Grocery Stores as Cultural Microcosms

Nothing gives one a sense of a new geographical area more than a visit to the grocery store. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but you know what I mean. So much of a culture is wrapped up in its food that a trip to pick up some groceries tells you a lot about both the history and the present of a place.

Of course, we all know that New Orleans is a phenomenal example of this, but even in a place not so completely defined by its cuisine—like, oh, I don’t know, New Jersey—there are myriad regional differences.

First and foremost–bagels!

They just aren’t the same outside of the Northeast. One could argue that they aren’t the same outside of Manhattan, but my bagel standards aren’t quite THAT rigid. Shop-Rite had a whole WALL of bagels: plain, everything, sesame, garlic, blueberry, poppyseed, onion, raisin. Yum. Someone told me that climate has a huge effect on how one’s bagels turn out, and comparing NJ bagels with NOLA bagels I might believe it. Rusty’s bagels from The Bagel Factory are tasty, but they’re dense and too tough to enjoy unless you toast them. The Shop-Rite bagels in Jersey have attained the Golden Mean of pastries—nice and chewy, but fluffy on the inside, and delish toasted or no.

The seafood section’s another part of the store where you can get a real sense of place. Of course, nowadays everyone gets flash-frozen salmon, tilapia, and shrimp from halfway around the world, but there are still always fresh regional offerings. Naturally, there was not a crawfish to be found in Jersey, and the oyster selection was dwarfed by the choices of clams and mussels. (They don’t call it New England clam chowdah for nothin’.) I saw lots of little silver fish, too, like anchovy and smelt, and then there was this:

Fresh eel. Now I know you can find eel in NOLA, especially at the Asian markets, but I get the impression it’s probably a different kind—this seemed distinctly regional to me. Maybe I’m wrong, though.

As I turned away from the fish case, I noticed a bunch of prepackaged fish fillets that were just sitting on a table, not being refrigerated. “That’s weird and unsanitary,” I thought. Turns out it was salt cod, which I suspect is not only a regional thing, but a seasonal one as well. I figure it hearkens back to the days when you had to cure your meat to ensure you had enough to make it through the winter. Or, you know, to take on your whaling ship.

Regional differences tend to show up in the fresh parts of the store—bread, seafood, meat, veggies—but here’s one I found in the soda section:

Dr. Brown’s in a 2-liter? For $1.19?! Dan Stein, are you listening?

Beyond the food selection, and I never thought I’d say this, a trip to Shop-Rite in New Jersey is even more harrowing to a trip to Rouses on Carrollton. Although the patrons of Rouses are just as inconsiderate and oblivious to my existence as those at Shop-Rite, at least in New Orleans they’re slow about it. I have time to see that someone has no intention of moving to accommodate me and adjust my route accordingly. Everyone moves so quickly Up North that I don’t have time to get out of the way before being run over.

If you want to get a sense of a place, visit a grocery store.

New Jersey = bagels, clams, rock salt, fast-moving, no eye contact.

And no one asks about my mom and ‘dem.

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