Trader Joe’s, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love It

Oh, we were resistant at first.

When Trader Joe’s first hit Larchmont, Scarsdale and Hartsdale, it felt so foreign, so goofy, so California, with a tacky Polynesian logo and “trader” style shipping theme. It had a ship’s bell. It was manned by workers in Hawaiian shirts. It had a theme, for god’s sake, just like Disneyland. Meanwhile, here we were New Yorkers, happy to elbow our way through the cramped, croded aisles of the Harlem Fairway, donning nit-infested loaner jackets to freeze our personal bits in the cold room. When TJ’s hit, we thought, We’re Fairway shoppers, bro, so take your bell and silly shirts back to Cali.

Then we realized, in a pinch, that Trader Joe’s had great prices on some of our can’t-live-without staples, like pasteurized (and not ultra-pasteurized) heavy cream and organic milk. Caught short, without time to venture over the bridge, we held our nose and dove in.

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That’s when we noticed that Trader Joe’s is really great. First—it has the most rocking grocery store soundtrack ever, with a butt-bumping playlist of classic disco and soul. Go in and just listen; we defy you not to start twitching your hips. We were there once when a particularly driving, five song set of KC and the Sunshine Band hit and everyone in the store was getting down, just rocking out as they shoved their carts along. People were catching passing strangers’ eyes and belting out a line or two together like old friends. BTW—there are a lot of disco queens living out in Larchmont, slowly expiring for lack of Qiana.

Then, of course, there are all the gourmet lipids going on at Trader Joe’s, like French cultured President butter and baker’s choice Plugras butter. And pork products, like the divinely piggy Niman Ranch bacon, which has weaseled its way into the foundation of the Sexton home food pyramid, since it bases both of our in-a-pinch pasta meals: the 5-minute carbonara and the effortless amatriciana sauce from the Silver Spoon Cookbook. (The recipe requires bacon, chili flakes and cans of tomatoes—it’s delicious, and we always have those ingredients.) Given its utility, and that it freezes well, we usually have a few pounds of bacon in the freezer for emergencies. The Niman bacon also makes a great, quick drinks nibble. Press both sides of the raw slices into light brown sugar with a few grinds of pepper, then bake it at 350 until they’re russet brown and crisp. It’s a classic recipe from the “21” Club called Billionaire’s Bacon—probably lethal for your body, and absolutely delicious. We call it ‘meat candy’, and the fans go wild.

Sound gross? Then try Trader Joe’s 8-ounce tubs of Brooklyn-made Trois Petit Cochons pate mousse truffee, made out of pork and chicken guts. It’s divine, creamy, meaty and nutty, with a firm aspic slab that has the unfortunate tendency to flip off your knife like a tiddly wink. We usually have a tub secreted away in our cheese drawer for snacking and drop-by guests – it’s great with lightly toasted bits of gone-stale TJ’s ciabatta or foccacia.

Other hits? Jars of TJ’s lemon curd made from butter, lemon, and more butter, which we enjoy spread on TJ’s dense toasted crumpets. Also—and don’t judge us here—Trader Joe’s makes a decent frozen puff pastry. Unlike Pepperidge Farm’s, which actually doesn’t contain butter, TJ’s classic puff pastry is a lot like Dufour, except at a fraction of the price. We make a 20 minute tarte tatin with a handful of white sugar caramelized in a dry pan, then loaded with quartered apples, a few gobs of butter and a sprinkle of weird Niesen-Massey vanilla powder. Top with a square of TJ’s puff pastry and bake at 400 until the pastry is nut brown and fully cooked. Invert on a plate, and serve with lightly whipped Vermont Butter & Cheese Company’s crème fraiche, also available at Trader Joe’s. Heaven, and faster than a brownie mix.

TJ’s has some misses: it’ll never offer one-stop shopping because of its limited selection, and its meats aren’t very good, nor is its produce or cheese. Plus, TJ’s is home to some shockingly bad ideas, like jarred hollandaise sauce. We passed these yellow jars for weeks, and couldn’t shake our morbid fascination—how do you jar a hollandaise sauce? Finally, we yielded to our curiosity, and it was dreadful—it tasted like acidic safflower oil with a touch of jar. Ew.

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We got over it, of course. Armed with meat candy and TJ’s free helium balloons (whose contents we like to inhale and talk funny at each other), we can pretty much get over anything.

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