Since my heart surgery, a little more than three months ago now, I’ve dramatically changed my eating habits, applying a new found discipline that has left me about twenty five pounds lighter than I was before the surgery.
I’ve been consistently strong about refusing the fat laden fast food I’d become addicted to, and I’m very proud of myself. There is, however, one place, one last bastion of greasy yumminess I’ve been unable to conquer yet.
I’m still a whore for, a junkie, of the grocery store free sample.
There’s something about the pizza oven, the hot plate, the little napkins or paper cups, the apron and the clear plastic gloves of the gray haired lady or the black bearded man behind the folding table. The atmosphere, the ambience of that small table at the end of the aisle is more evocative and inviting than that at the finest restaurant.
Not to mention the food, the mouthwatering aroma of a cooked frozen pizza, or sizzling Italian sausage, pierced by a thin pretzel stick, or the little cubes of cheese served on a Ritz cracker.
The fact that it’s all free pushes it over the top, and serves as poof of the existence of God. Once you consummate and consume the tasty morsel, the temptation, the challenge, becomes how do I get a second free sample? It’s with a considerable amount of shame that I confess to the crime of hitting the same free sample table twice, even three times in a single shopping excursion. I know, I know, this is a violation of basic human dignity, and revealing of a broken moral compass, but what can I say? I am addicted, a pathetic junkie.
There’s an art to getting the free sample. First, you have to scout out the area. This is done by pushing your cart past the spot where the store normally places the free sample table – it’s usually at the end of the frozen foods aisle. Then a quick survey of the contents of the table has to be carefully established – is that a pizza oven? Or is it a hot plate with a frying pan? Either way, it’s going to be something greasy and delicious – either a frozen pizza or a sausage, a bratwurst or breakfast sausage or hot dogs. If there is no oven or hot plate, odds are it’s going to be free samples of cheese, or a trail mix. Disappointing, not nearly as good as the frozen pizza or brat, but still plenty yummy, and still free. Then you take note of the presentation materials – if you see little paper cups or folded napkins or a roll of paper towels. Then the most important detail – where are they in the cycle of preparing and serving?
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the presence of a pizza oven and paper towels, indicative of little samples of frozen pizza served on a paper towel, my favorite, only to realize there aren’t any put out yet. Then you see the presenter taking the time to clean the oven, which means they haven’t even put in a new pizza yet, meaning there aren’t going to be any free samples for another seven, eight minutes. This is why it is so important to scout out the free sample tables at the very beginning of the shopping excursion – if you don’t, you might hit this “dead period” at the end of your shopping, and next thing you know you’re checking out while the presenter is putting a fresh pizza in the oven, and you’ll have to deal with the tragic circumstances of not getting a free sample when you knew they were available, if you’d only timed it right.
Another thing you have to remember is that you are not alone. The supermarket is filled with, especially during peak hours, when husbands are more likely to be shopping with their wives, others just like you, for whom the free sample has become a crusade, a mission. If you’re not careful and attentive, you’ll miss the throng of men who suddenly appear from nearby aisles and descend upon the free sample table, and no sooner than the presenter puts out the free samples they are gone. Remember that supermarkets usually offer free samples at their busiest times, so the competition is fierce, like a pack of wild and rabid hyenas descending upon a freshly killed gazelle.
You have to train and learn to trust your instincts, your senses. When walking by an empty table, use your nose to smell out a cooking frozen pizza. Eventually your nose will evolve into a sophisticated instrument capable of estimating if that pizza in the oven is two minutes or seven minutes from completion.
Once you’re confident in an estimated time of completion, then you have to check out the surroundings and develop a plan. For example, you estimate two minutes until pizza. Looking around you, you see a lot of other men in the vicinity, idly reading the nutritional contents of a package of yogurt (a dead giveaway, because most men don’t eat yogurt, and those that do don’t know how to read) or very slowly pushing their cart (men never drive anything with wheels slowly unless there is an opportunity for free food). You have to be observant and understand what you are up against, how many others are as eager for free pizza as you are. At the same time, you have to conceal your intent so when the time comes you have the element of surprise. One method that is often too unwieldly to pull off is to pretend that you aren’t even a shopper but are in fact the potato chip salesman, and that you are stocking shelves with bags of chips, when in actuality you are really taking bags of chips down and just putting them back on the shelf.
Finally, you have to be a master of deception. When your time cones, when you’re finally at the table and the woman behind the apron is telling you all about what kind of frozen pizza it is, you have to act interested and give the impression that you are actually contemplating buying one or more of the pizzas when in reality you have no intent of buying anything whatsoever. Then, in case it is really good pizza and you feel gutsy enough to try to score a second piece of free pizza later, you will want to conceal your identity so you aren’t recognized the second time. Wear a cap, pull it down low, and study the lighting in the surrounding area, sticking to the shadows if possible. Wearing a ski mask has worked, but only in the cold months of winter, and more often only arouses suspicions, especially if it’s July or August.
The last piece of advice: don’t linger. Take your free sample with you and clear the area. Be careful, because if it is pizza, it’s going to be hot, and can easily burn your mouth, causing embarrassing strands of melting cheese or blotches of tomato sauce o stick to you lips and face as you continue shopping. These marks stand out like the Scarlet Letter of free samples, and will reveal to all what in your shame you most want to conceal: that you are a free sample whore.
Free food, no matter how tiny the portions, is a wonderful thing. But when it becomes addiction, it isn’t free anymore. The real cost is your dignity, your soul. That little old lady in the apron behind the table may look like a sweet grandma, but in reality she is a pimp, a dealer, and her little free samples of pizza are as addictive as Crack. My final advice is to resist and shun this woman, don’t get started down her path to Hell and just say no to free samples.
That way there’ll be more for me ….