Supermarkets as sites of national identity (part one)

Coop Supermarket

If you can’t tell, I’m a little obsessed with supermarkets.  This is the first of a three part blog in which I’ll be discussing the relationship between grocery stores and national cuisine.  Enjoy!

The supermarket is frequently overlooked as a site of national identity. What seems to be a homogenous experience across countries, divided into familiar categories, labels and products, reveals subtle differences between regions. Combined, these differences amount to large cultural gaps. Whether it’s the size of the store, way to bag vegetables or type of bread on offer, how a nation arranges their supermarkets illustrates not only their attitude toward food, but also their perspective on the relation between gastronomic tradition and everyday life. If the everyday is invisible to an individual as they operate within their culture’s social structures (supermarkets, schools, public debates, etc.), the everyday can be described as mundane. Despite the dominance of large international chains, such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour, grocery stores don’t promote a pan-cultural version of the mundane. Recognizing how each country manifests their unique cultural identity through the representation of the ordinary allows national and international supermarkets to preserve a unique, culture-driven experience of the everyday as they spatially guide the consumer through country’s specific cooking lexicon.

Although national cuisines organize themselves through different ingredients, cooking techniques and meal structures, the layout of the Western supermarket largely streamlined. While this can be seen as an extension of the American supermarket model introduced in the mid-twentieth century, it can also be interpreted as a reflection of Western cooking logic (Scarpellini, Material Nation 209). This logic manifests itself as a shared culinary lexicon, which turns once-exotic techniques and ingredients into the building blocks of various cuisines. Although the amount of foreign cooking terms in the English culinary lexicon has greatly increased in recent years thanks to air travel and new migration patterns, European terminologies provide the bulk of the Anglophones foreign cooking vocabulary (Riely, The Chef’s Companion, 2nd edition, viii). This shared language suggests that the more countries interact, the more similar their approach to various foodstuffs will be. Since most Western-European countries agree that produce and meats appear together at a meal, they are grouped together in a supermarket.[1] Both will appear far from the candy because savoury and sweet occupy separate courses, are consumed at distinct times of day and furnish different nutrition. Western culture’s shared cooking techniques and approach to everyday consumption means their supermarkets are organized in a largely comparable manner, causing what few variations there are to jump out starkly.

A country’s cuisine informs how a specific product integrates into a specific supermarket section. In America it’s customary for peanut butter and Nutella to share a shelf besides jam, which must be far away from the tinned tuna. Although they are both popular sandwich fillings, peanut butter falls into the category America’s favourite and tuna, while nostalgic, is slightly polarising. One might also make the distinction between sweet and savoury; serving tuna at dinner would be acceptable, but peanut butter (to say nothing of Nutella!) would be amiss. Scandinavian countries define these distinctions differently. There, the few nut and ample fruit based spreads overflow into the tinned fish section. Since both are essential components of a smørrebrød, smørbrøt or smörgås, albeit for different meals, the region’s understanding of a sandwich allows these spreads to be appear next to each other. While American and Scandinavian supermarkets both stock tinned fish, the product’s location shows how its culturally informed purpose places it within the supermarket.

[1] Evidently this is also deals with refrigeration; however, it’s interesting to note where there are variances from this traditional model and what it means. Natural food shops, both small and large, in the US and UK tend to allow a greater proportional space between produce and meat than do traditional grocery stores. This suggests that the positioning of refrigeration and freezer cases is based in part on logistics and in part on ideology.



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