James Werrell

Grocery store opening is a big occasion

I'm easy. The raw milk Amish cheddar cheese gets me every time.

Figure it's raw milk, which is what they use in France and Italy, so how could it be bad? It is made by the Amish, who, because they aren't wasting their lives prowling the Internet or watching TV, have plenty of time to tend to their cheese. And it's cheddar.

This is one of approximately 1 million (give or take a few hundred thousand) types of cheese offered at the new Earth Fare that opened in Rock Hill on Wednesday. Earth Fare, which sells only natural foods, is located in the building formerly occupied by a Harris Teeter grocery store at the Winthrop Commons on Cherry Road.

Some vestiges of the old store remain, but not many. Earth Fare is subtly lighted, chic and shiny, with wooden bins piled high with produce, some of it unrecognizable, aisles full of products with unfamiliar labels, a hefty wine and beer selection (although, as one friend remarked, no Bud Light), a selection of fresh sushi, a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, and a bakery.

The meat is in glass cases, and it's dispensed by guys in white aprons. The fish is brought in fresh six days a week. And did I mention the cheese selection?

Wednesday's grand opening was more of a festival than a typical ribbon-cutting. It featured live music by local performers, poetry readings, art demonstrations, dancing, jewelry-making, basket-weaving and, in a special tent, hootchie-kootchie girls. (Actually, I made that last one up, but the array of activities did seem large for a grocery store opening.)

This was, in fact, something more than an ordinary grocery store opening. It was a semi-religious experience for local foodie geeks like me, especially those of us who felt they had suffered a grievous personal betrayal in the decision to close our neighborhood grocery store in the fall of 2006.

Earth Fare arrives not only with festive fanfare but also considerable goodwill on the part of customers who have been wandering, lo these many months, in distant grocery stores. Rejoice, we are saved!

Many, no doubt, will roll their eyes and gag at the adoration heaped on the new Earth Fare: "It's just a grocery store, get over it. Besides, who wants to go to a grocery store without Bud Light, meat with hormones and cheese in an aerosol can?"

And, of course, they could be right. Those of us who swoon over a trip to the grocery store may be lacking some essential excitement component in our lives.

As one colleague put it: "The kids are at camp, we have some time on our hands, so what do we do? We go to a grocery store opening! We are pitiful."

But take heart, unnamed colleague, and all you others who made the pilgrimage to the Earth Fare opening. You are not weird ... well, not that weird. You are the vanguards in the natural-food movement, culinary adventurers, fanciers of the exotic, devotees of the sumptuous, agents of change, champions of hope.

Can we find a use for bulk spelt? Yes we can!

Less than 30 years ago, most Americans had no idea what a zucchini was. The idea of culinary progress in those days was white bread that never got moldy and just about any kind of food in a tube.

But the arc of American cuisine has come nearly full circle, back to an appreciation of what our grandparents used to eat, fresh and natural as possible. And we know what a zucchini is, so we also want to eat what Italian grandparents ate, and what grandparents all over the rest of the world ate, too.

How about curried goat with fried plantains? Octopus with Peruvian blue potatoes? Gravlax with pickled beets? Mahi-mahi tacos with tomatillo salsa? Lamb kabobs with peach chutney?

It's a wild and crazy world of food out there. And now, it's just down the street.

(By the way, 5 percent of Earth Fare's revenues from opening day through today will go to the Arts Council of York County. So, if you're inclined to shop there, you could also be a patron of the arts.)