Brand building through storytelling

The voyeuristic pleasures of grocery tourism

You can tell quite a lot about a place from what’s on offer—or is not—by way of groceries. In the Dordogne countryside, every second driveway sports a hand-lettered sign advertising house-made foie gras, but just try hunting down a liter of milk. Talk about a declaration of priorities. No milk in the fridge? No problem. No foie gras? Now that’s a domestic emergency. The locals like their food unctuous, abundant and topped by a generous slab of foie gras, for which the only acceptable substitute is thick chunks of fragrant, well-marbled bacon. Need I add that no one in the Dordogne gives a boiled lentil for cardiological correctness?

How joyfully we cleaned our plates in the bistros of the Dordogne! How loudly our stomachs sang in the night! And how tight our pants became by day three! That evening my husband looked up from his menu and announced with a sigh of repentance, “I’m ordering the one dish that doesn’t have a foie gras garnish.” His plate arrived topped with the biggest helping of foie gras we’d yet seen—plus bacon sprinkled with a lavish hand

It’s a less toothsome story here in Sarasota, where we’ve rented a condo next door to Publix, your typical sprawling shrine to American convenience cooking—not that cooking has a great deal to do with pancakes and sausage on a stick or burgers you just slide into the microwave, buns and all. Thanks to the explosion of push-button meals, you don’t even have to spread peanut butter and jam on bread. Just open a handy-dandy carton, and presto! Pork tenderloin, a staple of mine at home, does not exist at Publix except in pouches awash with sodium-laced sauces.

I’ve never seen so much food you couldn’t pay me to eat, but plenty of folks must be heaping their carts. If the Dordogne was dedicated food as sensory enchantment, consequences be damned, Publix is all about flight from the tastes, textures and assorted operational devotions that go into the rites of eating.

Wherever I go in the world, I seek out the everyday spectacle of grocery shopping. I do it for the same voyeuristic reasons that I peer into other people’s carts back home. Cities, like individuals, reveal themselves in the act of hunting and gathering. I mistook Santiago, Chile for a drab, no-nonsense place until I toured its eye-popping market, an exuberant carnival of food that draws hungry and discriminating crowds seven days a week. Such gleaming fish! Such juicy produce! Such an array of dried fruits, every piece of kiwi or strawberry gleaming like a little gemstone. Just the thought makes me hungry.

At Publix I wander the glittering aisles dumbstruck, like a tribeswoman suddenly transported to Times Square. Back home in Toronto, I’m mostly a farmer’s market shopper, checking each string bean for blemishes. Besides, in packaged grocery products as in everything else, Canadian shoppers don’t have nearly the options that Americans do. What we do have, even in chain stores, is an impressive array of flavourful breads: chewy German ryes, golden challahs, artisanal loaves generously flecked with nuts and cranberries for breakfast or whole grains for a lunch time sandwich. For my money, Toronto’s breads are its gastronomic glory, a tribute to the breadth and depth of the ethnic communities that understood the staff of life long before the first stirrings of the slow-cooking era. Here in Sarasota, I can’t even find a bagel worthy of the name—just pale rounds of squishy bread.This morning I ate my smoked salmon on a trusty Thomas English muffin.

In spite of myself, I’m being seduced by Publix. I’m now hooked on the juicy, oil-free sun-dried tomatoes that come in expensive little packages—not for environmental purists but so tasty in a winter salad or even as a snack. My kind of convenience food! What other surprises lurk on these shelves? And where are the decent bagels hiding? I’ve got another two weeks to find out.

I’m also a dedicated cemetery tourist. Click here to find out why. 

 

Posted by Rona



Previously posted comments:

Comment
Jules Torti
January 15, 2010 at 6:06AM

“Cardiological correctedness” and “sensory enchantment”—love those.

I wonder if you have ever happened upon FEBO in Amsterdam? It’s Publix taken to the next level: ready-to-eat burgers, chicken fingers and fish sticks in a juke-box presentation. Drop your Euros into the coin slot, choose your selection, and the tiny glass door opens to your already visible lunch.

And for your husband–the latest NOW review of the Hoof Cafe on Dundas West: “over-the-top French toast–house-baked brioche slathered with creme fraiche and gingery peach comjpote ($9) and upgraded with a buttery slab of foie gras ($14).

I recently copied down a Dr. Oz quote on obesity and the percentage of Americans “turning their livers into foie gras.”

This post was one of my favourites, Rona, as you probably anticipated. Good luck on your bagel mission!

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 15, 2010 at 2:02 PM

How did I ever miss FEBO on my trip to Amsterdam? I don’t have to miss the Hoof Cafe, though. Sounds like a must for sybaritic trenchermen.

Comment
Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel
January 15, 2010 at 7:07AM

Laurie Colwin, in her marvelous books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, writes about how that even when traveling, she’s more interested in what people eat at home than out, and how she’ll poke through peoples’ kitchen cupboards as much as they will allow.

Though I’ve traveled abroad only a few times, “grocery tourism” always has been high on my list of shopping joys. And domestically, too!

Three decades ago, Calvin Trillin wrote about standing in line at the post office in Kansas City behind a man shipping a care package of Wolferman’s English muffins (now available online at www.wolfermans.com, a freezable, giftable household staple at Casa Biscuitbarrel) to a relative elsewhere. Trillin imagined packages of locally unobtainable delicacies “criss-crossing the nation.”

Trillin’s vision since became big business, but it certainly held true for me as well: When Trader Joe’s stores first opened in southern California only, shippable items such as shelled pistachios and almond butter were brought or mailed to me, first in the northern part of the state, and then after I moved East, before Trader Joe’s stores opened here as well.rnrnWhen I moved East from California, then a strict vegetarian, I could find NO canned, lard-free refried beans for sale anywhere, a staple convenience food for me when I had no home-cooked pinto beans on hand in fridge or freezer, ready to heat and spread on a tortilla. A close relative came to visit, and let his duffle bag fall with a wall-shaking THUMMMMP! to the floor,. “There’s your F*!CK&% beans,” he snarled. And sure enough, a dozen cans of Rosarita Vegetarian Frijoles rolled out…

On my first trip to Europe, a jaunt to Rome with Mr. B, I spent hours browsing blissfully in Italian groceries and open-air markets, picking out a wealth of fresh foods for picnic meals there, and buying a large quantity of groceries to lug home. One shopping bag split on our mad dash into the airport, with tubes of tomato paste, a two-kilo chunk of Parmiggiano Reggiano, and much more rolling here and there. Many kind people stooped and retrieved my swag, helping me repack my shopping bags.

Coming home from my most recent trip, to Costa Rica, led to an amusing conversation at the customs desk in Houston, where I changed planes. A man with the name badge reading SMITH questioned me about what I had bought. Beans, I said. BEANS?? he replied. Yes, cooked ones. COOKED BEANS? Yes, in squeezable aseptic pouches, I answered with great enthusiasm, as well as aseptically packed salsas and assorted sauces. Cooked beans, said the guard, in a dull, unbelieving voice, and hot sauce. Oh, and local honey, I added. Eventually I was waved through, but clearly he thought I was nuts.

Not long after 9/11, Mr. B and I took a rare weekend away to Memphis. While airport personnel were grilling him because his dark, Middle Eastern looks don’t square with his Beaver Cleaver-like name on his ID, others noted that there was “white powder” sifting out of the zipper on my duffle. They opened my bag to reveal… twenty-plus pounds of Southern flour, including two kinds of White Lily (a very “soft,” low-gluten flour intended for baking-powder-leavened items, such as biscuits), and two sacks of King Biscuit Self-Rising Flour.

“You can’t get this in the North,” I explained, and finally, we were waved through with a lot of head-shaking, but also with smiles: Yankees love hot biscuits, too!

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 15, 2010 at 2:02 PM

I’m rather keen on a good biscuit myself, Mrs. B. And you seem to be a serious practitioner of biscuit artistry. Since it’s unlikely you and I will be sitting down together over a plate of hot biscuits anytime soon, I’ll content myself with these delicious stories of food and travel.

Comment
Tessa
January 15, 2010 at 8:08AM

I love visiting supermarkets in the US, because they are so gob-smackingly huge and loaded with shiny, perfectly-shaped fruits and vegetables. They have a much wider variety of packaged and convenience foods than here in Canada. Not that I would be bothered buying or eating any of it – I just like to look and marvel.

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 15, 2010 at 2:02 PM

I wonder if my American visitors have any idea how exotic their supermarkets really are!

Comment
Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel
January 16, 2010 at 9:09AM

Oh, I do. When I lived in Berkeley, and the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union, the local Jewish community sponsored the exit of a number of Soviet Jews. Their biggest shock on arrival in California reportedly was the sight of large, square wooden boxes in the produce section of the Berkeley Co-op (a local supermarket chain), filled with glowing navel oranges. A shopper would drift by and put a few in a bag, and continue on their way, but there were no lines, no pushing, no shoving. Just that… abundance. Made a big impression of me, as you can see.

WV: grocer !

Comment
David Schiff
January 17, 2010 at 7:07AM

I was in Miami for five days over Christmas and there was no decent bread to be had. I, too, was reduced to the trusted English muffin.

The markets near me in New York aren’t good, but in ten days I’ll be in Mill Valley, where the Whole Foods is filled with a great assortment of fruits and vegetables, fresh breads, meats and fish, hundreds of cheeses, wine… everything you could want. I just love going there.

Maybe next winter you’ll opt for California over Florida.

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 17, 2010 at 2:02 PM

I know that Whole Foods well and it puts the Sarasota store to shame. Have a wonderful time in Mill Valley, David. I’m betting there’ll be homemade pie for dessert. Have an extra slice for me!

Comment
Deb Pascoe
January 22, 2010 at 7:07AM

I imagine the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I live, would make an excellent destination for a grocery tourist.

Ever heard of cudighi sausage? My favorite use for this spicy Italian sausage is in a sandwich, under a creamy blanket of melted mozzerella – on a cudighi bun, of course, with red sauce, onions and mushrooms.

How about Trenary Toast? It’s kind of like zwieback, only a zillion times better. It’s coated with sugar and cinnamon, and its hard, dry texture makes it the perfect dunk-in-your-morning-coffee breakfast. Be sure to slather liberally with butter before dunking.

Hmm, maybe I should pitch this as a marketing idea for our local chamber of commerce.

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 22, 2010 at 8:08 AM

Well, Deb, you’ve certainly broadened my grocery horizons this morning. Amazing how much there is to learn about the land of shopping carts. Should I get cracking on a travel guide for grocery tourists?

Comment
Deb Pascoe
January 23, 2010 at 9:09AM

This being the era of the foodie, it might actually be a hit!

Comment
Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel
January 27, 2010 at 8:08AM

There is a Whole Foods in my neighborhood, but as a rabid baker, I shun the bakery counter. Occasionally, when I’m out out my freezer-stash of rye bread, my fellow boarders buy a loaf of what we refer to as “foreign bread,” to go with sliced deli meats, and the remains of the loaf are sealed and frozen until my oven is re-stocked.

Rona, following tips passed along via your sister and mother, I’ve been refining my mastery of pie crusts. Until a few years ago, the only homemade pies flung upon with alacrity were Key lime, pumpkin, lemon meringue, and others. My oldest and youngest sons developed a passion for fruit pies–apple, peach, cherry, pecan, etc.–after exposure to what they call :”industrial pies” at camp, school, and my oldest’s university residence hall–causing me to branch out. So when I read about your mother’s annual, ceremonial offering of a single rhubarb pie each spring, I plan to introduce that one this year.

So if you ever come to Washington, D.C., Rona, you’ll have to come for a meal at Biscuitbarrel House that includes biscuits AND pie! And Deb Pascoe, just yesterday I ran across a recipe for something just like Trenary Toast… time to give it a try!

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 27, 2010 at 2:02 PM

Now, there’s a tempting offer! Sounds as if I should forgo the belt and skinny pants for dinner chez Biscuitbarrel.

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