Singing Grocery List

I have bad kid karma. Recently, a little tow-headed urchin, right out of Disney’s central casting, looked up at me on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 75th Street and yanked on his mother’s blouse.

“That man’s crazy, Mommy,” the precious one said. “He’s talking to himself.”

His mother took one look at me, wrapped her arm around her son’s shoulder, and scooped him closer to her. Granted, I hadn’t done my morning boudoir ablutions yet—I was still in my sweats, my hair certainly wasn’t bouncin’ and behavin’, and I was sporting a five o’clock shadow that was creeping toward 7:30. So when the light turned green and Precious Mom yanked the kid, he trailing behind her like a broken kite, and hurried across the street, I tried not to take it personally.

It would have been one thing had I been wearing a Bluetooth ear bud and been on the phone with Indonesia or was surfacing after a Lower-East-Side-four-in-the-morning boozefest. But the truth is I was on my way to shop for food, and I was singing my grocery list.

Yes, singing my grocery list.

It’s not that I have anything against writing lists; I make a to-do list each morning. With grocery lists, though, I lose them somewhere between the kitchen and the checkout. So, in what I thought was a clever solution, I began writing them on several Post-it notes and stuck them to my shopping cart, only to turn to bag a few potatoes and find them gone. Do you know how many times I’ve chased a yellow square of paper flapping from the underside of a black satin Manolo Blahnik as its owner careened down the organic produce aisle? (And do you have any idea how many women in New York shop in truly non-sensible shoes?)

I got the idea for a paperless grocery list one night after watching an infomercial about kids who, after taking a memory-enhancing course (for just four easy payments of $19.95!), could remember what everyone in the studio audience was wearing, the names of all the U.S. presidents, and the entire periodic table—in alphabetical order. The idea is you stitch together incongruous items into a congruous story, which stays with you. So if you have to remember a wallaby (and who doesn’t have to remember a wallaby on occasion?), a candle, and a Bible, you might imagine the wallaby swearing an oath with its paw on a Bible in candlelight. The problem is it didn’t always work for me—and had disastrous results for The One. Years ago he was at a party and met a man named Mike, who had a red birthmark over part of his face. In order to remember his name, The One created the ditty, “Mike with the mark on his face,” and proceeded to call him Mark the rest of the evening, to the horror of all in attendance.

That’s when I hit upon the idea of singing my grocery list. It has longer-lasting—and less embarrassing—effects. After singing it a few times, it gets caught in my brain, like those endless music loops that cycle in your head for days (for me right now it’s the refrain from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”), always at the ready the moment I need to go shopping.

Perhaps owing to my previous and terribly unprofitable life as an actor, it’s shop-worn show tunes that I turn to when creating a grocery list. And of all the songs in all of the world, I had to get stuck on this one: “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. It’s the sappy list Maria sings to the Von Trapp children when they skitter into her bedroom during a thwackingly good thunderstorm. You know it, admit it. Sing along with me:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

How does that turn into a grocery list that I can take everywhere and never worry about losing? I’m glad you asked. Here’s the list of basic ingredients for Julia Child’s Coq au Vin recipe:

Chicken in pieces and lardon in slices
Cupfuls of Burgundy, garlic in dices
Blanched pearl white onions and quartered mushrooms
This is what Julia considers perfume

Now, I dare you to sing this a few times—really stub it into your cerebral cortex—and I guarantee you’ll always have the most bare-bones grocery list for Julia’s beloved recipe on hand. Teach it to your kids so that whenever they’re in the mood for a soul-coddling dish you can all hold hands and run through the aisles of the market, just like Maria and the Von Trapp kids did in Austria—singing the words to your favorite meal. You’ll most likely look like the town’s craziest family. But, ah, what a small price to pay to be the best-fed one.

The word "David" written in script.

Tell us: Is David alone? Do you have a unique way of coming up with a grocery list?

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. I’m sure there have been studies done that prove how much more effective singing is than mere memorization–something about it using more than one part of the brain? In any case, singing is how my students memorize all 49 English prepositions, all the exceptions to the “i before e” rule, the presidents, the states, the countries of the world, Latin verb endings…and they enjoy it! 🙂

    I’m going to try this, because I keep forgetting pumpkin! I’ve been to the grocery half a dozen times and have never managed to come home with that one pesky little item!

    1. Laura, you just proved me point. (See, people it works!) And not only am I remembering dinner, I’m giving my brain a workout. Tell me if it works for you!

  2. Helpless with laughter… and YES, I remember “a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter” too! Although I was 6 at that time and and wondered for DECADES why oh why a stick of butter?? – until I moved to the US… !

    Fabulous writing, David 🙂


  3. David, I love this! Of course, while reading it, I immediately thought of this clip from Sesame Street. And for the rest of the day, I’ve been repeating “a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter.”

    1. Susan, I never saw this, perhaps owing to the fact that I’m longer in the tooth than you, but I think it’s adorable. And It’s what I’ve done a millions times. But, alas, I usually forget something.

    2. OMG!! my daughter and I can still remember that–from 1984! (she is now 31 and I, well I am older…a little. and one time, we had to purchase those 3 items (well, maybe a pound of butter–you get the point) and it really worsked! David – I can see you doing this. do you always use “My Favorite Things” or are there others?

      1. Well, Maria, if it’s a short list, I use the “lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” line from The Wizard of Oz. Like in “onions, and carrots, and beans, oh my!” But if it’s a longer list, I sometimes mix things up and use “Do Rei Mi,” again from The Sound of Music. I find any list kind of song works for me.