The Emphatic Ordinariness of Supermarkets

I have a fondness grocery stores in other countries.  It’s such an ordinary, plain place, one we all know, and in the industrialized world, I suppose they’re much of a muchness (as Christopher Robin would say)—aisles lined with some things in tins or cans, others in thin cardboard boxes; bakery, produce, butcher, dairy, spirits.  And yet–perhaps because I’ve spent so much of my life planning meals and buying food—the supermarket seems to be a place where I can observe local culture in great detail. 

What could be more telling than what a culture buys to eat, what it will pay for, what it will not, what is simply…missing?  Once, in France, I was overwhelmed by acres and acres of yogurts and diet foods (never mind French Women Don’t Get Fat…they don’t get fat because they watch what they eat, very closely) but also endless varieties of cheese.  So many cheeses!   In England, I noticed this time that the potatoes were not washed.  So small a thing.  Is it telling?  I don’t know—why wash potatoes, really, if you think about it?  Why bother to go through that extra step, to add to the price, to make them shiny and pretty at the supermarket, when they’ll only be washed and peeled at home anyway? 

It’s when you know you are not at home anymore, when you enter a grocery store.  On this trip to the UK, the majority of my grocery store visits took place in Hawkhurst, which holds the ordinary co-op, and then another, more upscale place along the road (where it was said Paul McCartney sometimes shops, and Madonna has her digs nearby).  The high end store was still quite small by American Safeway standards, and quite humanly navigable. Our hostess took her list, her handbag draped over the handles, while I poked around, examining anthropological evidence of life in modern England.  The meats and the way they are offered—lamb and back bacon and game birds. Rabbit, sometimes. The alcohol aisles with civilized half bottles of ordinary French table wine, red and white, and the stouts and ales and Pims on the shelf, an alcoholic drink I’ve never actually tasted. One beauty was the acres of bakery goods in forms I never see—hot cross buns and flapjacks (not pancakes, as in American English, but a cookie made of oatmeal and molasses) and cakes covered with marzipan and scones which always disappear by noon.   I like wandering down the cereal aisles to see what’s there—and fell in love this time with a most ordinary, old-fashioned breakfast cereal called Weetabix, a denser, more crumbly version of Shredded Wheat.  Kind of.   Last time in the UK, I delighted in canned carrot-coriander soup and the discovery of Rowntree Pastilles, which is—by far—my favorite candy of all time.  I know they’re ordinary.  I know they are the candy of a child, or at least someone without an evolved palette, a girl who buys movie magazines and pastilles and wears rubber flipflops on her feet. I don’t care.  I hoard them.

It’s always the ordinary things expats miss.  Brands of cereal or steak sauce or soda pop not available in this country.  We brought back a large box full of Cadbury chocolate which is not the same as American Cadbury (I only cite this as hearsay—shocking truth is, I am not enough of a chocolate connoisseur to be able to tell the difference), PG tips tea bags, pastilles, Weetabix, Branston pickle and salad cream and who knows what else.  Most are now available in the US, but the price is horrific.  Better to stock up.

As I wandered through the supermarkets, I found myself noting the prices, and nodding agreeably, “Yes, 1.99 for that milk, that’s about right, and 1.40 for that bread, okay.”  Then I realized that these were not dollars, but pounds.  Nearly all the food was almost twice as high as its comparable product in America.  Since I have—like many of you, I’m sure—been complaining about the cost of food lately, I was startled. Brought down a peg or ten.  By virtue of our enormous land mass and the varieties of climate in the continental United States and the network of interstate highways and cheap (yes, still) fuel, we’re spoiled for choice and price.  Even at the organic grocery nearby the hotel in Santa Barbara, all farm fresh, organic and very expensive, where the floors were old wood, the aisles narrow with their offerings of flax bread and endless varieties of wine grown nearby, the prices were less than half of what the same ordinary item cost in Kent. 

One of the great pleasures of travel is seeing what is real and true about my own life—the telescope of travel allows me to see others, but also see my self more clearly.  I find it endearing to notice what the expats I know miss about their home cultures—German beer and good cakes, English chocolate, French coffee and cheese, but I often wonder what I’d pine for if I were away for a long time, living in some other culture.  In Europe, which I like very much, and where I feel comfortable and happy.

After our long trip, I was glad to be home.   Doing ordinary things like hanging clothes up in the sunny back yard, and making lists to go to the grocery store. In my neighborhood, I have three giant supermarkets within two miles in any direction, an Albertsons, a Safeway, and a King Soopers. There is a massive WalMart close by, too, but it’s too much choice—I get frozen there.

Each supermarket is in the midst of a little shopping center, of course, with a video store, maybe a dry cleaner or UPS store, a video shop and some sort of restaurant or bar.  Always, always a liquor store, because one of the oddities of Colorado grocery stores is the fact that you can only buy alcohol at liquor stores. 

As I shopped upon my return, I didn’t have to wonder what I’d miss if I were an expatriate in England: I’d want my thousands of varieties of salad dressing, and piles and piles and piles of fresh produce, strawberries and bananas and pears and plums and zucchinis and peppers and nine kinds of potatoes and tomatoes in six, and chiles in twelve, all for pennies, really, all that fresh, fresh whole food, a vastness of whole grains.  As I noticed what I filled the basket with, I had to chuckle—I, too, am a product of my culture, which is the crunchy, granola head world of hippie Colorado. 

What would you miss if you went somewhere else to live? Have you ever been struck by the difference in a grocery store in another place? 

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One thought on “The Emphatic Ordinariness of Supermarkets

  1. As soon as I saw the post I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

    I was just exclaiming loudly in a bar that I could never live in London because I bet they don’t have any good Mexican food. The bartender stopped and confirmed that she had lived there for six months and went nuts because no one knew how to make a nice quesadilla.

    As for supermarkets, I was terribly spoiled by growing up in L.A. Every single time I go to the market I pass by the sky-high prices of mangos and avocados and sigh wistfully.

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