Mythical Touchstones at the Foreign Grocery Store

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In a different life, specifically the one I lived as a friendless and depressed 14 year old, I used to watch the show 7th Heaven. People, I have no real explanation. Even my mom thought it was a lame show. Regardless, it was a habit. (Charmed came on later though, same channel. And that one still makes sense, those are two Charlottes I can connect.)

Of the few things I remember about 7th Heaven was an episode with a subplot wherein Annie (Catherine Hicks), the mom, is very frazzled and harried in the way one can imagine a minister’s wife with seven children to be. She is so stressed out, she doesn’t have any time to go grocery shopping–various kids/parishioners/the family sheepdog and their problems get in the way. When she finally does have time to go, middle child Lucy (Beverley Mitchell) wants to go along. Annie hesitantly agrees, with a caveat. Annie explains to Lucie that she finds grocery shopping to be a very “spiritual experience” she doesn’t like to rush through it or be hassled by her darn needy kids. She likes to ponder vegetables, take in their fragrance, let the cool breezes from the frozen food section wash over her, you get it.

While “spiritual” seemed a little farfetched even to my tween self, Annie’s sentiment did strike a chord. Because I, too, had begun to love grocery shopping. My love grocery stores and grocery shopping flourished in my teens. At first, it was about a sense of independence and control. I can make sure we always have whole wheat Thomas’s English Muffins, I can help grow our selection of teas, see if I prefer Tropicana with Calcium or Some Pulp. And my brothers and father? They’d just have to deal. They weren’t the ones pushing the cart, loading the minivan, making the fun domestic decisions.

As our suburban Jersey town began to get fancier grocery stores, I sure did love going to those too. By then I could drive and go alone if I could wheedle mom into giving me her credit card and the grocery list to do the shopping for her. She was overall a good grocery store companion, although she too grew tired of the Whole Wheat Thomas’s and requested a switch back to plain.

This timeline also lines up with the progression of my French studies. As early as starting conjugation we got a lecture on the French philosophy of slow food. Of shopping at a leisurely pace, buying little and buying daily. The French favor a Mrs. 7th Heaven style, huffing the aubergines, the crust of the bread, applying the nostrils to the center of a hunk of cheese. In our county’s Whole Foods, Wegman’s, smaller independent places based on the same model, I could do all this plus sample from the olive oil bars, the fresh rugalach from the bakery section; loving grocery shopping went in tandem with starting to love food and that both eating and shopping should be about pleasure.

Waves of that youth-discovered pleasure come to me when I browse through a foreigner food market in Korea. Part of it is familiarity and comfort, of course. There’s no shortage of familiar food in Korea–the golden arches, Starbucks, KFC, even California Pizza Kitchen are none too rare. It’s typical grocery stores where I’m numb.

Admittedly, the first time I walked into a Korean grocery store it was, as in traveling anywhere, a thrill. Long, long silver ribbons of fish on trays, not ice, with heads and eyeballs. Cases of kimchi. Cases of tofu. Enormous multi-liter bottles of cooking oil and soy sauce and gochujang (red pepper paste). Choco pies! Soju! But, going to the grocery store quickly became a chore of disappointment. If Americans go to the grocery store about half as much as the French, I as an American in Korea will go about half of that much.

It’s largely that I’m not skilled in Korean cooking. It’s largely that I’m also overworked and less likely to cook in general than I used to be in other lives. It’s also that the Eastern and Western diets are pretty polar on the whole in their fundamentals and while I love eating Korean food out regularly, I don’t have much desire (and again, ability) to bring it home with me. I don’t want to eat tofu for breakfast.

Sadly, I’m an adult set in my ways, especially for breakfast. I want to eat eggs or oatmeal. In writing this, I thought about other things I used to eat and after awhile remembered Greek yogurt with honey! And the aforementioned English muffins! I want to eat sandwiches or make salads for lunch WITH CHEESE. I want an AISLE of cheese that does not consist of oily orange squares in cellophane and Philadelphia. I love cooking Italian, Mexican, makeshift Indian/Thai, American, or on the ambitious occasion French. Globalization and my American upbringing have done this to me and I am ruined.

American grocery stores are not perfect, no. There is a lot of extraneous and disgusting stuff in there, and most of it costs too much. Our food standards need to be much higher and Big Food is out of control.

I’m writing about this because when I am in a foreign grocery store I feel the mythic cultural yearning for the American grocery store that I see as filled with choices. In a Korean grocery store, of course I still have choices. Brand choices, Western Eastern choices, local apples or Who Knows apples.

In the foreign food market I recently discovered near my office, a dingy basement place that was pseduo arranged like an American store with a cluster of shelved goods in the center and a few chilled cases of things on the ends, I gasped at the sight of a deli case.

I walked over to it and my eyes grew bigger. It was filled with meats and cheeses. FILLED. Their names all written in English, names I was easily able to pair with their country of origin. So many possibilities behind the glass. More than a yellow box of Cheerios, more than a full row of canned beans, more than frozen boxes of Red Baron pizza nestled next to fishsticks, a full deli case filled me with my delight of options. The cheese made a mountain range in that deli case, and I was humbled and in awe. Not quite spiritual, but close.

Reader, I chose no cheese. Put off by the exorbitant prices and the anxiety of only choosing one cheese to take home with me, I instead bought a handful of granola bars before leaving the store.

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