Aldi Fever: My Love Affair with a German Grocery Store

The connection to past and present, lit up in neon.

I love Aldi. Aldi is a German-owned discount grocery store chain in both Germany and the U.S. (Aldi U.S. has 1,000 stores in 29 states. And, a little known fact, Aldi also owns Trader Joe’s.) Marcus introduced me to Aldi when we were still dating. I flew to Germany for our first Thanksgiving together and had hauled a suitcase full of ingredients — like canned pumpkin and pecans for pie, and fresh cranberries — to prepare an American Thanksgiving dinner for my future husband and in-laws. When Marcus took me to Aldi to get the rest of the supplies I had reverse sticker shock from the prices – they were beyond cheap! After we got married and I moved to Germany, I made almost daily trips to this store during the two and a half years I lived there. I was as smitten with Aldi as I was with my husband, so much so that Marcus’ grandma used to tease me. “Du hast Aldi Fiber,” Oma Inge would say. Aldi Fever. Yes, it was true. I was delirious over the organic produce, the variety of dairy products, spicy sausages, fresh roses, and the German specialty foods (like Maultaschen, Spätzle, and Rote Grütze), and — my favorite — the weekly, rotating offerings of non-food items like Turkish bath towels, bicycle gear, sheepskin slippers, rain coats, DVD players, juicer machines, flannel sheets, pajamas, running tights, ski gloves, and so on. All high quality for low – very low — prices. If there is anything I love in this life, it’s a good bargain.

So when I moved into the American Gothic House and discovered there is an Aldi in Ottumwa, 15 miles away, I was thrilled. Until I walked in the door.

Aldi: Same store, different country.

Not only did the Aldi in Ottumwa, Iowa look similar to the Aldi in Stuttgart, Germany, it carried many of the same brands. I made it two steps down the first aisle when I saw the chocolate display with the Moser Roth label. That’s the same chocolate we bought in Germany, same name, same box, same everything. Then, because it is a German store after all, there was a display of sauerkraut, red cabbage, pretzels, and even Spätzle (egg noodles). I had to laugh. I had not liked living in Germany, and yet now I was practically doing cartwheels over finding German food – and the rock bottom prices — in my Iowa town. (I had even been excited to find that many of my neighbors in Eldon have German names.)

Is this heaven? No, it’s European chocolate at Aldi. In Iowa.

I wanted to call Marcus at work and tell him where I was and what I was putting in my shopping cart. He would love to hear this and would definitely tease me about my change of heart toward All Things German. For a moment I actually thought I could call him. But in the split second I forgot, I also remembered again. I lost my breath, along with my composure, as reality struck like a John Deere combine barreling over my chest. “I can’t call him. He’s dead.”

I stood there in that first aisle, tears streaming down my face. What a strange site I must have been to the other Ottumwa shoppers. Why is this girl crying about chocolate? Or is she crying over the egg noodles?

I made it to the check out where I wished I could tell the clerk – or anyone in the store who would listen — my story. My story about how I had shopped at Aldi in Germany and how shopping here was a powerful connection between my past and present. About how I was born here in Ottumwa, had lived all over the world, and now, as if by some divine intervention, I’m back. Would this clerk know that Aldi’s first U.S. store was right here in Southeast Iowa? Would she even care? Would she or any of the other shoppers appreciate the ability to buy these wonderful European goods here in rural America?

As the clerk pulled my purchases off her conveyor belt, I wanted – needed — to tell someone how Marcus taught me that sauerkraut is “full of vitamins,” how he pronounced “vitamins” the British way, with a soft “i,” and how he could make something as mouth-puckering as sauerkraut sound delicious, sexy. But gushing my jumble of thoughts to her would have only confused her and embarrassed me further, so I left as quickly as I could (with my Belgian chocolate and German sauerkraut) and drove home.

Aldi is known for its extra long conveyor belts. In Germany you’re required to lay your bottles down…or else! Also, no bagging clerks here. And you have to bring your own bags. It’s the European way — and I like it.

Like everything associated with grief, there is a conditioning process. The first anything is hardest – first Thanksgiving (um, last year…), first anniversary (yeah, that too was brutal…), first birthday, first time driving past the hospital where he was pronounced dead. But you get used to things. You adapt. You survive. And as long as I am still alive I have to eat. Therefore I have to shop for groceries (and, of course, pie supplies.) And thus I returned to Aldi.

A quirky Aldi thing: you need a quarter to release the locked shopping carts. (In Germany it’s a Euro coin.) You get it back when you return your cart. This way, no need to hire parking lot help and no driving into stray carts!

Back in the store for a second time I braced myself for the possibility of another grief burst. I made it past the chocolate and egg noodles with no problem, but felt my chest tighten when I walked past the shelves of lotion and shampoo bearing the same Lacura brand name I’d bought at the Stuttgart Aldi. This time I embraced the nostalgia, and even stopped to read the labels, in both English and German. My mood lifted entirely when I got to the produce and found ripe avocados for 40 cents each. And then the Granny Smith apples for – are you kidding me? – 31 cents a pound. Yes! The bargain prices were doing wonders for dealing with my grief. I bought 60 pounds of apples (for my Pitchfork Pie Stand) and was feeling much better about life by the time I left the store.

You cannot get apples cheaper than this unless you grow them on your own trees!

I’ve continued to shop at Aldi for the two months I’ve lived here and I was doing fine. Until last week.

Aldi’s seasonal specials now include Christmas cookies and candies. The same ones I used to buy in Germany. The soft gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen. The chewy cinnamon stars called Zimtstern. The almond paste-filled chocolates called Lübeker Marzipan. Marcus and I had traveled one summer to the Northern Germany town of Lübeck where these very chocolates are made. I could picture the old brick buildings there and the ships moored in this harbor town. I could also see the wooden advent calendar in which Marcus’ mother had stuffed each day’s box with these same Lübeker Marzipan chocolates. Sigh.

I picked up a package of the cinnamon stars and with it came a flash of vivid memory. Just the thought of eating one of these bite-sized hazelnut biscuits put me right back in the living room of our tiny hilltop apartment with the sweeping view of Stuttgart’s juxtaposed picturesque vineyards butting up against the industrial Mercedes-Benz factories. I could see the steam pumping out of the power plant across the river and the Mercedes-Benz lit star logo spinning on the tower of the train station. I could feel the pang of looking at Marcus’ office further on, wishing he would get home from work soon. I was so transported I forgot I was in Iowa. I pushed the tears away and, instead of crying, I stood there in Aisle #3 and opened the bag of cookies. I popped a little frosted star in my mouth. I could not only see Germany, I could taste it. I could taste Marcus.

I ate a lot of these Lebkuchen in Germany. And now I can eat them in Iowa. Note: Trader Joe’s carries these too during the holiday season.

Thanksgiving is next week. It will mark the eight year anniversary of that first shopping trip to Aldi in Germany with Marcus. Life has certainly presented unfathomable events and almost insurmountable challenges since then. But some things haven’t changed. I still love Marcus, I still love Aldi, and god knows, I still love a good bargain. This week’s non-food specials include baking supplies — oven liner, oven mitts, baking pans, pie plates, and pastry brushes. I’ve got to get back there before they sell out! So, yes, as Oma Inge would say, I still have Aldi Fever.

Seven Thanksgivings

I spent the last seven Thanksgivings with Marcus. Throughout the tumult of our marriage, often living apart on different continents, his job moving us to three different countries, our standoffs and stubbornness with each other, me threatening to leave him too many times, always finding our way back to loving each other… Throughout all of this only now in the wake of his death can I see there was one consistent thing we shared and never missed, something sacred and rich: we celebrated every Thanksgiving together. It was always my favorite holiday, and though Marcus was German he embraced the day — and the overeating — as if it was his own.

As this year’s Thanksgiving approaches the despair and panic of missing him have already begun to overwhelm me. To keep myself busy and to “focus on the good memories, not on the regrets” (as my grief counselor wisely recommended), I took some time to search in my photo files until I found a picture from each year we spent the holiday together. Not that these “good memories” take away the pain and intensity of the loss, but in looking at the pictures and reminiscing I see the goodness, the love, and the connection we shared during our time together. And that is something to be grateful for.

Marcus and Beth’s Thanksgiving Retrospective

2002 – Lehnigen, Germany
Marcus and I weren’t married let alone engaged yet. I was trying to impress Marcus and my future in-laws with my cooking skills and pies –I even hauled cans of pumpkin, bags of cranberries and pecans, and Karo syrup over from the US — but instead they impressed me! Their free-range turkey weighed 40 pounds and it was roasted to perfection in their traditional Backhaus. The oven was first heated with a wood fire, then cleaned out, and the sand in between its walls stayed hot for hours. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t seen it for myself. The turkey was moist and delicious.

2003- Lehnigen, Germany

We got married in August/September and before we even went on our honeymoon it was already Turkey Time. Marcus’ coworkers were so envious about our American feast the year before we invited the whole Daimler team. The aprons were a gift from Marcus’ mom. Germans don’t eat sweet potatoes so they are hard to find. I finally paid something like $10 a pound at a gourmet market for imported yams from Israel.

2004- Marina del Rey, California

This was Marcus’ first Thanksgiving in the USA. We went to my parents’ house in California and were joined by two of my four siblings. Below is Marcus, who had become an expert Thanksgiving sous chef by now, whipping the cream for pumpkin pie.

2005 – Oberdiessbach, Switzerland
This year we fulfilled a promise to my dear friends in Switzerland to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for them. They loved everything except for the pumpkin pie. “Next time make more apple,” they said as they scraped the apple pie plate clean.

2006 – Lake Oswego, Oregon
When Marcus got a job transfer from Germany to Portland we promptly rented a cozy lakeside cottage and made a nest for ourselves. No matter that we didn’t have furniture yet when Thanksgiving rolled around, my brother in Seattle (center), his wife (left) and his family of four kids drove down for our turkey feast and an overnight. For dinner we sat on lawn chairs and balanced the plates on our laps. For sleeping, the kids rolled out their sleeping bags on the carpet.
2007 – On board a Lufthansa flight to Germany
With the unexpected passing of Marcus’ grandmother we gave all the pies and cranberry breads I had made to friends and boarded a plane bound for Bremen, Germany. We flew business class on Lufthansa and were happily surprised when we were served turkey and all the fixings during the flight.

2008 — Saltillo, Mexico
I could have never EVER imagined that this would be my last Thanksgiving with Marcus. We had moved to Mexico for Marcus’ job five months earlier. The boss of the new truck factory was American and he very thoughtfully organized dinner for the American expatriates. Lucky that Marcus had an American wife or he wouldn’t have qualified! The dinner was held at a popular Mexican restaurant and we speculated on what kind of food they would serve, what would be the Mexican interpretation of Thanksgiving. We were impressed with the attention to detail, they got everything right down to the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

2009 — Portland, Oregon

This year I have never had so many Thanksgiving invitations. I was very touched that so many people reached out, but early on I had decided I would stay in Portland and join our friends Alison and Thomas and their parents from Ohio and Boston. Alison and Thomas have been so good to both Marcus and me, sharing backpacking trips and barbeques over the years, and now they share stories of Marcus while propping me up.
In spite of being in good company I know it’s going to be hard. I tell myself I won’t be there alone. Marcus hasn’t missed a Thanksgiving yet, so I know he will be there with me in spirit.