Lileks: And our new national bagging champion is ...

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 5:51 PM

The national grocery-bagging championships were held in Vegas last weekend. It doesn't get the same publicity as high-stakes poker tournaments, and you never hear of the compulsive bettor who put it all on that lightning-handed kid from the Sheboygan Sack-Crammers and lost everything.

Not a high-profile event, really, but that's a pity, for two reasons:

1. It's something everyone can do.

2. Our hometown team is rather awesome.

How'd we do? I'll get to that.

But first: The bagging issue might be familiar to Strib readers; a story this week noted that Target is pushing plastic over paper, and some people don't like it. Agreed: Plastic makes you feel cheap, somehow. Soviet. I am carryink goods from People's State Sustenance Node No. 23 in glorious People's Sack.

When done with them, some people also feel guilty throwing them away. So they get shoved into the Plastic Bag Full of Smaller Plastic Bags, which eventually becomes the size of a beanbag chair; then you take it to the store and put it in the Really Big Plastic Bag for Holding Smaller Plastic Bags Filled with Even Smaller Plastic Bags, and this absolves you of all sin and guilt.

We'd like to think they're compressed into incredibly dense cubes and used as building materials in poor countries, but for all we know they take them out behind the store, douse them with gasoline and torch them.

Of course, the truly enviro-conscious have reusable totes, even if they do accumulate so much grot and bacteria they're like a Shake 'n' Bake bag for salmonella.

I have two for Trader Joe's, but that's because it's important to let other people know I belong to the same cult they do when I'm leaving the store and walking two blocks to the car. Hello there, person who shares my taste in quirky, offbeat merchandising! Aren't we special, with our Pink Himalayan Sea Salt grinders?

If you brought in a reusable bag from Aldi, people would feel horror, as if someone with the visible markings of the plague interrupted a royal masque. It doesn't matter that Trader Joe's and Aldi are the same company. Why? Please. It just doesn't.

A good paper bag with a sturdy handle feels substantial, too. But if you have too many, your curbside recycling load includes a paper grocery bag stuffed with other paper grocery bags, which will be recycled into more paper grocery bags. It's an endless cycle of reincarnation, except they never rise above the cockroach level. Perhaps if you buy nothing but vegetables they get extra karma, and come back to life as a greeting card.

This much I know: Plastic bags lead to slovenly bagging, and bagging groceries should be a fine art.

We've all watched in horror as someone bags like a dolt: eggs on the bottom, then chips, then a jar of spaghetti sauce. If you bought nothing but grapes and a small anvil, you know they'd still get it wrong.

I was taught bagging when I worked at Ralph and Jerry's Market by the U, and the mysteries of the ancient art were revealed: Frame up the bag with the boxes or the spaghetti packs, cans on the bottom, separate glass, and never over-stuff. When it's done well, the bag is firm, its contents unshiftable, its weight just right. You want to applaud a good job.

And now you can.

As noted above, there's an annual contest to find the nation's top grocery bagger, the National Best Bagger Championship. The Minnesota team is coached by Dennis Calhoun, a corporate trainer for Lunds.

How does this work, exactly?

"There are four components," Dennis said. "It's rated on speed, weight, bag-building technique, and style and attitude." So no surly baggers throwing the cans of corn, I guess.

Twenty-four states had contestants competing in the event this year, which is sponsored by Kellogg's. Two of our very own local baggers made the finals the last two years: Blake Westling, who took second this week representing the Eagan Byerly's, and Matt Medley, who came in fourth last year representing the Richfield Lunds.

I asked Matt what the mood was like -- fiercely competitive or collegial?

"Everyone was really friendly, but one guy who didn't win wasn't happy, and he didn't talk to anyone afterwards. I think he was from Utah."

Matt was modest about his own skills: "I maintain that no one is really good at grocery bagging," he said. "Just some are less bad than others."

Is there a plastic bag division?

"There used to be," said Coach Calhoun. "Now it's just reusable bags. Thirty-one groceries in three reusable bags in under 45 seconds."

By "reusable," he doesn't mean paper, by the way. Cloth only.

This year's winner? Stephanie Teteak from a Piggly Wiggly in Appleton, Wis.

You know, it's not often I get to break news in this column, but this one of those moments: There are still Piggly Wigglys.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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