I found a store yesterday worthy of being featured in a story somewhere, sometime. It’s called the Apple Market and it’s on Scenic Highway in Pensacola. It’s tiny, independently and locally owned, and it carries a lot of things either made locally or associated with this immediate area. Instead of SUV-sized shopping carts, they have little contraptions that look like one hand-carried basket on a shelf above another one underneath. The aisles are narrow, the architecture and lighting is a throwback to the 1970s, and the shelves are crammed with things that at first glance almost feel visually overwhelming. And then you start reading labels and looking at packages and thinking…”hmmm, this pasta looks delicious, and it’s in the refrigerator with a hand-written date on the label.” Right next to it on a shelf is a row of mouth-watering herb-seasoned marinara sauces with an ingredient list like something out of a Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. Fully cooked ribs from a legendary local restaurant are vacuum-sealed and resting in the freezer. Pickles that rival anything a beloved relative could concoct in her summer kitchen…whole bean coffee from New Orleans, the kind with chicory in it…ciabatta olive bread from a downtown French bakery…salad dressings and flavored syrups and mopping sauces and lovely crackers and hummus dip and salads and sandwiches at a little take-it-and-run deli…this is the kind of place where you walk in and ask the owner, “What’s good today?” and he calls you by name and recommends the scallops and fresh-baked crusty bread and perhaps a nice bottle of Chardonnay and you buy the whole meal just based on his recommendation, because you trust him and you know if you stop by tomorrow he’ll be interested in how you cooked the scallops and how good they were served on your deck while watching the sun set over the bay…this is the shopping experience I want to associate with living on the Gulf Coast. It is, if I moved away and came back for a visit, the first place I would go, and I’d let them pack me up a week’s worth of food just based on what I told them my plans were while I was in the area. Imagine being able to tell someone, “I don’t know, some seafood maybe, but mostly just comfort food” and having them get your order exactly right, supplying you with all the ingredients to make all your favorite recipes and meals, even if the meal is just bread dipped in flavored olive oil and a big leafy salad.
You would love this place. I don’t dare share these impressions to this extent with my family; they would look at me and say, “It was a grocery store, mother, pricey and overcrowded. Twenty dollars for ribs! Even if they were from Dreamland. That’s too much.” But how do you put a price tag on the experience of eating Dreamland ribs, elbow to elbow with people you enjoy being with, sopping up their incredible sauce with thick slices of white Bunny Bread, indulging in their better-than-anything banana puddin’ while marinating yourself in the whisper of woodsmoke and perfectly cooked ribs that wafts around the restaurant and drags you nose-first over to the giant open smoke pit? When I buy their ribs at Apple Market, that’s what I’m buying. I’m just sayin’, okay?