Grocery stores as sites of national identity (part two)

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This is the second in a three part series examining how supermarkets across the world display national identities.  Catch up on the first part here.

Locavore and terroir advocates would say that a country’s most exotic and marked products can be found in the produce bins, at the cheese counter and behind the butcher’s block. Once one begins to examine these products, however, it becomes apparent that the foodstuffs from these areas of the grocery store vary minimally between cultures. Broccoli, parmigiano reggiano and chicken are all widely available and barely hint at their uses in a region’s kitchens. Since raw ingredients are the building blocks of a national cuisine, one might expect culinary inflections to arise from them. While terroir may account for some variances in the taste of broccoli and chicken in various countries, the ubiquity of imported vegetables and factory farm-raised chickens globalises the taste of raw food. Globalisation also allows parmigiano to appear throughout the world in the single iteration as sanctioned by European law. Thus, international supermarkets demonstrate that familiar flavours can come from global, foreign sources. The correspondence between taste and place is not as strict as terroir and locavorism suggest.

If the movement from ‘other’ to ‘known’ is perceived as the transition from unmarked object to marked object, then the shopper should expect familiar foodstuffs to be the ones closest to their raw, unmarked, state regardless of the shopper’s relationship to a given grocery store.[1] Avocados may not be grown all over the world — one might argue they are marked as Mexican — but appear in produce bins in the USA, Italy and Mexico thanks to super speedy shipping (or, in the case of Mexico, indigenousness). Each country incorporates the avocado into their culinary discourse differently, layering on ingredients, preparations and usages that mark the raw product as belonging to a specific cultural dialogue. In the US, the avocado can be eaten split open with a sprinkling of salt for a no-fuss lunch. Italians might spread it on bread, sweetened with a touch of honey. Mexicans churn up their avocados into ice cream. No matter how divergent a raw ingredient is from a nation’s traditional dishes, minimally processed products are the easiest for each country to mark according to their time-honed culinary lexicon, allowing these foods to be incorporated into a countless number of dishes and preparations.

While ‘raw’ could easily be defined as uncooked, each nation possesses its own understanding of what level of uncooked is acceptable at the grocery store. In Italy, buying raw fish means purchasing un-gutted, whole fish. In the UK, fish is sold cleaned and purchased in discrete plastic packets. While the Italian and Briton might be uncomfortable encountering each other’s raw fish, how the fish is purchased won’t prevent them from transforming the uncooked, relatively unmarked ingredient into a nuanced cooked meal that attests to their national identity. Oven-roasted branzino with a dash of lemon illustrates the Italian’s desire for simple, uncomplicated flavours and preparations. Fish pie has a creamy texture and subtle flavour that parallels other English foods.[2] Given raw food’s ability to integrate into diverse culinary discourses as it adopts new preparations and takes on new flavours, the only limitation on an ingredient’s arrival in a new territory is culinary openness and importation laws.

Since raw products shift easily between culinary lexicons, the packaged and prepared foods present the strangest and most highly marked products at the grocery store. While the long shelf life of industrial products’ allows them to be shipped internationally, importation laws suggest cultural forces restrict a food’s international movement. Vanilla can’t be brought into Italy, sugary breakfast cereals weren’t allowed to be sold in the UK and Kinder surprise eggs are contraband in the US where they’re seen as a choking hazard. While these restrictions may not directly reflect the distinct culinary traditions of each nation, they shape, and are shaped by, a country’s tastes. Vanilina — Italy’s ubiquitous synthetic vanilla — is a distinct, marked flavour ubiquitous in pastry cases across the Peninsula. Lucky Charms may have been banned in the UK for a long time, but the arrival of Krave, a chocolate-filled cereal, suggests that the presence and absence of sugary breakfast cereals is more nuanced than just scepticism toward chemicals. The US may not allow Kinder Surprise eggs into the country, but they did allow Wonder Balls. These variations may seem small, but they are crucial in revealing how a country’s restrictions and variations on processed foods illustrates their collective taste: marked foodstuffs simultaneously show how a country eats and how it does not.

[1] One might argue that, as soon as a food is picked off the branch, it ceases to be raw and begins to be marked by human interaction. In this case, the avocado acquires a different taste through transport to varying regions. Nevertheless, the fruit will be used and perceived in its raw ‘avocado’ state and not as ‘guacamole’ or ‘avocado sandwich spread’. Therefore it seems wise to take the idea that the food remains ‘raw’ when it arrives at the grocery store.

[2] Why not fish and chips? Although fish and chips is stereotypically British, it is rarely prepared in the home. Fish pie, however, has more variations, ranging from home cooked to store bought, posh to cheap.

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One thought on “Grocery stores as sites of national identity (part two)

  1. Pingback: Grocery Stores as sites of national identity (part three) | Emilia Lives Life

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