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What supermarkets get right

(article, Shoshanna Cohen)

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I'm all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for the special offer
Guaranteed personality

The Clash’s song '“Lost speaks to the urban alienation epitomized by that giant of the modern landscape, the grocery store. People love to hate the supermarket. It’s bland. It’s corporate. It’s impersonal. But as alienating as it is, it’s also comforting. The supermarket is always there for you, a comfort and joy in its predictability and optimism.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="All that bounty is part fantasy, and comes at a price."]

Supermarkets present an enticing vision of bounty and possibility. They are a place where I am always welcome, and everything is designed for my convenience. I enjoy wandering down aisles of attractively packaged products; it makes me feel like everything is within reach. There is something soothing about the shiny packages of instant noodles, the piles of cheery squash reasonably priced at $1.29 a pound, the bright lights, the soft music, the rows of adorable little sweets with pink icing, and the way the employees are always nice to me, even if it is their job to do so. 

Supermarkets are always clean, warm, dry, and well-organized. They make it feel like the world is a good place, I have everything I need to take care of myself, and there are people out there eager to meet my needs and solve my problems. 

And I like their sterility, their lack of personality. They let me forget my messy life for a little while, and escape myself. Sometimes alienation is a relief. 

American supermarkets as we know them first emerged in the 1930s, according to the history website They started out as no-frills warehouses (similar to today’s discount warehouse stores) and, by the 1950s, had matured into the bright and happy modern supermarket we know today. Supermarkets can now be found all over the world, even in places like France, where they co-exist alongside the traditional open-air farmers’ markets.

I spent a semester studying in the small town of Poitiers, France, when I was 26. France was fun and exotic, but it was also cold, confusing, and lonely. Everything about living there was hard, but shopping for food at the French supermarkets — Monoprix, LeClerc, Géant Casino — was still pretty easy. They were warm and accommodating, and they gave me the means to interact with French culture in a way that didn’t involve trying to gain entry into impenetrable social spheres. I could buy deliciously gamey milk and crispy duck-skin blobs, fountain pens and herb toothpaste, and all kinds of amazing cheese for a fraction of what it cost in the U.S. 

Grocery shopping in a foreign country is the most thrilling thing I have ever experienced. It feels safe because it’s pretty close to the American supermarket experience, but fun because everything is a little bit different. In France there is always an entire aisle devoted to different types of yogurt, and another one for cheese. There are vegetables I don’t recognize. Cutely tiny glass deodorant bottles. Liquid soap refills packed in soft, water-balloon-like tubes. A vacuum-packed brick of peanuts. A perplexing absence of peanut butter. 

In the suburbs, French supermarkets were often part of a utilitarian mini-mall featuring the other necessities of daily life: a bank, a pharmacy, a cafeteria, a convenience store, a perfume store. On Saturdays, I would walk over to the shopping center, treat myself to a waffle or a coffee, then immerse myself in the hypermarché like a warm bath.

Drinking sour espresso in the cafeteria next to LeClerc, I would watch all the French families doing their own Saturday ritual, packing their tiny Renault Twingos full of cases of shelf-stable milk. The typical exchange-student reaction would have been to wring my hands and lament the loss of traditional village life to Americanization, but I envied them. I was thousands of miles away from my boyfriend and our home, living in a dorm full of shrieky 18-year-old French girls. I wanted to be buying orange juice with someone I loved.

When I was closer to my dorm mates’ age, I was avoiding college and working at a Starbucks, living in a basement furnished with just a twin mattress, a CD player, and a typewriter, with unfinished stories and cut-up magazines strewn all over the carpet. I was in a new city and didn’t have a lot of friends, not to mention a family with whom to go grocery shopping. 

So I made my own rituals. For a nice evening, I would sometimes make myself a lavish floor picnic with treats culled from the local QFC, a pseudo-gourmet chain grocery store open 24 hours a day that I attended like church. I would spread out a towel on the floor and arrange some or all of the following components: hard salami, cheese, and baguette; apples and peanut butter; dried figs and Lindt chocolate; Tim’s Cascade-Style Potato Chips (in flavors like dill pickle or steak and onion); and a bottle of $6 Gato Negro red wine. I’d put on a Bob Dylan CD and hang out with myself. 

Part of the supermarket’s beauty is that the entry point is so low. You don’t need a family or a grown-up job. As long as you have a buck, you can partake. The supermarket has been a wonderful relief valve when a buck was just about all I had. In times when I’ve been too broke to buy new clothes or fancy cocktails, it allowed me to still enjoy the pleasure rush of going shopping. The thrill is the same. Better, because grocery shopping let me scratch that consumer itch in a way I didn’t have to feel guilty about. I mean, you have to eat. And purchasing power does a lot for your self esteem. I could still buy lots of things, even if those things were broccoli, eggs, and rice, and strolling through the Fred Meyer, among shelves stuffed with boxes of every kind of cereal you could want, I felt momentarily wealthy, like all this was mine if I wanted it. 

But all that bounty is part fantasy, and comes at a price. Those cereals are mostly sugar and leave me starving an hour later. The chicken is $1.99 a pound for a reason. The colorfully packaged instafood never quite lives up to the promise of the shiny wrapper, coming out of the microwave mushy and flavorless.

Which is why I love my local yuppie market. It's where the modern supermarket thesis meets its hippie co-op antithesis to produce synthesis: New Seasons, a regional grocery-store chain with markets that are small enough to get to know the people who work there, but big enough that they have everything you need, from hemp granola to Froot Loops. 

New Seasons doesn’t have 50 varieties of $1 frozen vegetables, and I can’t get lost in there, but there is a different freedom in browsing the produce section and knowing that almost all of it is organic, and not having to scan every label for trans fats, and knowing the cashier is smiling because she gets health benefits, not because she’s afraid the boss is watching. Chatting with the produce guy about the latest awesome peaches to come in from the valley a couple of hours away blows my anonymity, but trades it for something else: community. Free with purchase. 

Recipe: Deluxe Floor Picnic

Apples or other seasonal fruit
Dry salami 
Hard, nutty cheese, such as Dubliner or Swiss
Fresh baguette (from supermarket bakery is OK)
Dried Calimyrna figs, or fresh if in season
Lindt milk chocolate truffle bar
Good, crunchy, mouth-slicing potato chips
Red wine of choice (fancy is good, but Gallo is fine)

Arrange all ingredients on a beach towel with a knife, a jelly jar for the wine, and maybe a plate. Feast.

reference-image, l