It’s been a nagging feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on for months, but the process of food shopping had become less and less appealing since I arrived in California.
I’d followed the same patterns as I had at home – approximately one weekly supermarket shop to get all the basics in, and then maybe one more run to pick up specific needed items later on.
And the supermarkets are convenient: large, situated every half-mile or so in every direction, and (for the most part) open until 2am or later. So why my increasing reluctance to enter?
I finally worked it out a couple of days before Mark Morford wrote his piece Is Safeway Sucking Your Soul? in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In a nutshell, American supermarkets (and the food they stock) are a bizarre, freakish world of depressing clinical blandness interrupted only by day-glo “half price!” signs in the aisles. For all their convenience, they are not pleasant places to shop.
It’s difficult to articulate exactly why they’re so bad. Even with an entire newspaper column at his disposal, Morford can manage little more than a catalogue of some of the shelf-borne horrors that the average supermarket carries. But, for what it’s worth, here are the three things which currently most horrify me about my local food marts:
1) The Food Of The Living Dead
Bread-buying is a simple affair in Britain. Either you buy a fresh-baked loaf and expect it to last a day or two, or (for more mundane sandwich/toast type uses) you buy a mass-produced but acceptable loaf. Even wrapped in space-age “life prolonging” foil, this loaf will be showing signs of mould within 5-7 days. If there’s any left, it’s bird-food or trash. This is all well and good. It is dependable and comforting. It is not how American bread is.
American mass-produced bread does not die. Ever. I have yet to carry out an empirical study, but I’m convinced that archaeologists half a millenium from now will be digging edible loaves out of landfills.
Gone are the days when I could depend on the freshness of my bread because, well, if it wasn’t fresh it was mouldy. I’ve never seen mould on a shop-bought loaf here. I’ve thrown away perfect-looking ends of loaves because I suddenly remember that I bought them a month ago, and am faintly appalled by the concept.
It’s not just the bread which doesn’t die. Even store-bought vegetables are suspiciously long-lived. Anything in a packet or a tin has a shelf-life of aeons. And as for “juice”, you have to be damned careful.
Fairly early on I was suckered into buying a “strawberry and passionfruit juice blend” which sounded very nice. The six-week shelf life was vaguely suspicious (given I found it in a fridge next to organic juices), but I didn’t think much of it. It was only halfway through the carton that I looked at the nutrition panel and discovered that the primary ingredient after water was “corn syrup”. Flavoured syrup. Lovely.
All this nutritional longevity can only be achieved with the heavy use of preservatives (or syrup), and something just tells me that it can’t be that good for you. Still, at least anyone who’s eaten a supermarket diet will make a very handsome corpse when they finally move on to the next life…
If you don’t buy organic then you can pretty much guarantee that your vegetables have been sprayed with various things between germination and checkout. But in the wonderful world of American supermarketry they take it one stage further, and spray the stuff when it’s actually in the store.
No, really. Most supermarkets have overhead sprays built into the vegetable/salad counters which go off about once every five minutes coating everything in a fine mist. I presume that the intended effect is partly cosmetic – make everything look wholesome and fresh. But really, I’d rather the salad was slightly dry and I didn’t get coated with the same mist because I was reaching for some spinach when the damn things went off.
Furthermore, the whole area has a faint chlorine-like odour, which doesn’t instill much confidence in me.
3) “Let there be light!”
And the lord saith “Lo! I have given thee gasses which flouresce, that ye may create bare tube lighting which blindeth the patrons of thy super-markets. And they shall beg for most bountiful relief. I have also given thee Tylenol, on aisle 21, next to the antacids. Brighten thy lights and the Tylenol shall sell. This is my miracle to you.” (Shops 1:15)
Really, does everything have to be lit in quite such a stark, eye-watering manner? Any indoor location requiring sunglasses is too damn bright.
America is like a living Capitalist Handbook, so of course every mainstream innovation opens up a new niche where “things are done the traditional way.” Enter the whole food stores; in particular (in the Bay Area) Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
I’m not saying for a moment that these places are perfect; Trader Joe’s is very reasonably priced, but has no loose fresh fruit and vegetables (it’s all pre-packaged). Whole Foods is more comprehensive, particularly with fresh produce, but is quite pricey on the whole.
Nonetheless, together with the weekly Farmers’ Market in Mountain View, they make for a useful alternative which has meant that I only really visit supermarkets these days when I can’t find an ATM anywhere else.
Sadly, smaller traditional food vendors (I’d kill for a good butcher locally) are still few and far between in the South Bay (there are a lot more about in San Francisco, which is another reason to move there – on which more later), but I’m actively hunting down the good ones.
And in the meantime, I shall revel in the simple food-based pleasures of life, like loaves which actually go mouldy.