Grocery Stores as sites of national identity (part three)

Esselunga

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

Once the customer accepts that the manufactured products in a supermarket aren’t homogenous across national borders, they can appreciate how a given manufactured item illustrates both the country’s culinary lexicon and the sub-culture the supermarket occupies. Within every grocery store there appears an invisible product specific to a nation. Rolls of plastic-wrapped jam and soup may seem normal to those using the Swedish culinary lexicon, but are exotic for outsiders. British biscuits look familiar, but the intricate taxonomy that describes Kit Kats as a biscuit and excludes Jaffa Cakes, may alienate the casual foreign shopper. After perusing aisles of British biscuits, thick, frosted American cookies scream dessert rather than tea. Both are distinct from Italian biscuits, which are consumed in comparatively large quantities at breakfast. Thus, packaged product fit into the national cuisine according to the country’s unique culinary lexicon.

Unlike unmarked raw foods, which appear with variations as dictated by climate and transportation, the inflections added in the production process mark manufactured foodstuffs. For cookies, type of sweetener, leaver and flour reflects the sweet’s place on the nation’s table. The different ways in which chocolate appears in biscuits and cookies reveal regional inflections to the Western idea of chocolate-as-indulgence.[1] An Italian breakfast biscuit likely won’t have chocolate, a British tea biscuit may have a thin coating and an American cookie might have chunks or chips baked inside. While a glance at the package indicates how chocolate appears in the treat, a quick look doesn’t give the foreign shopper enough knowledge to understand how the product integrates into the nation’s diet. Similarly, a cookie’s texture, though not visible from the supermarket shelves, reflects how the nation consumes it. Dunking biscuits, like Italian and British variations, will be crisp and thick enough to hold some liquid.[2] American cookies tend to be softer and similar to cake, as their Dutch name, koekje, a diminuitive of koeke (cake), would suggest. These variations add layers of culture onto what could be perceived as a bland, globalised food product.

Yet focusing on the physical components of the mass-produced biscuit analyses a single facet of the foodstuffs so-called nutrition. Packaged cookies aren’t required. Most agree that the taste, texture and nuances are inferior to home made or bakery varieties. So, why does contemporary society insist on buying Oreos, Digestives and Rigoli? Chemically, biscuits woo the eater by hitting their brain and bloodstream with sugar, fat and salt. Subdued flavours beg for more cookies to be eaten to properly taste the advertised ingredient. If packaged cookies aren’t gastronomic delights on their own, they need cultural inflections such as nostalgia and brand to woo the customer. Mulino Bianco explicitly uses sentimentality in their advertising, describing their products as ‘everything began this way,’ ‘it loved weaving new relationships’ and ‘hazelnut cream, chocolate and shortbread rediscovered the pleasure of being together’.[3] Since these products aren’t needed in the grocery list like milk or vegetables, Mulino Bianco must manufacture the treat’s ostensible nutrition. In this case, Mulino Bianco creates the recollection of a forgotten and much loved lifestyle or cultural dialogue. Through evoking and creating nostalgia; appealing to a targeted group; and creating quietly different flavours, the packaged product illustrates a slice of national identity.

These subtle differences appear throughout the supermarket shelves and, combined, form an invaluable picture of how a nation eats and interacts with their food. Thanks to globalisation, many of these products are available outside of their originally intended contexts, but even so they must be subtly altered in order to fit into their new grocery store. Italian breakfast biscuits may lose their breakfast mark if they are placed next to Fudge Stripes and far away from breakfast items like cereals and bread. American cookies are frequently relegated to a laugh in the exotic and scary American aisle. British biscuits could transform into an exotic coffee time treat, rather than nostalgic tea companion. When these changes occur, they prove another way to analyse a country’s culinary lexicon through their grocery stores. No one is more a citizen than when they shop at a supermarket.

[1] How did chocolate’s come to be perceived as an indulgence? It likely has to do with the cocoa bean’s rarity and its high cost, which originally reserved it only for the wealthy.

[2] Italians will frequently dip their biscotti in either milk or coffee.

[3] In Italian, the verb tenses vary between the remote past and the imperfect, suggesting either something that is old enough to be quasi-archaic or an act that had been repeated enough to become a tradition.

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