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At Christmas and Thanksgiving, my maternal grandmother, Mommommy, carefully pulls out china and glassware from the corner cabinet in her dining room. She has several sets tucked away but always

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

At Christmas and Thanksgiving, my maternal grandmother, Mommommy, carefully pulls out china and glassware from the corner cabinet in her dining room. She has several sets tucked away but always

A Slice of A&P History

A&P grocery store china and Spanish Bar Cake

At Christmas and Thanksgiving, my maternal grandmother, Mommommy, carefully pulls out china and glassware from the corner cabinet in her dining room. She has several sets tucked away but always selects the same reliable pieces, year after year: the long glass dish that holds slices of jiggly cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, partitioned trays that she fills with last summer’s sweet pickles and pickled okra, and a whole host of porcelain serving platters used for everything from ham to dinner rolls at Christmastime.

In 2021, I told Mommommy that I was moving to a new apartment Greensboro. The first thing she did was head to her corner cabinet. She immediately began wrapping the pieces of one of her many china sets for me to bring — a part of her home that I could carry to my new one. It wasn’t until I was writing this story for our 2023 Christmas issue that I discovered that the dishes were porcelain pieces she had acquired from an A&P grocery store exchange program.

The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known as A&P, was a grocery store that many North Carolinians frequented, especially in the 1960s and ’70s. The chain officially went out of business in 2016, with most stores in North Carolina closing decades before, so I never had the chance to step foot in one. As my grandmother has described it to me, the store had almost every mark of your typical supermarket with one unique component: Sets of china were displayed on racks near the front of the store, enticing customers at the cash register (Mommommy was quick to say that she couldn’t speak for every store!).

Back in the ’70s, grocery stores like A&P, Grand Union, and Winn-Dixie partnered with tableware manufacturers to create exchange programs: When customers bought a certain quantity of groceries, they were invited to select a piece of china from the front display to take home. Over time, with enough trips to the store, loyal customers could collect full sets of dinnerware just through buying their weekly groceries.

Over several years, Mommommy, along with the help of my great-grandmother, collected an entire 24-piece set of china with a green and gold “Queen Anne” pattern. Both women frequented their respective stores in Newton, North Carolina, and Clemson, South Carolina, and their pursuit for porcelain can only be described as one steadfast supermarket scavenger hunt. After years of dedicated grocery shopping and store hopping, they collected a full set — and even ended up with a few extra teacups because, according to Mommmommy, “the handles were thin and delicate, and we wanted some spares in case we broke one.”

Mommommy told me that stores in other towns often had pieces that their local supermarkets didn’t, like serving platters or tea pots. “Sometimes when we traveled, we’d find an A&P and go buy a little something for our pantries, just so we could pick up the dish that came with the purchase.”

Spanish Bar Cake on A&P Grocery Store china

The classic A&P Spanish Bar Cake is loaded with raisins and generous layers of vanilla buttercream. photograph by HUNTER BRADDY

I hadn’t thought much about A&P until recently, when Elizabeth, Our State’s editor in chief, mentioned that she’d baked a Spanish bar cake over the Thanksgiving holiday. The sweet spice cake is studded with raisins and a dessert her own mother remembers picking up at A&P, back in the day. She used this recipe that Chef Steve Gordon developed for the magazine several years ago. The cake gave them both a nostalgic taste of all that A&P once was.

Remembering Mommommy’s dedicated patronage of A&P, I called her the next day and asked if she remembered Spanish Bar Cake from her own trips to the store. She instantly knew. “I do! Didn’t it have raisins in it?” It’s been at least 40 years since she last stepped foot in an A&P, but the Spanish Bar Cake was pressed firmly in her memory, too.

A&P Spanish bar cake

Re-create the quintessential experience by serving the Spanish Bar Cake on your favorite A&P china pieces. photograph by HUNTER BRADDY

I made my very first Spanish Bar Cake last week. It was my own little ode to A&P grocery stores — a place I’ll never step foot in but something I hold a piece of each day. As I set the cake on one of my serving platters, I imagined how it must’ve felt to walk up and down the aisles of the now-nonexistent grocery store: the fluorescent lights, the cakes packed in plastic containers with unmistakable yellow labels — and the excitement of nearing the cash register with groceries in hand, ready to pick out the next piece of china to complete my shining set. Would I pick a teacup or a serving platter? A saucer or a sugar bowl?

Running my finger over the green and gold design of my serving platter back in my apartment, I think of the years and commitment it took to complete the set of dishes that I now make my own memories over — and the abundance that will fill them for decades to come.

 

Get the Recipe

A&P Spanish Bar Cake

Steve Gordon sets out to recreate a beloved A&P recipe from the past.

This story was published on Dec 19, 2023

Anna Grace Thrailkill

Anna Grace Thrailkill is Our State’s Newsletter and Social Media Producer.