In Praise of Foreign Supermarkets



Heaven is a foreign supermarket

Photo Aug 05, 2 38 39 PM.jpg

originally published for Desmond & Dempsey

I can take or leave museums. If you've seen one cathedral you've seen them all. I find monuments in real life deflating, and lack both the short legs and attention span to navigate galleries at anyone's pace but my own. While I do comb bookstores for potential foreign husbands, much of my time abroad - and in life - is spent in supermarkets.

My best friend has a saying: if I've been in your house, I've been in your bathroom cabinet. The difference between us is that she is a model with frustratingly beautiful skin, and I am a vocationally-confused drifter who hoards marmalade. I say: if I've been in your country, I've been in your pantry. I've raided your grocery store. 

Foreign ones are particularly erotic to me; a place to discover new products, assess regional font preferences, and grapple my unrequited love of Denmark. They both exhilarate and soothe me; my nightclub and my church. Without sounding like a 9/11 truther, you need only be let down by the Mono Lisa once to realize the Louvre is an elaborate scam - a simple yet efficient decoy from the real national treasure, Monoprix. You know where you won't find one zillion people pretending to touch the top of a pyramid? Monoprix. You know what you will find? Speculous! Foie gras! Family sized packs of madelines! For less than the price of admission. 

Condiments mean a lot to me, and I live for the thrill of discovering new, and nicely packaged ones abroad. Like a fool, I've spent actual money to stare blankly at artwork I could have googled, whereas handsomely packaged sardines make me actually shiver. In the clean, calm and bracingly cold aisles of Singaporean marts are jars of kaya - the Southeast Asian approximation of caramel. The bottom shelves of Swiss chains boast brandless slabs of chocolate apt to rival the fancier stuff anywhere; yours for less than 3 francs! While I need to be heavily pep-talked and lightly sedated before entering a Trader Joe's in Manhattan, the dried pineapple - plump, chewy, with almost-caramelized frills - is worth the quest. In Sweden I hoard Daim bars - buttery milk chocolate with shards of toffee - and fantasies of hot blond people buying knekkebrod. In Hong Kong's clinically bright Muji (while not technically a supermarket), sleeves of powder soft-candy(?). I'm not sure exactly what they are, but I like the way words look in other languages. A reservoir of (what I think is) Iranian mango nectar sits proudly on my fridge, forever too pretty to open. 

And it's not just condiments to be found, but clues! Supermarkets are founts of what I consider to be important cultural insights. Not just a place to learn about others, but ourselves! From supermarkets I have established new metrics of affluence; I'll have "made it" when my weekly shop is from Dean and Deluca. Nipping down to Harrod's for bread and milk is my touchstone of glam. Who could have guessed that financially buoyant Norway harbors a love of frozen-pizza?! (Perverts like me, that's who). The early-aughts pop music in culturally-belated Cape Town would indicate that South Africa's musical-jetlag did not end with the Rodriquez saga. America's meg marts are both a sonnet to capitalism and embarrassing display of its culinary affronts. Through their baffling custom of flavouring products with what seem like entirely separate and texturally-dependent meals ("lemon meringue pie flavoured yoghurt"!?), we learn food does not come as naturally to some as Maslow's pyramid would suggest. In the freezer section: frozen hamburgers - bun and all! At first sight I was both disgusted and enthralled. Contrast with LA's Erewhon - and its squillion dollar coconut yoghurt for a culinary cross section of the USA. Barbadian mini-marts (emphasis on the mini) genuflect toward the UK. Imported Cadbury bars in lieu of regional equivalents hint at the lasting power of colonial ryle. A few local gems: banana (!!) soda and tutti-frutti (??) flavoured milk! I bought three packets of MSG just because I could. Every holiday may have a return flight, but you can taste a place for just a little bit longer with the right souveneirs.