When I went to Sweden I went to many beautiful and quaint little towns, drove through green and picturesque countryside, and had many breathtaking, enjoyable experiences.
Nevertheless, one of the most facinating things I experienced was something quite humble: going to the grocery store.
If anyone was going grocery shopping, I made sure to tag along. The grocery store was like a wonderland and I was like Alice.
The Swedish Grocery Store
It was different before we even walked through the door. To get a cart, you insert a coin into a slot on a chain of carts and unlock one from the group, a bit like baggage carts at the airport except when you return your cart, you get your coin back.
When you walk in, each person slides their grocery store card through a slot and takes a scanner from a wall of scanners. This you take through the store to shop, scanning your items along the way and dropping them into your shopping bag, which you also scan and buy. At the check-out, you hand your scanner to the clerk and pay the cost.
What do groceries selections tell you about people?
I wondered this while I was there, and I have been wondering the same thing about Americans ever since I got home.
In Sweden, there are entire aisles devoted to mustard, to fish pastes, to licorice, and to fikabröd (coffee cakes). Now that I'm home, I am still searching for good fikabröd, since fika is a Swedish habit I brought back with me (I'll tell you all about that in another post).
Our stores in the US concentrate on other things, for example, entire aisles devoted to potato chips and to packaged convenience foods. There are cultural conclusions to draw here, not complimentary to the US, I'm afraid.
And a Few Other Things
For everything I am telling you, there are 50 things I am leaving out. It's unavoidable, so I will just give you a guided tour of some of my photos.
The little local store in Oskarshamn, Maxi, had quite a selection of fruit soups, which as you can see come in cartons (invented by a Swede by the way), in flavors like blueberry (blåbär), strawberry (jordgubbe) and wild strawberry (smultron). I wish I had done more investigating of why wild strawberry is considered a different fruit, a distinct flavor, from strawberry. Anyway, I drank fruit soup at the fabulous continental breakfast at my hotel in Stockholm. It was delicious, cool, thick and only as sweet as the fruit itself.
In the US, our standard ice cream flavors are strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, though of course there are 50 other gourmet flavors to choose from. In Sweden, one of the ordinary flavors, found everywhere, is pear ice cream. There was also pear-flavored water, soda, you name it; pear seemed like a favorite, which was good news for me since I love pear.
I was in Sweden during crawdad (kräft) season, but I can't remember what the festival is called nor did I attend. Yes, I'm from the American South and yes, I've eaten many a dinner on Bourbon Street, but I still have never eaten a crawdad (OK, crayfish). When I was a kid, crawdads were practically my playmates, so I'm glad I never had to eat one in Sweden. But they were abundantly available in the stores.
There was a whole cooler just for strange and exotic meats, kangaroo and zebra, for instance, in addition to the usual buffalo and elk (älg) which is really moose. Here is a package of alligator steaks. Milk is still the miracle-drink, in any language, nature's most nutritious food, as it says here. There were so many lovely dairy products. Filmjölk, for example, which is a little like buttermilk and yogurt had a lovechild. Full fat milk, more types of yogurt, and other things I didn't try.
The cow laughs in Swedish too, but instead of being marketed expensively in the gourmet cheese section, these are bacon flavored and aimed at kids.
It is interesting to see what is considered American food elsewhere, as I'm sure people from Mexico and from Asian countries must look at the ethnic foods in American grocery stores and wonder.
There was this brand that marketed American style food, a brand called McEnnedy. Let's pause a moment and ponder that name, which seems almost to have been forged artificially from two warring cultures in order to evoke both McDonald's and JFK in a single breath.
Here is McEnnedy's sign, tempting you to try the American food.
The American food itself, however, is mystifying. Sweetcorn salad and red beans sound like a Southern barbecue, I suppose. Interestingly, what is being sold are seasoning packets. What seasonings could you possibly need to make corn salad? Don't ask me; I couldn't read the ingredients.
American hamburger sauce, which I think is Thousand Island.
Anyway, it's all about barbecue.
What about apple pie? Well, the Swedes definitely make pastries better than we do.
What about Southern food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, meatloaf, pot roast) or Soul Food (fried catfish, collards, sweet carrots)?
What is American food anyway?
Finally, let's talk packaging. Aside from inventing the milk carton, the Swedes have embraced two clever types of packaging that are sort of a middle ground between canned and fresh.
The ubiquitous tube which is everywhere in Swedish markets. Seriously, your entire fridge could be filled with nothing but tubes. Everything that goes on a sandwich comes in tubes, mayo, mustard, relish, and even my favorites, the fish pastes (pronounced pah-stay) like tuna, salmon and herring.
You eat those on mjukbröd (soft bread), which I honestly don't know how my Swedish expat friends can live without. If anyone has a recipe or a lead on buying it in the US, please let me know. IKEA in Emeryville does not carry it.
Anyway, the other type of interesting packaging is a plastic tube sealed at each end with metal rings. Here, I have only ever seen polenta packaged this way. There, you can find everything from soups to rice pudding packaged in these kinds of tubes.
These are great ideas I wish we would adopt. It is a lot less wasteful than the plastic tubs we favor here.
If you made it to the end of this post, I have to thank you for indulging me. Maybe the fascination with grocery stores is something peculiarly my own. Maybe I will go on a grocery store tour of the world someday. Have I ever told you that in Texas they have Texas-shaped corn chips?