When I travel I always try to visit local grocery stores. Not for some practical reason like, you know, buying groceries, but because I want to see what people in the area eat. With the worldwide distribution networks we have going today, of course you are going to find some of the same products all over the place. For example: Special K. You can find Special K in a LOT of places. But when you compare what is on the shelves in Country A vs. Country B, I guarantee you that you will find a lot of differences in terms of products, display, packaging, etc. I find it really interesting to think about what is considered normal in different locations. For us, it is normal to see slices of American cheese (ew) and facing after facing of chips and tons of energy bars. But in France, you are more likely to see wedges of brie and facing after facing of charcuterie and tons of digestive biscuits. When you think about it, anyone’s grocery basket is really a window into that person’s lifestyle, regardless of location, type of store, etc. But when you factor in the cross-cultural element, it gets even better. I remember a conversation I had once about human beings’ tendencies to label as “gross” foods they are not personally used to eating. Such as, wow, they eat dog in Country X? Gross! But you have to think about it from the opposite perspective sometimes too. Say you eat a lot of beef- someone from Country X might find that truly appalling. Or maybe you really like peanut butter, and someone from Country Y thinks that is absolutely disgusting. None of you are right or wrong- it is a matter of defaults and what you are used to seeing done around you. To be open to other cuisines, you need to take a moment to get yourself out of the default mode of expecting others to eat like you do.
You probably wander down the international foods aisle on a pretty frequent basis. But the journey gets more curious when you leave the international foods aisle and head to a supermarket that is actually in an international location. International aisles are representative, to be sure, but they don’t give you a full picture of what people from another place eat in their day to day lives- they give you a picture of some specific items that a category buyer realized would sell in a particular demographic market. You can argue with me that the same is true of any assortment anywhere, but let’s not go there (at least not today). Point being, a supermarket abroad lets you see what people buy for their everyday lives. You get a sense of how needs are different, how expectations are different, and how “normal” is different. You are probably pretty familiar with the brands and products you see at your local grocery store. But if you lived in Spain, you would have a whole different set of brands and products to choose from. What a “typical Spaniard” sees at a “typical grocery store” is markedly different from what a “typical American” sees at a “typical grocery store.” There are naturally overlaps in some products and a lot of product categories, but the overall experience differs. So I like to think about what it would be like to live in a certain neighborhood and shop at a certain store. If I wanted to buy cereal, what choices would I have? What about if I wanted milk? If I needed to plan a dinner party but didn’t want to cook, what could I pull together by means of prepared foods? And to drink?
I’m not saying I spend hours in the grocery store. But I do walk through the aisles and do a sort of mental evaluation of what I see. We all know that what we buy doesn’t always correlate directly to actual basic needs (hello Ben & Jerry, nice to see you again) but what we CAN buy does directly impact what we think we need, what we want, and how we live. Not everyone has the luxury of going to multiple stores to fill up on their wants, so for a lot of people, the shelves of the local grocery store define potential meals. If the store doesn’t carry rice, no rice will be had. If there is only one brand of milk, looks like that milk is the winner. Friends won’t find it surprising that I always pay a little extra attention to a few specific areas: cookies, ice cream, and baking supplies. The cookies and the ice cream are simply because I have a serious sweet tooth and like to try junk food from all cultures- I know, it’s very worldly of me. But the baking supplies are for a whole different reason. I like checking out the baking supplies specifically to see what products are sold as mixes- the foreign equivalent of our Duncan Hines. Mixes are of special interest to me because they imply familiarity. If there is enough demand for a mix to exist, that product is either very popular or very en vogue. It is fun to see whether I recognize the foods on the boxes, or whether I have no idea what that box will churn out. The picture above was taken in Prague in 2010. Sure, there are some muffins in there and something that looks like very rich chocolate cake, but there are also boxes of pernik and buchty. I could sit here and google those terms to figure it out, but why ruin the fun? As I stood in the aisle that day I tried to figure out what pernik and buchty mixes would provide me. I could guess, but I couldn’t be sure as to texture, or the proper way to eat it, or even the ingredients, given that I do not read Czech. I wondered if the locals passing by me would find pernik obvious. But of course, they would say, that is what my Aunt eats on her birthday!… or something like that. I could have polled people walking by to ask them how they use the product, what it tastes like, or I could have bought it myself and baked it. But part of the fun is in trying to figure out a story for the product and how people use it.
So my challenge to you- next time you go to the grocery store, even if it is in your own neighborhood, take a serious look around. What do you expect to see? What don’t you expect to see? How do you react when you see something new or a weekly staple is missing? And go check out the baking mixes. I’d love to hear your thoughts.