It's the most wonderful time of the year for an economical epicurean, and not because of all the gingerbread and honeybaked ham one gets to consume. Much better than that: this is the time of year when many food purveyors are more generous than usual with their free samples. It would be nice to think it's all in the spirit of giving, but, if you'll forgive my cynicism, they just know you'll be more likely to buy that $20 wheel of Humboldt Fog when you're in a state of holiday marketing hypnosis.
Filling up on free samples has long been one of my favorite pastimes. As soon as I got my driver's license, I started borrowing my parents' minivan for special weekend trips to the grocery stores that enabled my free food addiction. The store I liked best was the long-gone Eatzi's, which peddled 16 oz. cups of soup for $7 (and this was the 90s!). While not so generous in its pricing, Eatzi's was -- for a brief while, at least -- incredibly generous with its samples. It seemed that everywhere you turned there was a different mayo-and-sour-cream based dip to smother a cracker with. These dips sold for around $5 each (and this was the 90s!), so I felt minimal guilt about all the cracker-smothering I did. All good things must come to an end, though, and so did Eatzi's sample stations. It was an omen of bad times ahead, because soon enough, Eatzi's itself was gone, too. I like to think it was the lack of market demand for $7 soup and not my gluttony that brought down the house.
Back in those days, I had no shame about my flagrant displays of greed, but as I've gotten older I've learned the importance of subtlety. There's a Whole Foods not far from my office, so maybe one or two days a week (Tuesdays are the best, I've found) I'll head over there to cruise for freebies. I am not the only one. It seems many people also enjoy this pastime, but most of them appear to lack my talent for it. They stand there filling up their toothpicks with four or five cubes of cheese, stuffing their faces like squirrels before dipping in for another round. To watch it is to fully appreciate why communism is a failed form of government: people are natural gluttons and will always try to take far more than their fair share, never mind the regulatory "Please take one" signs. But there are ways to exercise one's greed without being so obvious, and there are ways to sample heartily without putting grocers out of business. Here's how to eat for free like a pro.
1. Even if you are there to just fill up on samples, you should still carry a basket or push a cart. Better yet, fill it with a couple items you don't intend to buy. Even better than that, put the item that's being sampled (not the sample itself, of course!) in the basket.
2. Okay, actually, you should try to buy something. One person isn't going to force the establishment to stop giving out free samples altogether (though I really do take full responsibility for Eatzi's ban on samples), but what if everyone was there just to fill up for free? A store without samples it would be.
3. Make several laps. Don't loiter. Take one sample and go on your merry way. Come back a minute or two later, and take another one. Repeat. You'll need your exercise anyway.
4. Look as distracted as possible. Play with your phone or recite your "grocery list" aloud. (If you don't have a grocery list, recite that one from Sesame Street: "a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.") Make it look like an accident that you just walked right into that Mediterranean hors d'oeuvres display for the third time. "Oh, hummus, I didn't see you there!"
5. Pick up a sample, eat it, then pick up the container of whatever is being sampled. Examine it closely, as if you are seriously considering it for purchase. Read the ingredients list and say something like, "Hmm. I didn't taste the smoked paprika in there." Have another sample just to be sure.
6. Wear disguises at grocery stores where there are clerks manning the samples, so you can stop by more than once. I'm only half-kidding. They probably don't recognize every repeat offender, but it may not be a bad idea to stash a wig in your bag when you go grocery shopping.
7. If a clerk appears to be giving you the stink-eye after you've sampled one too many, look at them with a sheepish, "Aw, gee!" smile and rub your belly to show how hungry you were. If they don't give you a knowing smile in return, then start muttering incoherently about sinners and the apocalypse. They'll leave you alone.
8. Look for samples in every nook and cranny in the store. The Whole Foods I go to has this one cheese station that's hidden behind a column. Two advantages here: the bowl is nearly always filled with Gouda because so many people seem to miss it, and I can chow down out of public view.
9. Don't stuff samples into your purse. How tacky! Only ladies ages 75 and over can get away with such behavior. And, to reiterate, if everyone acted in this way there would be no more samples. So, maybe just stuff them into your pockets instead; no need to be so ravenous. Just be careful before you do laundry or all your clothes may also be sampling those brownie bites.