… and then she saw the can of vanilla sweetened condensed milk….

A few weeks ago we attended the birthday party of a little girl whose mother is from Russia. The party was held at a football stadium — it was a tailgate party — and on a perfect autumn day a couple dozen people of all ages milled around the tables that had been set up and arranged with a massive spread, not even counting the chocolate cupcakes. One of the centerpieces of the menu was a smoked trout, which was both delicious and a thing of beauty. I said, “Wow, look at that, where’d you get that?” and it turned out that the Russian mama was a regular customer at a tiny grocery store about two miles away from our house. “You know about Lina’s Grocery, right?”

I did not know about Lina’s Grocery. “Tell me everything,” I said. “They have everything,” I was told. My husband listened intently — he is always interested in learning where he can get smoked fish — and we said we would go there as soon as we could.

The day came recently. We piled into the car and drove out to Hamden. “Where is this place?” my husband asked. “It’s off Dixwell, kind of near the big malls,” I said. We headed north and we only made one wrong turn and we got there in about ten minutes. “It’s on a bus line,” I observed approvingly. We parked the car and walked in. The exterior of the store was not too promising looking: Lina’s Grocery is a tiny doorway adjacent to a big home care services operation (also called Lina’s); walking in requires a small leap of faith. However, it is totally worth the leap.

Lina’s Grocery is an imported food shop that focuses on Eastern European food. That’s all they’ve got. If you want anything else, like a box of Froot Loops or a bottle of shampoo, go elsewhere. But if you want huge jars of beautiful peaches, relatively obscure teas (they have the Ahmad tea my husband loves), German butter, access to dozens of different kinds of Russian and Polish penny candies, or Eastern European breads and cookies, this is the place to go. I walked around for a solid fifteen minutes before I even thought to get a basket. Lina’s is a tiny store, but there’s a lot of data to absorb. The whole place is crammed with tinned, jarred, or otherwise packaged food. There is a tiny deli counter where you can buy your smoked fishes (many types) and deli meats (I haven’t absorbed any of that stuff yet). There is a wall of refrigerator cases where they have bottles of kefir, stacks of different butters, and cheeses. You can buy bottles of kvass, jars of pickles, tins and bottles of eggplant and pepper spreads; if you have ever, ever wanted to buy a tin of sprats, Lina’s is the place to go.

It is, actually, a little overwhelming for the novice. I wanted to understand what the goods were like before I started making my selections — was I, in fact, going to buy anything at all? What were the prices like? Did it look like they had good turnover? Did Lina’s even take credit cards? It seemed like the kind of place where it was quite possibly cash-only, which would mean making more careful selections, because we only had so much cash on us. The shop was certainly busy – there were maybe six other people in there, when we first arrived, and in that space, six is a lot of people. I moved slowly, deliberately, until my daughter said, “Mama, LOOK!” and grabbed a can off a low shelf. The label read “Coffee Sweetened Condensed Milk.” And there was a vanilla one, and a caramel one. “Oh my god,” I said. “We need these.” I finally went to get a shopping basket, and put one can of each into the basket. Made in Lithuania.

And then the ice was broken. I debated buying one of the massive, beautiful glass jars of peaches, but held off: I’m not sure we have use for that quantity of canned peaches. But they are beautiful, and as soon as I can think of an excuse to buy a jar, I will. I did break down and buy a package of Marmalade Snails, which we haven’t tasted but look like a cross between a Goetz Bullseye candy crossed with Chuckles (the snails are fruit-flavored jelly rolled up with a creamy white filling, to look like tiny slices of jelly-roll, or snails — made in Belarus). We bought a loaf of a very dark rye bread, a pack of chocolate sugar wafer cookies, two Polo bars, and some kind of chocolate candy that I should have made a note of, but didn’t, which I regret, because it was really really good.

We happened to have some pastrami already at home, and once we unpacked our haul from Lina’s my husband got right to work building himself a handsome pastrami sandwich on the rye bread. “Do you think you could learn to make this?” he asked me. “Bread like this?” I read  the list of ingredients and said, “Probably.” And I probably could. But I’m not leaping to do it. The fact is, the groceries at Lina’s are very reasonably priced, and so long as we don’t mind trekking the two miles to go stock up on things, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t just give them our custom. And anyone else living in the New Haven area who feels a strong need for Russian or Polish candy, or coffee, or pretty much anything else they miss from the old country, should head out there straightaway.

My husband told me that he heard people speaking Russian in the store — in fact someone addressed him in Russian, clearly assuming that anyone who’d go to Lina’s would speak the language. I’m not sure how big the Eastern European community is around here, but it is clear that Lina’s is meeting the needs of an awful lot of people. The cans and jars on the shelves all look fresh and clean — this is not stuff that’s been sitting around forever waiting to be bought, it’s stuff that turns over frequently. And right now, of course, there’s tons of stuff that’s in, special, for Christmas — all kind of fabulous gift packaging of things. Tins of tea that look like Victorian decorated cloth-bound books and so on. Packages of frosted wafer cookies with extra-fancy icing decorations. And, let me say again, the prices are good: we loaded up our basket with lovely things and came out having spent only about twenty dollars.

I have been thinking very vaguely about having people over on New Year’s Day and I strongly suspect that if we do, a hefty percentage of the menu will be straight from the shelves of Lina’s. I owe that Russian mama a debt of gratitude.
Lina’s is at 119 Sanford Street, Hamden, CT. They’re open Monday through Friday from 10-7, Saturdays closing early at 3 o’clock. Closed Sundays. They do take plastic.

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