It was at 4 a.m., during the height of pandemic panic purchasing, that I became obsessed with finding sushki on the internet. Sushki are Russian biscuits that are shaped like tiny bagels. They are very dry and slightly sweet. I have never craved them in my life. Suddenly, I needed them. “Russian grocery store online,” I typed. “Bagel biscuit dry?” (I couldn’t remember what they were called, that is how much I love them.) There were so many. I inspected the options at RussianFoodUSA.com, and RussianTable.com, and SkazkaRussianFood.com.
At $2.59 a bag, why not buy two! I thought. Then I discovered that shipping cost $16.31 and instead bought nothing.
I wasn’t in this for nutrition. I was in it for the thrill. I had stalked my prey (sushki), and I had found it. I had taken no further action, but I could, and that was the important thing. I felt like a benevolent panther.
It became a habit. When I couldn’t sleep, which was most nights, I went on missions to locate ingredients I didn’t need. A psychoanalyst might suggest this was “a coping mechanism,” and that I was channeling anxiety about all the things I couldn’t control toward small made-up problems that I could. I might suggest that the best place to buy unsulphured apricots is Tierra Farm, which is an organic fruit and nut company located 20 miles south of Albany, New York.
Quarantine, I read, was a time to rediscover old hobbies, or experiment with new ones. It was a time to slow down. I could reevaluate my life priorities, perhaps while cultivating a yoga practice. The problem was that I did not want to. To distract myself from myself, I tried and failed to read a history of the 14th century. Then I discovered the meditative ecstasy of sourcing.
First, it was just yeast. Other people couldn’t find any, I knew, but how dedicated were they, really? Was there no yeast anywhere on Earth? Ha! I would dig deeper. I would fight harder. I would leave no stone unturned. There might be yeast underneath! American grocery stores didn’t have any, but what about … French grocery stores? I studied the websites of yeast manufacturers. Hours passed.
Does CVS sell yeast? I wondered. Does Office Depot sell yeast?
Of course not; they have printer paper, you may be saying, but this would be my competitive advantage: I would win because I would be the one who’d dared to look! The world fell away: There was nothing but me and a bunch of websites. Was Michael Jordan the best at basketball, or had he simply outworked everybody else with singleminded focus? I would be Michael Jordan, but of searching for things on the internet.
(Office Depot, for the record, does not have yeast.)
For a while, flour was a surefire way to pass a couple of hours. I became briefly fixated on graham crackers, after I tried to buy some for a pie crust and discovered they were incredibly scarce. I don’t especially like graham crackers, even, but I do like a challenge. Scarce? I’ll show you scarce, I thought, combing through the virtual aisles of iHerb.com.
Under normal circumstances, I am not an online grocery shopper, mostly because IRL shopping is something to do, and I need all the excitement I can find. I am a writer who works from home, but also lives at home, and while I have found this to be quite convenient, it also means that I am perpetually desperate for reasons to leave. “Do we need bay leaves?” I will ask, at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. “I think we need bay leaves.” Then I grab my reusable tote bag and go thrill-seeking.
What I need is purpose, so I like to invent an urgent need and then venture out to fill it. I am not wandering idly; I’m wandering in search of fermented mustard greens.
Sourcing on the internet does not scratch the same itch as the real-life kind, but it comes with its own distinct pleasures. For one thing, it is endless. A store either does or does not have something, and while you can keep looking, at some point they will ask you to leave. Online, there are no limits. You never have to accept failure; you can always change your search terms. Somewhere, somebody will sell you za’atar in bulk. Distance, on the internet, is an illusion, although shipping charges, I have learned, are not.
It seemed selfish to hoard my newfound passion, so I asked other people if they needed anything that I could then find online. “Flour, I guess?” offered one friend in California. Oh, come on, I thought. Give me something hard! I sourced very special coffee filters. I sourced seltzer canisters. Mostly, people wanted hand sanitizer. I sent around my findings in a spreadsheet. People seemed alarmed.
Well, I thought, clicking to confirm my purchase of a bottle of pineapple-spiked vinegar, it’s not like I’m taking a vacation! If you compare purchases to vacations you’re not taking, everything’s a bargain. But the reality is I almost never actually bought anything for myself. At first, I’d hunted for things I actively wanted, which felt useful and urgent, but then the supply chain corrected itself and you could get as many graham crackers as you wanted, so I shifted my focus to condiments.
One evening, it occurred to me in passing that a Vietnamese-inspired salad might be nice, which launched a frantic all-night search for vegan fish sauce, or, more vegan-ly, “fysh sauce.” I wondered if I should be doing more with preserved lemons? Every day felt overpoweringly the same. What was time? Maybe what I needed was this Somali chutney.
All over the internet, I fill up carts, and then abandon them, and that is usually enough. The thrill is in the hunt. Even more than fysh sauce, what I want is adventure. I want novelty. I want the option of having a case of chickpea flour delivered to my door. Sourcing promises a soothing sense of order. It is an illusion, I know that. But the sushki are very real.