I don’t put much time in at the regular supermarket. I end up there on occasion when I need aluminum foil or dried chilies, but most of the time I’m living in my little specialty foods retailer cocoon.
Before we moved to California in 2003, I went to Meijer every week in Michigan, along with the health food store and oftentimes the bakery and, in season, the farmers’ market.
Before we moved to Michigan in 2000, I had been working for Whole Foods for five years, and with a 20% discount, there was no reason to go anywhere else.
I’m fascinated by the regular grocery store whenever I’m there. I grew up with regular supermarkets – the red and orange A&P logo on the front of the market my family shopped at in New England is one of my earliest memories.
I remember the logo’s shape-commonality with pills my father took while he was battling Hodgkin’s disease and the coated licorice Good & Plenty candies that I ate, mimicking his daily pill-swallowing routine and offering them to him with childhood-magical-thinking-surety that they would make him not sick any more.
In Virginia, we shopped at Safeway store #0002 and then the Giant when it opened down the street, plus the dreaded weekend-afternoon eating trips to the commissary that fill the childhood memories of lots of military dependents. When you started filling the second cart, you knew the end was in sight.
But I’ve been away from the supermarket so long, and away from the standard American diet even longer, that I’m sort of amazed by what I find there and what’s happening. I’ve always been a casual grocery cart anthropologist – I roped a date using this habit when I was working at Whole Foods by saying Hey, that’s great tofu, isn’t it? – but looking at people’s carts at Whole Foods is of limited interest. There’s the person who clearly buys all her produce elsewhere and the couple who buy six bottles of wine at a time and the family who ring up a gargantuan bill with meat and prepared foods.
At the regular supermarket, though, I get to see what most people are really buying. To tell the truth, I mostly find this depressing.
There’s the occasional moment of hilarity, usually based on stereotypes – two guys with a cart full of cases of cup o’ noodles and laundry detergent in the middle of the night – college students – or a batch of boisterous young men all charging into the store without carts and heading straight for the beer aisle – could be college students, but could just be young men – but most people are just going about their weekly shopping, buying white flour, fat, sugar and salt.
Not that they’re buying those staples directly.
The center aisles of a traditional supermarket have many more products than a health/specialty foods store, but more of those products are branded-to-differentiate foods with the same few primary ingredients than they are in a heath/specialty foods store. When I see center-store products in carts no matter where I’m shopping, I tend to see them by their primary ingredients.
Cereal: White flour, sugar, salt.
Bread:White flour, salt.
Doughnuts: White flour, sugar, fat.
Stuffing mix: White flour, salt, fat.
Pasta: White flour.
Cookies: White flour, sugar, fat, salt.
There always seems to be a lot of white flour going around, and even more so at the regular grocery store. On this occasion, I’m not even going to speak of the amount of soda and other sugared beverages I see going into carts.
If you started in the morning with toast or refined-grain cereal, and then had pretzels for a snack, and a sandwich for lunch, then cookies in the middle of the afternoon, pasta for dinner, and cake for dessert – from one perspective that’s a variety of different foods. It’s all one food, though, really.
From my perspective it’s oh my gosh I would feel terrible, honestly, having eaten that way in the past. I’m not a protein-diet devotee, not by any stretch of the imagination – it would be pretty tough as a vegetarian. I do try not to overdo it on the starches, though, especially the refined ones.
I went on a gluten-free diet for a while, about eight months into my illness, when we were still trying to be sure it was Really Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and not something else. It was difficult – I have enormous sympathy for people with celiac disease – trying to find something to eat on a gluten-free diet is like being a vegetarian in a world where everybody eats meat but nobody knows what foods include it.
Having done that for a few months, I sort of lost my taste for and interest in white flour. I can have the stuff; I didn’t turn out to be gluten-intolerant. It doesn’t have the appeal it once did, though, and it’s much more obvious to me how many foods are predominantly made of white flour, and that I feel better the less of it I eat.
My perspective has really shifted. Vegetables and fruits look like food. Beans look like food. Whole grains look like food. White flour – right now it looks like powdery stuff that with the addition of sufficient water makes excellent paste.