Julia O'Malley: 8 stars of gold and 11 pounds of Nutella

Julia O'Malley

Something about the nip in the air stirs a desire inside me to buy enough Costco Pirate's Booty to fill a kiddie pool. This is not a confession. It is just a fact. I don't think I'm alone.

It's not because I want to eat it. (Though I will.) It's because I want to have it. Booty for my cache. For the winter. Like a vole stores up whatever it is that voles store in their vole holes.

Costco shopping comes from a primal place. Like dipnetting salmon or hunting moose. Southcentral Alaska is full of Costco freaks. You can spot them if you look for subtle clues. They wear magenta-topped yoga pants at the gym and attractive North Face fleece jackets in a selection of tasteful neutrals that they didn't pay REI prices for. They show up at your party with bottles of Kirkland pinot noir. Their freezers are full of toaster waffles and thin-crust pizzas. And they've got hummus. A boatload of hummus. And Q-tips. One-thousand-eight-hundred-seventy-five of them. They'd be happy to share either of those, by the way. Costco shoppers are very generous.

Some people can't handle Costco. Too much stuff, too many people, they say. Overwhelming. Not me. That warm gust that hits you when you enter the warehouse that smells like tires, detergent and fresh-baked bread? Ambrosia. In fact, I like Costco best at its most crowded, like it will be when those $900 checks come out in a couple weeks, when it's bonkers trying to get into the cooler section and you have to send in a runner to snake you a carton of organic blackberries. (That's right. I shop with a runner. I got game.)

I like Costco best when I'm standing with my bounty in a line stacked five carts deep, and I look across all the registers and see the people of my town and the stuff of their pantries. The no-frills bachelor with his raft of bacon and his giant can of Folgers. The mother of five with the diapers and the squeeze applesauce and the pillow-sized bag of shredded cheddar. The yuppie lady with the baby kale. The not-yuppie lady with the three-foot plank of ribs. Oh marvelous humanity!

Envy might creep in, sure, when I see the person buying one of those sweet $400 Vitamix-style blenders, for example. But that's human. And maybe, sometimes, there is a little judgment. But that's human, too.

More than once, someone on my social network feeds has posted a picture, taken secretly, of the giant 11-pound Nutella in someone's cart. You could paint a two-bedroom apartment with that much chocolate-hazelnut goodness. What happens when you bring that home? Seriously, I want to know. Bonus for pictures.

It is my theory that there's something specific in Alaskans' DNA that makes us a prime market for Costco. Some of us live off the road system or far from town, yes, so we have to stock up. Others, like my parents, remember the days when commerce was a trickle compared to what it is now, when Christmas came from the Sears catalog, vegetables in the winter came only in cans, and milk was condensed.

"(The milk) didn't taste completely like diesel," my dad told me recently when I mentioned I was writing this column. "But kinda."

After he said that, Dad took me to an aerial photo that hangs in his office of Anchorage in the 1930s. He pointed to one of the little houses in the grid between Third Avenue and the Park Strip.

"You see what's in that yard?" he asked me.

It was a huge garden. Every house had one. They must have canned food and kept root cellars and parcelled it out all winter. Alaskans, he told me, have always craved fresh produce. Deep in our collective psychology, we feel a little deprived. This is why we appreciate the beauty of a case of mangos in February.

Bob Ripley, the general manager of the Debarr Costco, wouldn't tell me exactly how many people have Costco cards here, but he would say that it's a lot.

"We've had very good success in the Anchorage market," he said.

I asked him about my mango theory. There was something to that, he said. Compared to other markets, Alaskans are serious produce buyers, he said. Take strawberries, he said. You can get strawberries just about year-round at Costco now, he said. Sometimes they cost more, because it's more expensive to get them here.

"Alaskans will pay it," he said. They want that fresh fruit.

People who shop there are looking for value, he said. They will buy a lot of something if they think they are getting a deal. The store carefully studies what a community buys. Alaska Costcos have sold all sorts of unique things targeted specifically for Alaska, he said. Dipnets. Bear-proof trash cans. Xtratufs. Danskos. Lately, Costco's been trying to add a lot of organic products. It's also trying some limited runs of ethnic foods.

We got on the subject of Kirkland products, Costco's store brand, which tend to generally be awesome things of mysterious origin. In my family, there is a running joke that Kirkland is a magical island planted with vineyards and olive trees, where the bed sheets are 400-thread count, the maple syrup Grade A, and the coffee suspiciously Starbucks-like. I asked him point blank if the Kirkland vodka was really Grey Goose. He wouldn't tell.

I'm an expert Costco shopper, but I can occasionally fall prey to the impulse overbuy, the biggest danger of shopping there. My Q-tip supply will last roughly five years. And there is an embarrassing number of falafel balls in my freezer that have been there for an embarrassingly long time.

I asked Ripley if he ever accidentally over-buys. He laughed. He solves that problem by sharing, he said.

"That's why it's good to have a sister."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

What's your Costco shopping strategy? Bonus for pictures.


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