Monday, November 3, 2014

The American Supermarket: A European's Primer

I have always been interested in regional food preferences. Since moving to Ireland, I've learned that Midwest American and Irish food preferences are largely the same, but some important differences do exist. An Irish or European person visiting the States may find American supermarkets packed with strange and unfamiliar foods and suspiciously helpful and courteous employees. With this guide, you can confidently navigate any American supermarket without fear.

First, you'll have to park in the gigantic parking lot, full of SUV-sized parking spots. You'll luxuriously pull your vehicle at any angle into your spot. Heck, take up two spots! There's room for all here.

After parking, you may have a long walk to reach the market itself. Better get back in the car and drive a few laps around the parking lot until a car leaves one of the closer spots... at least one that's in view of the front door of the air-conditioned superstore.

Finding the Front Door of Hy-Vee
Finding the Front Door

Once inside, you'll be blasted with the cool air and smells of food. Look around for the food, you'll find it eventually. It's probably past the deli, cafe, bank branch, florist, craft beer bar, reception hall, and import wine shop. More and more Midwestern market chains (like Hy-Vee pictured here) are offering a more full-service experience for the consumer. You drove all that way to the store and walked across that huge parking lot, so why not maximize the experience?

Once in the aisles, you'll find some strange foods- depending on your American region. In the meat-loving Midwest, note the wide selection of potted meats. Minnesota-based Hormel makes some classics like the WWII superfood SPAM, a ground, smoked, salted pork patty preserved in brine and steel.

Pickled Pigs Feet and SPAM

If you are English or Irish, you might be surprised at the limited selection of canned bean choices. We do like our pork 'n beans (canned beans mixed with bits of bacon, pork, or even hot dog chunks) and our classic western baked beans- but we don't include beans as an accompaniment to... well... everything, so you'll have a limited selection here.

...But you will be able to choose from a variety of shiny, brightly-colored jelly choices, particularly the American favorite grape. Remember, what we call jelly is like seedless, gummy jam- not the sweet gelatin dessert. We call that Jell-O, after the popular Bill-Cosby-endorsed brand name.

We love our jelly with nothing more than we love it with peanut butter. Yes, that other American favorite is a crucial ingredient in the classic sandwich, peanut butter and jelly (PB&J). Some enterprising companies have ingeniously developed jelly-and-peanut-butter mixes in one jar. No more inconvenient spreading of goo from two separate jars!

Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly
Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly

Now, let's head over to the refrigerated area to find the... eggs? Yes, we Americans like our eggs cold. Keeping eggs cold does help them maintain their firm whites and strong yolks, especially when buying cheap ones. Believe me, I've noticed. Keeping eggs at room temperature really only seems to work with real farm-fresh eggs.

In Ireland, we dutifully buy warm, room-temp eggs from the supermarket, take them home, and put them in the fridge.

Refrigerated Eggs
Refrigerated Eggs

The eggs are kept near the bacon- smoked bacon. The rashers so popular in the UK and Ireland are not to be found in the American market. Scratch that, they are available, but they are called ham slices. Looking for rashers? Grab some Canadian bacon, the pink, flavorless, unsmoked meat that we've assigned to our northerly neighbors to tease them about their British Commonwealth roots.

...Staying on meat, let's talk sausage. UK and Ireland, it's time we had a talk about sausage. Are you aware that there is so much more in the fresh sausage world than pink salty things? The Germans and Czechs (and French, and Italians, and...) figured out long ago that sausages could be augmented with spices and herbs to make a dizzying array of flavor choices.

Thankfully, when America was settled by all these Europeans, they brought their sausage traditions with them and mixed them all together with a bit of the American spirit to give us the choices we have today. 

Jalapeno cheddar bratwurst? Got 'em. Garlic mustard beer kielbasa? Check. Low-fat vegan turkey onion kale coffeebean? Maybe! Did you check in California?

Sausage Selection
Sausage Selection

 In addition to the fresh sausage (that's sausage requiring cooking), we have the hot dog/bologna (baloney) family. These fully-cooked mystery meats define America to much of the world, and with good reason. I know they are available here in Ireland, but usually in a jar or can (see SPAM above). At the American market, you can select from any number of variations available in refrigerated and only moderately-slimy packages.

Oscar Meyer Wieners
Oscar Meyer Wieners

Before we leave hot dogs, ever heard of a corn dog? This might be more Midwestern-specific than other foods, as it combines two rural staples in one glorious package. Cold hot dogs are skewered on a wooden stick, dipped in a cornmeal batter, and deep fried to perfection. These were originally developed to be outdoor fair food, eaten with dirty fingers while walking down the midway, but they have since made it to the frozen food aisle.

Corn Dogs
Corn Dogs

Before we leave the freezer, let's take a look at ice cream. We've seen some imitators in Irish market freezers. It looks like a valiant attempt, but I don't believe Tesco will ever really come close to anything like Iowa-classic Blue Bunny Birthday Party ice cream- full-fat vanilla ice cream with cake frosting stripes and crunchy sugar sprinkles. mmm....

Other favorites include cookie dough and various candy bar chunk flavors.

Blue Bunny Birthday Party
Blue Bunny Birthday Party

How 'bout the liquor store (off-license)? Well, let's walk in and see!

Walking in to a Walk-in Beer Cooler
Walking in to a Walk-in Beer Cooler

Many supermarkets (and convenience stores, and liquor stores) are installing walk-in beer coolers. Just as the name implies, these room-sized refrigerators are stacked to the ceiling with beer. Cheap American lagers like the Busch, Miller, and Budweiser families make up most of the bulk, but craft and imported beers are gaining traction even in the Midwest. Whatever your fancy, find it before you get too cold.

Before we leave, let's find the sugary breakfast cereal that boils centuries of proud Irish culture down into one delicious character. Lucky Charms, that's how Irish people look, speak, and eat, right? No? Huh...

"That's me Lucky Charms! They're Magically Delicious!"
"That's me Lucky Charms! They're Magically Delicious!"
-Actual Lucky Charms Slogan

With your no-fee plastic grocery bags sagging with all the sugary American goodness, head back across the burning desert of a parking lot to your SUV... if you can pick it out from the others. Better hit that panic button on your keys and head to the one that honks. The others may contain vicious dogs and forgotten infants in carseats.

Just in case you've forgotten where you are, look to the far end of the parking lot for a swimming-pool-sized reminder. No mistaking it, you're home in the good ol' U.S. of A. 

Old Glory
Old Grocery Glory

That's it, my Euro friends! The American supermarket shouldn't be scary or imposing, but welcoming and smiling! If you ask someone for help, they will gladly drop everything to help you- and probably ask about that cute accent to boot.

Now get out there and make me proud, future consumer!

8 comments:

  1. My biggest pet peeve living in the states was over zealous shop assistants.. I wasn't alone on this, the rest of the Irish over there felt the same.. Nothing worse than walking into a shop and straight away being met with a fake smile and some rehearsed line.. Then walking around to be asked if you need help every five minutes.. Drove us all mad.. It's funny the Americans I know here always complain about how unhelpful the shop assistants here are.. Funny cultural difference

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    1. Love it! We are certainly used to different things. The difference in shop assistants' service does come up all the time with my American and European/Irish friends. Thanks for your input!

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  2. Duck of WellingtonNovember 4, 2014 at 4:56 AM

    Hi Cory, why not do an equivalent of the Irish supermarket experience (as an ex-pat) or is that already part of the plan?

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    1. I suppose that would be only natural. To be honest I hadn't thought about it- I was just looking for a way to use some of the market photos I took on a trip back to Iowa this summer!

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  3. I'm in agreement with Duck of Wellington.

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  4. The other day I stayed at a friend's house, she is Irish but her husband is from Missouri. In the morning, her daughter asked for a peanut butter & jelly toast and my friend took that Smucker's jar out of the cupboard! Oh dear, I have to say, it looked a bit disgusting, and I'll be honest, I haven't tried it! Way too much fat and sugar in that!! I'd love to go to one of those giant supermarkets though, sounds fun! I bet you were very surprised by the size of the shops here. I know I was, in France they are a lot bigger as well...

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    1. I would highly recommend at least a taste of the Smucker's if you get another chance. Part of your international food education. And who says America has no national cuisine??

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    2. You're probably right, next time I'm at my friend's I'll try it !

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