One of the first things I do when in a new country is visit a supermarket. It’s not that I necessarily need food, it’s that I want to see what people eat. Every culture has its idiosyncrasies baked into the aisles in the supermarket, and I believe you learn more about people by seeing what they eat than by assiduous studying of tour guides.
In Italy, for instance, aisles and aisles offer an endless selection of olive oil, different kinds of pasta, canned tomatoes, and coffees. Even the smaller supermarkets have outlandishly good bakery sections, with a variety of fresh breads and cookies on display. On the other hand, the frozen goods are stocked in a single refrigerator, tucked into a corner far away. Modern megamarkets deviate, in that they offer a lot more frozen goods (because people buy in bulk, and hence some of it is going to end up in the freezer, anyway), but not much change otherwise.
In Germany, the thing that stands out the most is the absurd quantity of sweets. The chocolate, cookies, candy, dessert sections fill up the entire place. The chocolate bars alone have a prominent display that grows exponentially near any “chocolate holiday,” that is Christmas, Easter, and Santa Claus. Bread and meats are underrepresented, because Germans typically buy those at specialty stores (baker and butcher, respectively).
In America, things look a lot different. Actually, looking at it, you can understand a lot about America as it is today by just looking at its supermarket aisles.
First, notice the size. Even a smaller American supermarket is humongous, typically covering most of a city block (including parking lot). The giant supermarkets exist everywhere, nowadays, but they are typically a complement to smaller supermarkets that fit into the store front of an apartment building. In America, they virtually always are their own buildings, separately zoned from residential areas (but inside them).
Then, notice the brands. While America as a whole is a conglomerate of global brands, supermarket chains are typically much smaller. Here in Southern California we have Albertson’s (which is US-wide), VONS (a sub-brand of the giant Safeway, which is centered on California), and Ralph’s (which is local to Southern California). When I lived in Portland, OR, we’d go to Fred Meyer’s. In Flordia they love their Publix. And yet, in each of them, Americans buy the same brands.
Let’s walk in: you’ll notice that American supermarkets are ruthlessly efficient in the eternal quest to part you from your money. It is much easier to find a shopping cart than a basket, because the basket limits the amount you can buy. The bookends of the store are typically perishables (bread and deli on one side, produce on the other) so that you have to walk through the entire store to get your healthy stuff. Then there are the checkstands, which even Americans recognize go to far in the attempt to lure you into buying stuff.
When you go and look at the selection of items, the first standout are the rows of frozen goods. A typical supermarket will have two aisles dedicated to freezers. They will contain endless amounts of:
- ice cream
- frozen dinners
- frozen breakfast and frozen juice
- frozen vegetables
Of the above, only the frozen vegetables are nutritious. Everything else is food waste.
What boggles the mind twofold: the enormous size of the containers, and the sheer variety of the same. You typically buy ice cream by the gallon, which is about 4 liters. It would take me months to finish a gallon, and by that time the ice cream would be stale, so that I typically choose a pint. The reason Americans buy gallons, though, is that they actually eat gallons of ice cream.
The same applies to other frozen food, like pizza. You can easily find a pizza loaded with 10,000 calories. That’s four days’ worth of calories for me, which means if I bought one, I’d have to eat that pizza and nothing else for four days, and just break even calorically.
Euphemisms are everywhere: big bags of chips are called “Family Size,” but they are clearly meant to be eaten by a single person in front of the TV set. A meal is called “hearty” if it has enough calories, fat, and salt to drive you to extinction. There are cookies whose nutrition information states a single cookie is four servings.
Now, for the variety of sameness: it’s something that struck me first in the ice cream section, with its endless amounts of Rocky Road, Strawberry Shortcake, Cappuccino, etc. flavors. It’s the same throughout the store. Later on, it started surprising me the most in the cereal aisle. Shockingly, American supermarkets have an entire aisle dedicated to breakfast cereals; even more surprising, the cereals available are mostly endless variations of the same, flavor-free, sugar-laden, crunchy treat to be soaked in milk or (eek!) eaten raw as a snack.
I once counted the most basic of breakfast cereals in my local supermarket, and found there were 27 different box types(between size and brand) of corn flakes. Why would anyone need to choose between 27 different ones, I wonder. Is one brand of corn flakes really different from another? And if you like other types: does it matter if the loops are green, red, or the whole spectrum in the rainbow? Why do you need to choose between letters of the alphabet and stars?
Now, far from objecting to the variety, I point out two amazing (and seemingly contradictory) qualities that distinguish America. Individualism and conformism go hand in hand. You want exactly the brand and shape and flavor of cereal that you want, because this is America and you are free to choose. At the same time, you will choose in all your individualism one of the few flavors and shapes available, because you are an indivual, goddammit, that chooses to be like everybody else.
The next item on the supermarket menu is alcohol. Again, this is both testament to the culture and subtle criticism: in a typical supermarket, there will be two aisles dedicated to alcohol. One aisle will contain the wines, spirits, and higher cost/higher-alcohol content items; the other will be beers and more beers, and the giant refrigerator that keeps even more beers chilled for immediate consumption.
Looking at shopping carts at the checkout, you notice there is a good reason for the amount of alcohol available. It is definitely consumed in horrendous quantities. I cannot say how much each individual in line drinks, but if the amount of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages are an indicator, most of America must be in a state of constant hang over.
Tying this all together is the pharmacy aisle, where Americans can buy the remedies most commonly required by their food intake. According to this aisle, Americans suffer from a giant variety of gastro-intestinal difficulties. This starts with heartburn, for which there are dozens of different remedies. Constipation seems to be the second most common ailment, followed by haemorrhoids.
You’d think it obvious that a nation that feeds on sugar cereal in the morning and fat-and-carbohydrate laden pizza and ice cream at night, chasing it all down with beer and wine and vodka would have problems with heartburn and constipation. You’d also think it obvious that a moderate change in diet would be appropriate. But here is the crux again: Americans use their individualism to be like everybody else. If everybody eats pizza at night, you want to eat pizza at night. Even if it’s bad for you. Because eating pizza at night is just what a real American does.
Staying in the pharmacy aisle allows another message to sink in: Americans suffer greatly from pain of all kinds, and from allergies. The corresponding sections in the aisle are surprising large and varied, being rivaled only by the similarly sized section for flu and cold symptoms. What causes all this pain is a mystery to me, especially considering that most pain killers available in a supermarket are low-cost items that don’t stand to make a huge profit.
I’ll skip most of the other sections, because they are much smaller and not much different from supermarkets elsewhere (with the exception of Hamburger Helper, which is worth of an article on its own). Let’s focus on the last item, which is also the last thing you see when you are leaving the supermarket: the checkstand.
You’d think there is not much innovation and diversity possible in checking, because all of it is routine. A checkstand in America indeed has barcode scanners like everywhere else; it has impulse buy shelves filled with candy and magazines; it has a checker, like everywhere else, although the American version is much, much friendlier than the grouchy ladies I was used to in Germany.
What is different is the bagging. Whereas in most of the world you bag your groceries yourself, in America that’s done by dedicated staff or by the checker. If it’s not too busy, the bagger will then ask you if you want your groceries taken to your car (which is called “carry-out service”).
As a visitor or newcomer, you should know that those baggers are paid a pittance and that they desperately need your tips for survival. Have them help you with your groceries if asked, and give them money when they have done a good job (which they virtually always do). You should also know that you generally don’t tip anyone else in an American supermarket, except maybe the florist if (s)he does a really good job with your arrangement.
Oh, and the question that vexed me for the first few months of my life in America, promptly mumbled by every checkstand clerk that assumes you’ve heard it a million times before? It’s “paper or plastic,” and is about the type of bags you want for your groceries. The first time I actually understood the words (two months in), I thought it was about the mode of payment: cash (paper) or credit card (plastic).
Hey, I never said I am smart!