I recently had the pleasure of going to a Korean grocery store—H Mart–in Korea Town (otherwise known as K-Town) in Manhattan. It was an evening after work, at the suggestion of a coworker who happens to be Korean-American and volunteered to be my guide. The store was on a street I have walked past a hundred times and never ventured onto. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up, and I felt I understood the fundamentals of Korean food much better—and even had a better sense of the culture and how it fits into other Asian cultures.
Wherever I go, I like to visit the local supermarkets. That’s where I see how local people really live, and what they really eat. I believe that you never really know a place until you’ve been to its supermarket. In Japan, the supermarkets are often in the basement, and everything is bright, happy, and shiny, and sometimes there are people in white coats talking into a microphone. I don’t know what they are saying since I don’t speak Japanese.
In Hawaii, you can see the integration between Japanese and American foods. In the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, the space allotted to hot sauces is equal to the soda aisles in America. In Puerto Rico, even the Gerber baby foods come in piña colada and beans-and-rice flavors.
France, of course, is unique. Often the grocery stores are tiny and stink to high heaven of cheeses. But the daily markets–especially ones like the Nice Flower Market, with its perfect little displays of alpine strawberries and wild-picked morel mushrooms—tell the story of just how much the French worship fresh food.
Even in America, supermarkets vary by region. If you go south, you have to go to the Piggly Wiggly, just because the name is so cute, and it’s important to try things like fried peanuts in the shell (crunchy-good!) and boiled peanuts (surprisingly good). In Iowa, the Hy-Vee feels like a thousand-acre cornfield—so neat and orderly and spacious. Whether or not a town has a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s can tell you how educated and affluent the area is. (We don’t have one where I live.) When I go visit my in-laws in LeRoy, NY, their Tops Supermarket doesn’t even carry organic milk. Of course I asked them if they had it and they said they can’t sell enough to make it worthwhile. But even ol’ LeRoy (home of Jell-O and the stringless string bean) now has a local farmer’s market in the parking lot of the drugstore.
Like I said, every supermarket tells a story. What story does yours tell?
Supermarkets really are different in different areas. I remember going into this tiny A&P that was about the size of a small drug store in Farmington, MO. ( about 25 years ago) I was from Arizona. Well, the only potatoes you could get in MO around Farmington was red potatoes.. I was so distraught- so funny now. I has only had russets up to then and had no idea what to do with these much smaller, and weird potatoes. Well, truth be, they are not the same as russets and cook differently, but I have since incorporated them even when russets are available, as selected side dishes.
Arizona markets are FULL of produce- and even back in the 70’s it was normal to see fresh pineapple, and kiwi ect offered- now of course they are all over. Ice there is a staple- you pick some up every trip, just like bread and milk. The beverage isles are numerous, and sun screen is offered year round. In the south, where I live now, there are many more pork products and the first place I have seen pork feet offered- not really interested in trying it though. But we have also seen in influx from other areas, Publix from Florida is well established and carries higher end products like Boarshead deli items and makes subs right in the store (really good too) and Aldi, which is German based, has pre packed everything – no real butcher and little if any produce plus you have to put a deposit on the shopping cart that you get back when you deliver it back to the rack. Leave it out in the Parking lot and you loose your quarter. In most grocery stores though here you will see an ever increasing allotment to Hispanic foods to entice the ever growing population of Hispanics in the areas, but there are also small Hispanic grocery stores all over the place.
It is nice not to have everything homogenous.
I like to do most of my shopping at seasonal growers’ markets, but also find regional grocery stores interesting.
I even find grocery stores and markets from neighborhood to neighborhood in our region interesting in their difference.
Yesterday I was walking down 7th Street in Allentown and stopped into an open air produce market that was happening in a vacant lot (the guy was not a farmer, but selling produce he had unloaded from his truck). Then, I went into a bodega/dollar store, where I was impressed by the selection of interesting Latin foods (I bought some garlic plantain chips that were delicious!).
From their I drove to a health food store to pick up some veggie burgers, but they were closed, so I headed to the big suburban grocery store and their freezer section. I occurred to me how much variety in food is available in a small distance and all of the distinct demographic markets I had hit in less than an hour.
On earlier post pointed out that some supermarkets don’t have what you want (organic milk or whatever). I read somewhere that when you don’t find organic products, you should always find the manager and ask them to carry the product. Grocery store managers are trained that every person who asks for a given product represents X people who want the product but would never speak up. If we want organics on the shelves of supermarkets, we need to keep asking.