Cultural Divide in the Supermarket?


The latest kitchen fad seems to be not shopping for food. It’s a variation on closet shopping; where instead of buying a new outfit you go rummaging through your closet to find something that you’ve forgotten you even had.  Everywhere I look there’s a blog post, forum discussion, or newspaper article about the wonders of using up what’s in your pantry and your freezer. It got me wondering who are these people who have so much cabinet and freezer space that they could live for a week or so without shopping.

In our house, we would either starve or discover that you can actually survive on a diet of dried spices. Most of my freezer space is taken up with ice and cocktail glasses. I’m not saying this because I want to pat myself on the back for being frugal, its just that living in Italy for the past few years with a college dorm sized refrigerator I’ve had to scale my purchases to just what we are going to eat in the next few days. It’s the way most of Italians live, no one has enough electricity coming into their house to run a giant American freezer. OK, this may sound extreme to someone who has never lived in a medieval village, but turning on the oven and the vacuum cleaner at the same time is NOT an option in my house. Life in Montone has other compensations, so you learn to deal.

The typical Italian grocery store devotes at least 1/3 of its space to fresh fruit and vegetables. The entrance to my local COOP in Umbertide opens directly onto the huge fresh fruit and vegetable area. Most of the fruit, vegetables and lettuces are in their whole form, they have not been trimmed, triple washed or otherwise handled. There are some bagged lettuces but they are off on the side in a special refrigerated section and tend to be fragile things like mache (valeria), which is easily bruised. It’s a completely different approach than the A&P in Goldens Bridge NY where you walk pass the bank of cash registers and then into a confusing small corner of the store that has fresh produce and where nearly everything has been handled or processed in some way. All lettuces are pre-packaged, occasionally you can find a forlorn bunch of asparagus that is rubber banded together is a small basin of water; green beans come neatly trimmed in a plastic wrapped Styrofoam dish. 
In Utah, which is in the heartland of America, processed foods and  produce seems to be more the rule than the exception. If you go to and click on citrus fruit, the first item is an 8 oz container of “Del Monte Fruit Naturals Red Grapefruit”. I don’t even know what it is.  Plastic bottles of lemon or lime juice precede the offerings for the actual fruit.

I’m really not passing judgment, (ok, maybe I am grinding the Albertson’s ax just a little) but I am observing how the two cultures think about fresh produce.  The assessment seems to be that the American consumer will happily pay more if she does not have to wash and trim her broccoli and she (or he) doesn’t really need to think about all the wasteful packaging. Will that change now as everyone’s wallets are shrinking; or as people discover that broccoli stems actually tastes great when you thinly slice and sauté them? Check back in two years and we’ll see if there has been a significant change in American produce display and purchasing.  I’m sincerely curious if this current ‘recession/depression’ will cause the type of lasting generational changes of the Great Depression. What are your thoughts? Are there seismic changes afoot in the way we shop, cook and eat?


  1. mitch on March 13, 2009 at 7:03 am

    I’m with you, Jude. I didn’t take part in the no-shopping experiment, not because I thought we might starve (after all, I have a few pounds of pasta, cans of beans, tomatoes, tuna, onions, garlic, etc. in my pantry) but because I prefer to shop and cook in a more “European” manner. By going to the market every day or every other day, seeing what looks good and taking it home and making a meal out of it. And not the supermarket – the green market, the butcher, the cheese maker, and so on.

    And, I need the space for ice and glasses as well.

  2. mitch on March 13, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Yeah, amazingly scary!

  3. JudithKlinger on March 13, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Allora. I’m just trying to find the silver lining in all this….

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