Aside from monuments, historical sites, and museums, one of the ways you can learn a lot about a place within a compact experience is by going shopping. No, I don’t mean the hunt for that umpteenth pair of pumps or waiting in line to buy postcards, I mean this:
Confession: I am obsessed with supermarkets. Not only are they generally a cross-cut of society, a place where people of all kinds might find themselves doing the same basically mundane task, but through cross-comparison it is very easy to see the kinds of things a certain group of people value in their lives or don’t, how they see themselves, and how they would like their lives to be.
(The pattern extends beyond food. In Egypt, for example, you’ll be hard pressed to find tampons, even in the high-end grocery stores we visited. This could be attributed to the value placed on women’s virginity in Islam and therefore anything that goes up there is not a risk worth taking.)
In Carrefour outside of Paris, the aisle for chocolate was almost as long and comprehensive as the one reserved for cheese and equally mixed in price and quality. While I could see an American scoffing at how unhealthy it might be to load up on chocolates, cheese, pastries…
…the French went about their business unharried. The idea that French women are all skinny is somewhat of a myth, but there is an element of balance in what I saw. The variety I observed seemed to say, of course, you can have your macarons, but you also have fresh vegetables, fruits, and a good supply of protein on a regular basis, combined with consuming less overall (this I saw at home, not out shopping). Eat until you are satisfied, not until your plate is clean.
The seafood aisle in this particular Carrefour was unparalleled. Thiais, the town where I stayed, is right next to a major food distribution center called Les Halles de Rungis, the modern-day equivalent of the old Les Halles market, which closed in the 1970s due to overcrowding and sanitation concerns. Here some of the freshest produce around (without going directly to the farm for your potatoes, the orchard for your apples, the sea for your fish) will hit the final leg of the minutely-controlled French chaîne du froid, to be sent off to restaurants, grocery stores, and the like. Just ask the lumpfish below, the emphasis here is on fresh fresh fresh.
Only briefly did I wander into a Danish supermarket, but this was enough of a taste to satisfy my curiosity. The place was immediately friendly, with bright colors and kransekage (Danish New Year’s cake) out on display. I was also immediately smitten with the particular Scandinavian sensibility of the shopping baskets.
It was the first store in which I’d seen electronic price labels. Makes sense for fresh produce, doesn’t it?
My friend Malin was quick to lead me to one of the foods I miss most from Holland: black licorice. Let America say what it will about the stuff, but I felt at home with a people who shelved theirs by sweetness, salt, texture… and we both went a little nuts.
Panda Licorice, Haribo Pirate Mix, “Turkish Pepper” (a little bit spicy), Haribo Skipper Mix, and Licorice Larvae
There were a few things that struck me as immediately DUTCH when walking into C-1000 and Albert Heijn. There was your usual drop (Dutch licorice), Stroopwafels (caramel wafer cookies), refrigerated Poffertjes (traditional mini pancakes), Ontbijtkoek (a kind of spiced cake eaten for breakfast), and Hagelslag (basically sprinkles you eat on toast–way more delicious than you’re probably imagining).
At C-1000, a Dutch grocery store chain, they had a barrier set up by the automatic doors behind which a forlorn tweenage boy was standing. It turns out that the store offers collectible soccer stickers for every purchase above 10 Euro. The average adult isn’t too wild about them, but kids have been mobbing stores to collect more. In an effort at crowd control, the barriers have been set up in stores around the country, behind which the kids were supposed to wait and politely ask for stickers from shoppers leaving the store.
Much like the pre-Halloween or pre-Christmas fervor in the States, Holland was starting to get ready for Carneval by the time I arrived the first week of January. You had your regular old bumblebees, your cowboys and firemen and clowns, but nestled in there was this cheeky little getup, missing only the wooden shoes.
To the French their chocolates and charcuterie, to the Danes their pickled herring, to the Dutch, mayonnaise. I never realized you could make so many variations on this emulsion of egg yolk, oil, and vinegar or lemon juice.
Holland has a very large Indonesian community, which means that the Indonesian specialty store right next to Albert Heijn was making a steady business. I drooled over the wall of Sambal (a paste made of chili peppers) and caved for a bag of Krupuk (Indonesian prawn chips).
Inside the C-1000 grocery store building was a Turkish market, where one could pop olives and cheese and (oooohhhhhh) Turkish bread to one’s heart content. My friend Laurie and I picked up a Turkish pizza and I felt I understood myself a little better taking each pungent, peppery bite. In that moment I wanted to hug my parents for letting me have this opportunity to expand my palate from my earliest memory until now simply because I grew up in this place, shopped in these same shops, and ate these same things. No wonder I like to try a little bit of everything–in this tiny country, one can find decent, if not really friggin’ good, food from all kinds of places and I, gratefully, benefited. You have your spicy, your sweet, your salt, your dairy, your bread, your meat, your little bit of everything.
Even if you can find peanut butter and marshmallows in so many places now, is this just another part of the hodgepodge (or stampot)? I am just as secure in my American-ness eating lumpias or panettone or koshari as I am eating a hamburger and grilling some corn on the cob (now available at your local Dutch Albert Heijn). Are there now more expats asking for this stuff, or like in a store called America Today in central Arnhem, is it the Dutch who are asking to be fed American fare, one Oreo or Nerds rope at a time?
Perhaps we are approaching a global cuisine, where people are starting to feel comfortable expanding their palates. My hope is that it isn’t just the new chic thing, but a lasting shift, one that doesn’t just cover acceptance of food, but acceptance of cultures other than familiar ones. If the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach then, boy, are things going to get interesting.