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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Corner Market

November 21, 2018

My uncle and his wife were diehard Francophiles. He was originally from my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. After his undergraduate work at Mississippi State, he received his MBA from Harvard and was headed for a career on Wall Street until the military called him back into service. He ended up being stationed in France and was in charge of all of the finances in the European theatre during the Marshall Plan and the European Recovery Program. He and his wife loved France. They bought an apartment in Paris and kept a small cottage in the Norman countryside.

When my uncle was moved to the Pentagon for the final 10 years of his military career, they kept the apartment and cottage in France and traveled back, often. It was during that period that I visited with them most during their visits to Hattiesburg to see his mother (my grandmother). During every visit, I would hear stories about France and why everything was better over there than over here.

That used to drive me a crazy. As a patriotic American teenager, I couldn’t reconcile why they would side with the French and their food and lifestyle over their home turf. Every time they visited Mississippi, 50% of their conversations started with the three words, “Over in France…” as in, “Over in France, they never would do things…” Or, “Over in France they eat it this way.” Blah, blah, blah. Whatever the item or topic, it was always better in France. I once heard my mother mumble the old Lewis Grizzard zinger under her breath, “Delta is ready when you are.”

He and his wife even spoke French to each other in front of us when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about— which was probably something along the lines of, “En France, tout est meilleur que ce que ces gens doivent supporter dans leur pays.” It used to drive my mother crazy. I think she even considered taking some French lessons just to discover what they were talking about behind our backs during their visits.

My aunt and uncle both passed away before I started traveling to Europe with regularity. I always wondered what their country home and apartment looked like, and would love to drive by them one day, just so I could put an image with all of the stories I heard over the years. They were stories that drove us a little crazy in the way they were told, but to be honest, I lived vicariously through their travels, and secretly hoped that I would be traveling overseas one day.

In 2011, my wife, 14-year old daughter, and 10-year old son flew to Sweden. We bought a Volvo and spent the next six months visiting 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents. Before I left for that trip, had you asked me which countries I was looking forward to visiting most, my list would have been 1.) France, 2.) Spain, 3.) England, 4.) Italy. It didn’t take long for that list to get shuffled around in a drastic manner.

My entire family fell in love with Italy and everything about Italy. Sure, we love all of those other countries, but Italy spoke to us in a way none of the others did. My friend and collaborator, Wyatt Waters, and I wrote a book on Italy. We have another book on Italy coming out in the fall of 2019. Everything about that country and its people speaks to me. So much so that I catch myself— multiple times each day— wanting to start a sentence with the words, “Now over in Italy…” but I stop and hold my tongue. I remember how obnoxious those French conversations could become with my aunt and my uncle when they were talking about France.

So, I say all of that to say this (at the risk of sounding like my aunt and uncle): I love the way Italians shop for groceries. I really do. Their markets are small. The food is fresh. In the small village of Tavernelle (the place we visit most), there is a greengrocer where the locals purchase their fruits and vegetables, a cheese maker, a butcher, and a baker. All are located a few doors from each other. One stop into each of those shops covers all meals for the day. The next day they do it again. I love that.

Young Forrest and Robert.

We are a supermarket culture here. I am OK with that. It fits our lifestyles. I am just lucky that these days I can shop like the Italians, even in a supermarket. My lifelong friend, Forrest Roberts, has been in the grocery business all of his life. His father Doc was in the business, and his son David is a third-generation grocer. The Roberts family just did the entire community a huge favor by opening up their new Corner Market store in my neighborhood in Midtown Hattiesburg.

Any casual reader of this column knows of my love and passion for local, independent restaurateurs— they tell the story of a town and its people. I feel the same way about independent grocery stores and food markets. This new store allows me to shop like an Italian. I can pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and bread on a daily basis and not load up several shopping carts with two months’ worth of toilet paper and toothpaste.

Every day of my life I wear a pin on my shirt that says, “Eat Local.” I believe that to my core, and I learned that lesson the hard way when I was 12-years old at the hands of the aforementioned, Doc Roberts. The Roberts family had invited me to go to the beach with them for a weeklong vacation. I was thrilled. My mother wanted to send some groceries down to help with the feeding. She was running late and drove to the nearest grocery store— an A&P a few blocks away. She then dropped me off at the Roberts’ home with my duffle bag and an armload of grocery bags with the A&P logo on them.

It didn’t hit me until I heard Doc and his wife whispering to each other, “We are taking him to the beach for the week and she didn’t even buy the groceries from us.” They probably never knew I overheard that conversation, but it made a huge impact on me, my thought process, my belief system, and my idea of “community” and doing business with friends for the rest of my life. I was embarrassed, but they were right.

Today I do business with local establishments at every chance I get. Always. Period. End of story.

There are certain businesses that— when I am in them—make me extremely grateful to live in the town in which I live. My buddy Forrest’s new market is one of those. I was walking around in there the other day and thought back to the time when he and I visited my Francophile aunt and uncle in the Washington D.C. area. It was a five-day French immersion even though we were in Alexandria, Virginia. I never knew that I one day I would fall in love with a European country, too. But when I fell in love with Italy the Italian culture, and the Italian people I didn’t fall out of love with America like my uncle and aunt seemed to. If anything, it made me love and appreciate my country even more.

It is so important to shop locally at every chance you get— grocery stores, boutiques, pharmacies, gas stations, and especially restaurants. It’s the Italian way. It’s also the American way and the Mississippi way. Ultimately, it’s the right way.

Happy holidays. Shop local. Eat local.


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