Lileks: Do all husbands have a genetic shopping deficiency?

James Lileks, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Guests were due in an hour for brunch. My wife was doing kitchen things. You know, sautéing, reducing, clarifying, crisping, probably broasting, whatever that is. While using some dental floss to get out some gunk in the screws in light switch plate, I heard my wife call. We had a problem. We had a major problem.

She had forgotten to buy a shallot.

"I'll call the guests," I said. "They can't have left yet. They can order in."

No, there was time. I could find a shallot, and it could be added to the mélange of potatoes and vegetables, proving the rarefied gustatory pizazz that only a shallot can provide. "OK, I'm off to the store," I said. "Just one thing: Remind me what a shallot is. No — text me a picture."

I'm not entirely stupid. I have an excellent memory. But when it comes to spousal instructions, men can second- and third-guess themselves into utter confusion. Send us out for milk, and somehow we come back with a hammer. Not all men, of course. But some.

Mind you, I do all the shopping and cooking, so I know where everything is in six different grocery stores, except shallots. They've just never come up. There's never a note on the fridge that says, "We're getting low on shallots."

She called up a picture on the iPad where she had the recipe — a fine Star Tribune Taste section recipe, by the way — and pointed. There. That.

"It will be back with the onions," she added.

Why? Because it is an onion? Because it identifies as an onion? Because it was adopted by the onions who took it in when it was lost and alone and have come to accept it as one of their own, even though they know someday it will have to leave and find its own people after a long journey of self-discovery?

"Got it," I assured her. She did not text me a picture of the shallot, but that was OK. The grocery store was six blocks away, and I could hold the image of a shallot in my head until I got there, as long I didn't turn on the radio; the right song would knock that shallot right out of my head.

Of course, I could always ask the clerks at the store to show me a shallot. But what if they laughed? "Dude, there's no such thing as a shallot. Wife sent you on a snipe hunt."

No, they were real. But: one shallot? Two? I text wife with this important question, because I do not want to come home with a single shallot when she had been clear about the need for multiple shallots. Phone rings: She has another request. She needs baking soda. Got it. This new task has shoved the shallot quantity question right off the table.

By the time I get to the store, I am unsure if she wants baking soda or baking powder. I am 99.9% sure she said soda, but I am also a member of the husband community, prone to doing it wrong because we Just. Don't. Listen. That's because we're in a hurry to get it done so we can go back to the fun things in life, like flossing the screws in the light switch.

If she'd said, "Get the box with the arm and hammer," I would have been certain. Of course! The strange holdover from the era of Bolshevik iconography. I bought two boxes of soda, and a box of baking powder, just to be safe. If they'd had gun powder I would have bought it. And some gun soda.

All was well. Everyone raved about the meal. I waited for someone to say, "Do I detect the subtle yet unmistakable contribution of a single shallot?" I could lean back with a smile and say, "Yes, and therein hangs a tale!" But it went unnoticed.

Later my wife noted that I had bought the wrong soda. What? How is that possible? I'd bought the type that was used for fridge odors, she explained. It didn't open like a normal box, and it had a different composition. Wait a minute: you mean there's a baking soda that is not actually suitable for baking, and that's what I managed to get? Well, at least we had yeast, I said.

"That's another thing. Why do we have so much yeast?"

I stared at her. "Do you not remember what happened a year ago? When the world was shut down and everyone went home and made bread? There was no yeast to be had for love or money. No flour. We were all looking at Soviet shelves stripped of staples. When yeast reappeared, it was like the U.S. Army walking into Paris in '45 and handing out chocolates and nylons."

"But we have so much. Are you hoarding?"

I drew myself up with as much dignity as I could muster and said, "I do not hoard. I make periodic, strategic purchases based on reasonable projections."

"Well, I'll have to start baking."

"Good, because we have 10 pounds of flour in bins in the basement. Use the upstairs flour. I don't want to cut into the stocks."

I put the baking powder down in the emergency bins. Put it right next to the emergency baking soda. Thinking now about freeze-drying some shallots. You never know.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks