Monday, August 31, 2009

Alice in the Grocery Store

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.
Entire aisle devoted to mustard
Entire aisle devoted to licorice.
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.

"American" Food

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.
Grill time!
It makes me wonder, do we have anything better than barbecue to offer as American food?

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?

Clever Packaging

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?


Anonymous said...

Hi K, yes, I finally made it *lol* and I gotta repeat myself: it's nothing new to me. Sweden seems almost exactly like Germany. I would feel at home I guess, except the language maybe. And honestly, what IS American food? Your are a young nation. My hometown is older than 2000 years! As far as I'm concerned, people here say America has no culture either. I lived in the US two years and found no special American food. It's so insane to not let me send German food to the US because of your FDA. YOUR food is full with chemicals, and that's how it tastes. The typical things you mention (American) BBQ stuff, meats and fish, we have ourselves, that's nothing special, it's the recipes. Those we can't and wouldn't like to adopt, because of the missing (chemical) ingredients. We eat healthier than you. Look at the American obesity. IF we copy things, our people get obese as well. I experience that Europeans just copy the bad American stuff. I would prefer building my own country. Good things out of both countries and call it Germerica, or Amergany or something like that. Sometimes I don't understand either one of them nations. There are so many great American things, but K. most definitely NOT the food! Sorry I got so enthusiastic... didn't want to offend anybody. Hugs, R.

kymk said...

My favorite part of going to Europe was shopping. But it was lots fresh breads, fruits and vegies as well as cheeses, sausages etc. I loved the little wicker baskets and picking out real looking food. My mouth is watering.

Indie said...

R, don't worry, I am in complete agreement about the chemicals and the sacrifices of nutrition to convenience.
But I have to say, the American South does indeed have its own special foods. As for the rest of the country, I don't know because I've never lived there. But California, where you and I have lived, is very, very young as an American state. Local foods would be those made with local ingredients; I'll have to think about it.

Kym, I'd love to go to markets like you describe. Lovely!

Anonymous said...

I think you can still find American liverworst packaged in tubes with ends closed by way of metal crimping thingies. Ah! American liverworst! That's the best!

Indie said...

Oh yes, liverwurst! Good call. How could I forget? I like liverwurst.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I meant liverwurst!

Indie said...

Oh! Haha! Some editor I am. I didn't even notice.

Anonymous said...

K, pardon me, but since when is liverwurst supposed to be an American invention? Don't you think that it came across the big sea from Europe? It's a total common grocery in Germany. You usually spread it on (German) pretzels and eat (German, sour) pickles with it. Hungry? I am *lol* R.

Indie said...

Yes, R, Anonymous was kidding; we know liverwurst is a German thing, as with so many delicious sausage-y foods. We were talking about the packaging.

Now, for the important part: you eat it with pretzels and pickles?! I am going to the store *right now* because that makes me hungry. All I've ever had it on is a sandwich.

Indie said...

P.S. Coming to your house next.

steviewren said...

In Texas everything comes TX sized or TX!

I loved the grocery store tour. I went in a grocery in Switzerland. It was fun perusing the chocolate aisle.

Indie said...

Oh Lordy, a chocolate aisle in Switzerland? Let's go!

Petra H said...

I think going to supermarkets is one of the best experiences when you travel!! Our guests are usually very excited about coming with us to Costco :-)
You know there's a group on Facebook called "Make "To Fika" a verb in other languages" ;-) I think almost all foreigners who come to Sweden love that word and what it implies...
Wild strawberries definitely taste differently than strawberries, that's why they are not called strawberries in Swedish. It is strange that it seems to be just in Swedish that there's a distinction, maybe our wild strawberries are different than in other countries?
A pity that your friends didn't organise a crayfish party (kräftskiva) when you were there - it is a great cultural experience. (by the way, the photo is showing Swedish shrimp, not crayfish)
The laughing cow cheese is marked towards children in all European countries so I was very surprised when I saw the ad on American tv where it was shown as something "women in the 30's-40's" would eat ;-)
McEnnedy??? Never seen or heard!? It must be something "småländskt" :D
I never ever buy anything in plastic tubes with a metal ring at the end - but maybe that's because I would never BUY rice pudding, I make my own.
I wouldn't agree with R that there is not American food, but I have to agree that I am a little wary of especially processed food in the US. It does seem to be full of chemicals, and stuff like "cheese" (I love how companies now marked their products with "real cheese").
Sorry for the long comment but it was really fun to get to come along an American in ICA Maxi!

Indie said...

Petra, THANK YOU! For reading this and for giving some Swedish perspective. What was missing from my trip was meeting a variety of people. Once I arrived at my destination, I only met the family and the extended family. They were wonderful, but I still don't know much about the Swedish people and customs in general.

I should find that Facebook group. Fika was one of my favorite things!

Oops-- about the shrimp photo. I should put a little caption on it. Thanks.

About the tubes (like the one of rice pudding), I first saw those in Stockholm, filled with soup and other prepared food, in the refrigerated section.

Speaking of rice pudding, I liked also the ones you get in the dairy sections with two section in the little container, the other section filled with jam. I adore rice pudding, and since I have been home, I've been adding a little jam sometimes on the side for interest.

Sadly, my lingonberry jam is almost gone :(

But tell me, how do you live without mjukbröd when you are abroad? I miss it so much.