One of the delights – and challenges – of life on the road is finding local groceries with either a specialty or a wide variety of choices. As with most things in life, you win some and you lose some. There was one chain (which will remain nameless) throughout Virginia, Tennessee, and eastern Arkansas in whose stores I would only purchase items in bottles, jars, and boxes. I didn’t trust any fresh foods be they breads, meats, or produce.
While we were staying in Duson, LA, we were less than a mile away from a small grocery store, Champagne’s, that was part of a Cajun country chain. Since they didn’t have the economies of scale, their prices for staples were high. But I found a wonderful spicy, course-textured, store-made pork sausage. My meatloaf recipe calls for one-half to three-quarters of a pound of pork sausage for every two pounds of ground beef. This worked so well that we left Duson with enough sausage in the freezer for two more meatloaves. (Meat loaf tip: Instead of using bread crumbs, crackers, or oatmeal for your meatloaf, use Stove Top Stuffing instead. I use a half of a box for every two and a half pounds of meat.)
In northeastern Tennessee, we found the Ingles chain. Near the Smokies and in eastern Arkansas, we found Kroger’s. In Lafayette, LA, we found Albertson’s. All were very good stores, and at Albertson’s, we found the only semi-authentic bagels we’ve had in six months. And, of course, wherever you go there is a Wal-Mart Super Store.
All pale in comparison to the store we found in Kerrville – H•E•B (Here Everything’s Better). The first H•E•B store opened in Kerrville in 1905 in the building that now houses Hill Country Café (our favorite restaurant in Kerrville). The minute I walked through the doors I knew I had found food nirvana. With the exception of Wegman’s, I didn’t have a better store in my suburban Bucks County shopping region.
The minute I saw that H•E•B had a real deli counter and sold store-baked torpedo rolls, I knew it was time for me to make my knock-off of the Chicago Hot Italian Roast Beef sandwich. There in the case was the most beautiful, ultra-rare, store-roasted roast beef. To make things even better, from an expensive olive bar I was able to prepare a form of giardiniara, that marinated Italian salad of cauliflower, carrots, and hot and sweet peppers. H•E•B’s mixture also included green and black olives and was marinated in oil and vinegar rather than just vinegar. My version of the Chicago Hot Italian Roast Beef Sandwich.
H•E•B has a fairly extensive cheese counter with mostly domestic cheeses but also a fair number of imported cheeses. The produce is beautiful - crisp and fresh with an extensive variety of greens and veggies.
The peppers include fresh red, yellow, and green sweet peppers along with jalapenos, poblanos, habeneros and a large variety of dried peppers.
In the meat counter I found thick cut (inch-thick) pork chops. These became the main feature of our Christmas Eve dinner – Giada De Laurentis’ Pork Chops alla Pizzaiola. This is the only way we’ll eat pork chops!
In addition to a frozen seafood case, H•E•B has a large fresh fish and seafood section. It was there that I found the ultimate – real jumbo (and I mean jumbo) white lump crab meat. For years, our Christmas (anniversary, birthdays) celebration meal has been a crab dish, the recipe for which I found in Chesapeake Life magazine. This is one of those deceptively simple meals that rely on the best ingredients, especially the crab. The minute I saw this in the seafood case, I knew that we would opt out of the campground pot luck Christmas Dinner and have dinner at home. The crab casserole was served with saffron rice, using Ellis Stansel’s gourmet popcorn rice from Gueydan, LA. (Yes, this RV chef travels with her own supply of saffron stored in the freezer to keep it fresh.)
We had a chance to talk with George, the store manager, and told him how much we had enjoyed shopping in his store. George told us that this store had undergone substantial renovations to celebrate the chain’s 100th anniversary in 2005. The Kerrville store is now the crown jewel of the chain and has specialty areas, like the deli, that you don’t find in all H•E•B stores.
We felt lucky to have chosen to camp near this store!