Beans and rice is one of my go-to meals, but there was a time when the prospect of eating another legume filled me with a profound sense of dread.

During the Great Recession, I was unemployed, broke, and facing an endless rotation of the cheapest possible provisions: beans and rice, scrambled eggs, peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti with sauce from a jar, ramen mixed with processed cheese. The thought of microwaving a hot dog sent me to a bad place.

There’s nothing objectively wrong with any of these meals — they were what I could afford given the depressing constraints of my financial situation. But as my meager savings dwindled, I spent less on groceries and allowed myself fewer choices. With insufficient funds to cover the basics, it was foolish to take a risk on something I might not like but would feel obligated to finish. Trying new things was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

That’s where I was in my late 20s when I discovered the joys of Aldi, the German-owned, no-frills, deliberately down-market grocery chain.

Much like you might avoid a part of town that you’ve heard is dangerous, I had a vaguely negative impression of Aldi. I’ve come to believe that is largely because, like the supposedly bad neighborhood, the store has long been associated with low-income. As a child of the American suburbs, I unconsciously learned to avoid spaces linked to poverty. For many, Aldi is synonymous with scarcity.

Admittedly, some of this is baked into the Aldi approach, which is also part of its charm. The stores are about a quarter of the size of the footprint utilized by your typical American grocery chain. They stock far fewer products: approximately 1,400 items, almost all marked by the store’s private labels. You can find most things, but perplexingly, not everything, especially if the item you seek is out of season or not a pantry staple. Brown sugar, yes; corn syrup, no. It’s rare to have options to choose from, though that singular offering is reliably high quality.

A wedge of affordable Parmesan cheese and a package of zucchini in my cart, I planned a frittata and felt my depression begin to lift.

Shoppers are largely on their own at Aldi stores, which are minimally staffed. Shopping carts require a quarter to use, which is refunded to the customer upon return. You must purchase or provide your own bags or boxes and pack up your own purchases.

These deviations add to Aldi’s aura of austerity. But I was delighted to find a dependably low-priced grocery outlet that stocked everything from the basics to gourmet-adjacent products, a place I didn’t have to buy in bulk in order to save money. It was easy for me to reframe the experience as European — it’s practically fancy! Gradually, I developed enough trust in the products to take small risks on items such as inexpensive German mustard or a jar of marinated bell peppers I incorporated into pastas, salads, and spreads.

Aldi expanded my dirt-cheap menu options by a small but significant margin. To my great delight, the store brought salad greens back into my life. For a few dollars, I could buy a pack of four small heads of “artisanal” lettuce, fruit, a bag of nuts, and a 99-cent dressing that would keep me in salads for a week or more. A wedge of affordable Parmesan cheese and a package of zucchini in my cart, I planned a frittata and felt my depression begin to lift. Most importantly, the food was good: It’s an open secret that many Aldi products hail from the same factories as their brand-name doppelgängers.

Once you know the store’s layout and customs, shopping becomes a comforting game — one many of my fellow shoppers clearly enjoy. They’re the ones who enthusiastically endorse the product you’re squinting at or offer you their emptied cart and wave off your proffered quarter. Some might head home to review their latest purchase in a Facebook group for Aldi “nerds,” now 1.4 million users strong.

I’ve become something of an über-nerd, myself. A few years ago, after yet another friend confessed their trepidation about Aldi, I organized my first annual holiday tour. Attendees have included artists, medical assistants, teachers, engineers, and full-time parents. Each left with a guide to my favorite Aldi provisions and insight into the chain’s mysterious customs.

Though the enterprise is a little silly by design, it’s my pleasure to recruit Aldi acolytes. In part because we’re all welcome there. My fellow shoppers represent a cross-section of humanity: rural residents on a monthly stock-up trip, employees of shelters or other nonprofits that serve food, families paying with a food assistance card, restaurant owners with a cartload of butter and whipping cream, well-dressed ladies buying stuffed olives and other cocktail-party fare, and penny-pinching college students. I’ve heard half a dozen languages spoken at Aldi.

Whereas a typical grocery store experience can be rage-inducing, I sometimes retreat to Aldi to calm down. It was once a landmark on my route home from a toxic workplace. At another time in my life, I’d stop by after an appointment with my old therapist.

It’s been a while since I’ve shopped at Aldi in order to stretch a tiny grocery budget as far as it could possibly go. These days, I’ll toss impulse buys in my cart without calculating the total because I trust both the deals and my relatively healthy bank balance. And when I eat beans and rice, I do so with gusto, savoring every bite.