist, decided cheese was a prime litmus. There’s something about boards. Eating a primal fist of colby jack and cold cuts during “Grey’s Anatomy” is depressing. Now, take those same items and flower them across a surface. Friends, this is a board, the pinnacle of elegance, the Versailles of snacks.
I shopped at Publix, Trader Joe’s, Winn-Dixie and Aldi stores in Tampa Bay. My quest was not a perfect grocery cost analysis. I did not buy four identical wheels of Brie. That’s the origin story of a comic book supervillain, like when the Joker fell in a vat of acid. Nor was the quest to go as cheap as possible. No Kraft Singles, no bologna, no Two Buck Chuck. Remember, we are treating ourselves, not paying for past sins.
Each grocery tab included: a cheese, a meat, a bread or cracker, a bottle of wine and a wild card item below $5.
Anyway you slice it, it’s time to milk this challenge and spread some... nope.
The cheese case at Trader Joe’s is miraculous. Cheese angels sing! Armed with great restraint, I blew past triple-cream gorgonzola for $12.99 and Grana Padano for $11.99. I was sold by a cartoon illustration of a mouse emerging from a Swiss cheese hole on a sign for the store’s “spotlight cheese.” Chiave D’oro, a raw milk hard cheese, was $3.49.
I added turkey summer sausage for $4.49, $1.99 brioche toasts and a bottle of La Granja 360 Verdejo Viura for $6.49 because it featured a peacock. Peacocks are the meanest, most extravagant birds. The absolute nerve of peacocks to even exist! A whole mood.
Wild card: A bouquet of purple flowers, just to feel alive, for $4.99.
Takeaway: Trader Joe’s is an affordable place to treat yourself, but you must be laser-focused or else be seduced into hybrid oranges, pork gyoza, spinach artichoke dip and freezer French fries dipped in dark chocolate. Danger awaits.
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Everyone in the Pub Sub line must answer: Boar’s Head or Publix? The same applies to cheeses. When faced with Publix herby goat cheese ($3.49) and Boar’s Head herby goat cheese ($4.49), the inflation choice was clear.
The Publix cheese display gets bougie fast. This is no time for $15.99 raw honeycomb, nor $10.79 fig-infused meat. I chose Volpi salami nuggets on sale; how anything called “nuggets” can still be $6.99 is beyond me. I added that sweet, sweet Cheesecake Factory brown bread for $4.19 because I’m a human with taste buds.
Now, I’ve rarely left Publix without BOGO wine bottles rattling around, but that day’s deal violated l’esprit du temps. I settled on Papi Malbec for $6.99 because the tag said “The fun starts here.” See: Peacock Method.
Wild card: Marcona almonds, $4.99
Takeaway: Publix might be for rich people? Discuss.
Do you like savings? Do you also like 1,000-piece puzzles? Then you’ll love Winn-Dixie.
People are passionate about Winn-Dixie. If played right, with the rewards card and app, the savings are staggering. Dollars disappear from grocery bills like major motion pictures from HBO Max.
However, I will boldly state this is not the spot for a cheese board. Perhaps I was nearing cheese burnout, but the most appealing fromage in a deli case was a creamy Havarti for $6.49. The curated meats and breads were a bummer (literally no one likes water crackers; this is just science), so I ventured into the aisles.
I picked... bagel chips ($2.99) and pepperoni slices ($5.49). It makes zero sense and I do not suggest anyone serve this array to valued guests. The CK Mondavi Pinot Grigio was a screaming deal at $4.99 (rewards!!!).
Wild card: I wanted a sweet element but refused coercion from a cheese case jar marked “honey for cheese.” I scored Bonne Maman cherry preserves, an aspirational middle class jam, on sale for $3.99. It does not pair with pepperoni on bagel chips.
Takeaway: No point, because Aldi wins.
Look, Aldi is a whole thing. The first time you go, it feels like giving a work presentation without pants. The quarters to get the cart! The lack of bags! The private-label brands! The random massage slippers for sale!
But Aldi folks know what’s up. Cheeses are presented unceremoniously in cardboard boxes, vast, varied and mostly less than $4. Those lil’ goat cheese logs? A mere $1.99 at Aldi. It was time to buy that sinister wheel of Brie, $3.69, and some $3.99 prosciutto to break up all the speckled sausage.
Brown rice crackers felt inconsequential at $2.29, but I had saved so much that I went big on a bottle of Belletti sparkling Moscato Rosé for a whopping $7.99. I carried it all out with my bare hands, a true Aldi master.
Wild card: Strawberries from Plant City’s Wish Farms for $1.99. OK, Aldi!
Takeaway: Treating yourself in tough times is possible, especially when you know where to look. And that place is Aldi. Now, spread these nibbles on the biggest board you can find, photograph it with the stack of medical bills just out of frame and eat an entire wheel of cheese dipped in jam. You deserve it.
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