Ring Her Chime

If company calls, the larder is ready

When I first moved to Arizona a decade ago, I'd been crying for two months. I didn't want to leave home but my husband's job called.

Back in Philly, we had a life filled with family, friends and food. And since we worked in the arts, we were always meeting new people as they came through town to perform.

Many nights our doorbell would ring. It could be one of our brothers grinning and hoping for a supper invitation, proffering a six-pack of beer. Or perhaps it would be my sister or a girlfriend, offering a bottle of wine.

Rose Johnson

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Everyone knew we worked at home and that both of us cooked. It was nothing for me to put up a pot of soup or my husband to concoct some red gravy for dinner later in the evening. Winter nights it could be a slow-roasted pork shoulder and potatoes, to accompany a game of Scrabble by the fire, particularly if the guest was one of our brothers. Both were good Scrabble strategists, but if I had something like an apple pan dowdy in the oven, I suspect they let me win sometimes. In summer, we ate everything from soft-shell crabs to burgers sizzled on the backyard grill, and we'd sit swilling beer until the mosquitoes got to us.

We were still unpacking a few days after moving into our central Phoenix home when my husband found the doorbell inexplicably located by the pool. He came inside after ringing it, only to find me crying again.

"What's wrong?" he said with alarm. "Something break?"

"No," I whined, "it's just that our doorbell will never ring here."

He put his arms around me.

"Yeah, you're right about that. Even if we knew anybody here, they can't get through the pool gate to ring it."

But we knew we'd make friends through his job at the university, and I set out immediately to normalize things as much as possible.

The first thing to do was stock my larder. If my staples were stable, and I met someone nice to invite over, I wanted to be ready.

I didn't like the huge, impersonal supermarkets here. I was used to shopping with the Amish at the Reading Terminal for humanely raised farm veal and organic produce, or at the Ninth Street Italian Market -- six blocks of outdoor and indoor vendors selling everything from live geese to fresh-killed rabbit to avocados.

I couldn't get used to paying a buck or more for avocados here, when I often got them three for a dollar there.

One day I wondered aloud to a south Philly friend about the difference in price. "Well, the ones on Ninth Street coulda been heisted," he said wickedly.

So I got the basics at Fry's and Safeway, then set out to find the select ingredients, and the places to get them, to help make my life more homey.

One day, when I picked up my husband after class, he looked at the odometer and said, "Geez, you put on 75 miles today. Where'd you go?"

I was out looking for hazelnuts.

"Well, I hope you found them," he said.

In fact, I had not, at least not the way I wanted them. None of the major supermarket chains carried them already shelled. I had even gone to a specialty nut store in Scottsdale, before doubling back to 45th Avenue and Thunderbird Road.

When I needed prune lekvar to fill special holiday cookies, I called the kosher wholesaler.

A man who identified himself as Sid answered the phone, but didn't know about lekvar.

"Are you Jewish?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"So go ask your mother already," I replied

He did, and located some for me.

During my forays, I found bulk couscous and coarse-ground polenta at Reay's Ranch Market (now Wild Oats). And at the wonderful produce stand down at Guadalupe Road and Avenida del Yaqui in Guadalupe, I found parsnips, blood-red Mexican tomatoes, collard greens and their exotic specials du jour.

Meanwhile, I strong-armed produce managers from ABCO to Safeway to order what I call string beans.

Not those flat, tough, mottled green beans, but real sweet thin ones that can be blanched French-style in three to five minutes.

Yes, you can thank me at least in part for that.

My larder began to fill up, groan and spill over by the time we hosted our first guests. I had found coho salmon at a nearby supermarket for 99 cents a pound, and at that price I could afford to make an avocado-lime sauce for it.

Of course, all this was before we got Trader Joe's, where we can get hazelnuts (some of you might call them filberts), maple syrup at half the supermarket price and Brie and Parmigiano-Reggiano that don't cost the price of a car payment.

A.J.'s Fine Foods helps, too (when you can afford it).

Does our doorbell ever ring? Nah. Phoenix doesn't seem to have that kind of neighborhood culture. But we've made friends with enough foodies and just plain good folk to have guests in or to be invited to their homes with some frequency. And I'm always ready just in case the doorbell does ring.

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