HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


How do you shop/cook in a small town?

I just moved from Los Angeles, where I had year round local farmers markets and access to every type of food products and goods to a small town in Washington where the local produce is already starting to taper out, there are only a few retailers of ethnic and gourmet foods, and most people settle (or just don't care) for shopping at the large grocery store and eating at ho-hum restaurants.

The nearest large town where these edibles are available is in Canada, and the import rules to the US are a mess - such that I don't want to shop there and risk an argument with a border agent who could care less.

Once every 2 months or so, we can probably head south to Seattle and stock up, but that type of access is limited both in frequency and the space in our cooler.

So how have the smaller town cooks among you managed, if you want to cook or eat these "bigger city" foods? Do you mail order? I'm sure that works much better for non-perishables. Are there any reliable vendors of seafood that will ship frozen overnight? Do they cost a fortune. What about high quality cheeses and charcuterie? Is it hopeless?

I guess I'm suffering from a bit of culture shock and not thinking very originally. I just miss having it all at my fingertips. On the bright side, there is a spice hut in town, that sells fresh spices in bulk, and we've found a very nice bread bakery. There are also wild blackberries growing all over the place - free for those who care to brave the thorns. It's been a great family activity going picking....

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. You have to get a large refrigerator and freezer to store stuff you get in Canada or Seattle; and prepare more of what you want at home, substituting ingredients from the large local supermarket. I grew up in food-rich California, have a place in the Wallowas in NE Oregon, and live in Colombia (where I continually have to bring back ingredients).

    1. This is so funny, because I was getting frustrated with this very same problem this weekend! I live in Kansas City where I don't normally run into that problem, but I grew up in Topeka, KS where it is extremely difficult to find certain ingredients. I had totally forgotten about this frustration until I tried to make desserts for my wedding reception this weekend. Not only could I not find good chocolate or whole milk yogurt or marscapone cheese, I was also frustrated by cooking in someone else's kitchen! (I almost brought my Kitchenaid with me, but decided against it at the last minute, and I so regretted that decision by the end of the weekend!) I had to have my husband bring marscapone cheese back from Kansas City on his way out of town... I don't know what I would have done if he wasn't still in Kansas City and coming to Topeka anyway! Anyway, when I was living in Topeka, I had given up on charcuterie and high quality cheeses, unless I brought a cooler on trips to KC. There used to be a meat and cheese shop in Topeka, but it's been closed a long time. It is awesome that you have a spice shop at least; we didn't in Topeka. We also didn't have very many good bakeries, and the ones that were good, usually didn't last long. I think I just ended up editing what I could and couldn't make as sad as that sounds. Either that, or I substituted A LOT! (I substituted sour cream for the whole milk yogurt and bought little Dove chocolates for the chocolate, because I figured it was better than grating Baker's chocolate!) Mail order is nice, but you definitely have to plan ahead, which I'm not always good at. I guess I haven't really helped you, just lamented with you!

      1. Often health food stores can be a source of "unusual" ingredients; long before my grocery store in suburban NY had stuff like wasabi powder, I could find it in a health food store. You should definately look into growing a few of your own herbs so that you have them around. You may also see if a nearby town has a higher immigrant population; in that case the "normal" grocery store there may be a treasure trove. That has helped me find things like dried peppers, plantains, and tomatillos in the ShopRite just down the road from my regular A&P.

        1 Reply
        1. re: DGresh

          Excellent idea about growing your own herbs... we did this and it helped immensely!

        2. We live in a small city, Bloomington, IN and luckily since it is a university town there is a lot of diversity in what you can and cannot get. Sometimes I am amazed at what is available and at other times let down by what is not. When we go to Indianapolis, Chicago or Cincinnati (Jungle Jim's the amazing store that it is , is a real treat)we take coolers and plan on stocking up. i once had a friend sitting in my kitchen discussing food and cooking. She asked me "where can i get truffle butter in this town?" I opened my freezer door and handed her a container from D'Artnagan and was she surprised. It takes a little planning ahead and also some impulse buying (truffle butter etc.) but I do pretty well. I have not resorted to doing much on line but have ordered whole foie gras from D'Artagnan on occasion, and what great stuff it is and we have ordered some game but that is rare.

          1. I lived in Detroit for several years and bought a good portion of my groceries in Windsor, ON as I would purchase Commonwealth goods (Aus/NZ lamb, etc.) for a small fraction of what I was paying on the US side.

            The key thing is to talk to the Customs agents BEFORE the shopping trip to get a copy of the MOST recent regulations. These change occasionally.

            1. i live outside boston, and i used to live in california. it is rough, man. you just have to accept that your quality of life, regarding the availability of varied food, has declined, and then you move on from there. i don't mail order or even really stock up on trips to the city, instead i have modified my style quite a bit. i cook simpler now. i don't torture myself by opening the chez panisse books. food is creative in a totally pragmatic way now, as opposed to in a creative way.

              one thing that does help, i think, is the cooks illustrated books. they are written so that you can get the things for them practically anywhere, which is nice. this week, i've made almost all of their recipes for greens, and i am serious, they were all so delicious, and simple. also, i think that everyplace does have some great stuff, and it is important to find it. for me, when you mailorder these luxury foods, it feels somehow less luxurious - like it has lost the sense of abundance and spontenaiety that it once had. i miss it, but i'll wait until i live in california again to have it.

              i make things from scratch more now, also, things like mascarpone, creme fraiche, ricotta, are easy at home and worth it, to me.

              i have also made friends with the grocers and the butcher in my town, and they will special order things for me if i think to ask ahead. one of my favorite parts of living in a small town is getting to have those relationships, actually. i also do think that it's a good for americans to practice eating more locally, and living in a more isolated place helps you to do that some.

              1 Reply
              1. re: pigtails

                Oh no! You make excellent points, pigtails, and I agree with almost everything you say, but I have to disagree when you say to accept the decline in quality of life!

                I moved from NYC to a small town in England where choice is seriously limited, to say the least. At first I thought I was doomed. But you're absolutely right when you say that every place has some great stuff. You just have to adjust to what is available.

                The OP said that there are some places to get ethnic and gourmet foods, so that's a plus. Maybe it's time to try out some new ethnic ingredients. In my town, there's a little Asian shop, and it's opened up a whole new array of cooking possibilities for me. I got some good books and now I make Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese foods that I probably never would have tried before. And like you said, many places will order things for you.

                And making things yourself is a great option for those with the time and inclination. Decent bread is difficult for me to find, so I learned to bake and found that I really enjoy that.

                Like the OP, I have trouble finding good cheeses and charcuterie. I'm looking into mail order sources of those, and if that works out it will be great.

                And ditto what you said about eating locally. Hopefully the OP will find good local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Working with local, seasonal produce is challenging but also tremendously rewarding. Instead of eating mediocre vegetables year-round, I look forward to excellent tomatoes in summer, fresh broad beans and asparagus in spring, and brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and savoy cabbage in the fall and winter.

                Strangely, I think that the move to a small town may have improved our cooking and eating. It has certainly taught me lessons that I'll take with me wherever I end up. So don't despair.

              2. I agree with posters above that you should not despair. Yet. While you may not find the plentitude you had before in one place, from my experience living out in the country, with patience and perseverance you may very well turn up less obvious sources of high quality ingredients. I get my produce and fruit from my local CSA, there's a dairy down the road for milk, a good farm stand with local cheese, bread, humanely raised meat and fish, ethnic stores with unusual ingredients. So I may not have marscapone at my disposal, but I have a wide variety of dried peppers (and tomatillos, anchos and tortillas) from the Mexican grocery. And yes, I make more from scratch and keep my freezer full of stock, sauces and demi glace.

                1. My duckie you don't know what it's like to live in a "small town" until you live in an isolated community with no road access. My top hints to you:
                  -- keep a running list of the stuff you want/need
                  -- make a menu for a couple weeks of meals before hitting the big centre

                  1. Think small town and develop a cooperative. Try getting together with some others in town or the area who have the same trouble and create a foodies group for buying power. Then you can buy as the stores do to get things in town. If there is enough interest, see if the local store will support your group. There is power in groups, especially in small towns!

                    1. You might also query on the Northwest boards, but depending on where you are north of Seattle, there's a locally owned chain of groceries - Central Market - that I find pretty amazing for bulk spices, great bakery, huge selection of prepared foods, etc. We have family in Poulsbo and it's become a family joke that I have to go to Central Market every day we're in town. I lived in LA for 5 years, so I know what it's like to be used to having a Whole Foods or TJ's or Gelson's 15 minutes away (or less!)
                      Here's the link to the Poulsbo location - looks like they're also in Shoreline and Mill Creek.


                      1. All I have to say is, THANK GOD FOR E-COMMERCE! Although it may be more expensive, you can always shop online for specialty items. You can even buy meat from Niman Ranch online!

                        1. there's always something available where you are that may not even have been available or was not as fresh where you were living before.
                          ex: there is no imported deli meat where i am, but there is this amazing canadian bacon which i have been using in pasta. ham is the thing down here, it's just not the preparations i'm used to.
                          another ex: i haven't found a good fish market but the WF here carries a frozen wild fish line they don't have in ny.
                          i miss a couple of things, but a) have lost weight and b) spend less money eating out. I also eat more fruit than before.

                          1. My neighborhood grocery store is smaller than the average mega mart and the choices are quite limited. I like shopping there because it is easy to shop there than the larger markets. I've lived outside of CA and feel my situation is similar to the time I've gone shopping outside of CA. The key to meal planning for me is to really know what my market carries and plan around that rather than planning around the ingredients you prefer.