We’d been out of the country for five years and now there was grocery shopping to be done.We planned on eating out of a poorly-bolted kitchen area in a rented campervan for the next three months and needed to shove off with the whole thing stocked.I’d been anticipating these travels ever since abandoning my home turf.But at the return, I found myself itching to roam the aisles of an American suburban supermarket.It was the first of several minor homecomings.I suggested we get up at 2 AM for a glimpse of the illuminated Open 24 hours sign with a cashier still sitting beside a register waiting for commerce to continue, just to prove that such visions existed.
Instead, we entered the supermarket on a weekday morning along with the diligent parade of seniors, stay-at-home moms and oddballs operating outside of the 9 to 5 work week.The standard supermarket chain looked the same as I’d remembered from days shopping as a bachelor or, back much further, tagging along with my own mother.But as we wheeled our cart past the beach balls and value pack of Oreos both on sale up front, it became apparent that this would grow into a foreign and near-incomprehensible experience.I was lost in a land of exotic culinary marvels.I forgot entirely that I was once, or still continued somehow to be, an American consumer.
We’d been living half a decade in France, my wife’s native soil, where wemanaged to usher into the world two girls.They were raised in a country where cheese gives off odors nearly visible to the naked eye, quail gets stewed in its juice with cognac and lobster is eaten at Christmas.All this tends to obscure how lovely a simple chip can be.Magically, this was the item that presented itself to us under the bright lights of aisle 1.Chips and snacks, it turned out, received two full dedicated aisles and customers were required to round munchies first in order to access the rest of the store.
We sighted nachos and pretzels, popcorns of all glazes and microwavable servings, iridescent cheese curls, puffs, three-dimensional crisps, and the vast innovations in the area of potato chips.Things had a hint of lime, were blasted with cheese or offered schizoid flavor combinations like chipotle ranch and pizza mixed together in the same bag.All of them without exception had at least one derivative of corn as an ingredient, even if only high-fructose corn syrup, the unseen but ubiquitous tribute to federal corn subsidies by now as traditional as apple pie.
Other items were naturally baked and had actual real-life ingredients, which the packaging proclaimed as a revelation.In these cases, healthy eating had morphed with snacking.Kid snacks had taken full advantage of health-conscious parents and sold crackers with the vegetable flavors that even adults couldn’t be expected to swallow, like spinach and kale.
On the shelves opposite the snacks were the beverages (non-alcoholic, as the booze needed to be cordoned off in another section altogether like the porno mags of the beverage world).Here the liquid choices were just as breathtaking.Iced-tea had flavors whose taste I couldn’t guess like cloudberry or yumberry pomegranate.Beside them were the energy drinks, shot through with caffeine, vitamins and performance and mood enhancing supplements that soon gave this section the look of a mini-pharmacy.
My daughters had skipped ahead.I heard them squealing one aisle over about cartoon characters they knew on boxes.When they brought the package to me, I too recognized Dora the Explorer, but I had forgotten completely what a fruit gusher was.A candy maybe or a potential real fruit product, like raisins?Again, the flavor on the packaging told me nothing – G Force Tropical Rage.The girls capitalized on my confusion by helping themselves to a box each and paraded around the store with them like trophies.The fruit gushers had come next to a host other products from the world of little tyke cuisine, where the big draw was that everything was lunchable or chewable.My wife had meanwhile gotten stuck on the juice box varieties, and, soon, asked for my help in hoisting a Value Pack of Juicy Juice into our cart.With the vegetable puffies and the straws on the boxes, my girls would barely need to use their hands at all to eat a purportedly balanced meal.
We proceeded to the granola and the breakfast cereals which I remembered how much I missed, as French culture never thought much of breakfast beyond croissants and coffee.There was also pancake mix and syrup and then the enormous loaves of sliced bread.To contrast again, the French categorize sliced loaves of bread as a something else altogether, since a baguette is a daily purchase.White slices in plastic bags are labeled “American bread,” suggesting it’s probably not bread at all.Since a fresh baguette is a daily purchase in the Francophone world, there’s little use for the slices.But in the New World, the corner bakery is a rare specialty shop, so the wide varieties of sliced bread, from oat bran to seven grain and then branching out to pita and tortilla wraps, surprised me.I took the liberty of adding multiple types to our cart for sampling purposes.
On the far end, the aisles opened into the produce.Whereas the snack foods came in endless taste options, the fruit and vegetables came in basics.The food was fresh, though the bananas looked altered to be more spotless and of a deeper yellow.At the adjacent meat department, the steaks looked pink and watery.More appetizing were the multiple brands of beef jerky hanging in pouches from the shelves throughout the store.I was tempted by the grass-fed, hickory-smoked gourmet jerky dangling at eye level in the tissue and toilet paper area.
But in keeping with paradox, there was an abundance of food on display desperate to announce its organicness.There were also more independent enterprises; the microbreweries alone far outnumbered the giant distilleries.There was great porter ale made just up the street that was crowding out the Budweiser.Again, I felt the need to toss this onto our pile.
The last item I picked up on the way out was a jar of peanut butter.“For sandwiches, you know, quick lunches,” I told my wife.
“What kind of sandwiches?” she wanted to know.She’d never considered the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in any way, a meal.For her, it was possibly a dessert or maybe something one feeds to pet hamsters.She was right about the high sugar content in peanut butter.Combine it with jelly and the sandwich is essentially no different in sweetness than a piece of birthday cake.But if you’re going to start impugning the PB & J sandwich to Americans, you might as well use the stars and stripes to towel off after using a bidet.I personally ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every weekday from maybe age six to age fifteen.Was this malnutrition?Not coming to any agreed-upon conclusions, we tossed on a single jar of Jiff.
We left the supermarket that day with a teetering mountain in our shopping cart and not enough cabinet or fridge space in our campervan to contain all these resplendent items.I choose, then, to meet this excess head-on by doubling down.The way to solve too much was to add just a bit more.So I decided to stop at another long pined-for dream factory: Dunkin Donuts.
The fabled donut shop was at the far end of the vast acreage of parking lot that held the grocery store.We drove there across a grid of empty spaces.Inside the establishment, the powdered sugar smell that seemed coated onto the walls and tabletops let me know I’d come to the right place.We selected a dozen and we sat down at a booth to dig in.It was the first time my daughters had ever eaten a donut.We opened the pink box like a treasure chest laid on formica.It took no convincing for the girls to help themselves.
Before I tucked in, I noticed that the atmosphere of Dunkin Donuts had changed.The design had been revamped since I’d last darkened one of their doors, possibly more than ten years ago.The donut shop was now something more sleek and sporty.The new logo slapped on every available surface looked like it belonged to a running shoe company and the colors inside suggested a business trying to look upscale and Web 2.0.Signs made reference to the DD Difference.I also noticed there were new things on the menu.I could order hash browns or cookies or maybe compliment my donuts with a toasted flatbread sandwich.The beloved shop with its foolproof formula of donuts and coffee was suffering from an identity crisis.
Maybe I was expecting a wee bit much from a nationwide chain, but the Dunkin Donuts I frequented on a Friday night after a high school football game or on Sunday mornings before my parents shuffled my siblings and I into church felt like a place where the customers completed the picture, where we were a part of the milieu.Now, I felt like a user on the receiving end of a strategy.
My wife, meanwhile, was skeptical all over.I tried to emphasize the fun of it – an exception, just this once.But my side of the argument was hopelessly flimsy.It is a position I find myself in more than I wish living outside American cultural norms in general and trying to prove any of its merits to my family in particular.Most things quintessential to this charmed way of life have by now been well-proven to be bad for your mental or physical health.Still agreeing with the detractors, specifically when outside of my country missing the warm and inviting atmosphere of a Dunkin Donuts, makes me feel like a murderous traitor.To non-Americans, most often to my wife, I would never fail to speak in defense of donuts, while I’d turn to the girls and remind them this was terrible, alarming junk food.But here we were.
I stood from the table with an oddly emboldened feeling like I’d just eaten several swatches of home insulation.With it, a soporific effect rushed to my head that dulled clarity and, at once, removed a measure of apprehension. We would head south or maybe west first.I was pretty sure.Either way, we would be fine.We’d just go.We had miles to tally up.I got behind the wheel of our equally stuffed vehicle and pushed off, ballooning into the countryside.
The donuts were, as always and despite their marketing teams best efforts to prod them elsewhere, heavenly.They convinced me I still belonged around here.I could power to the California redwoods with this knowledge.We would get lost in untouched wilderness that would appear in places I’d never expect.We would that find things all over the nation weren’t as bad we’d been made to believe.First though, before tearing for that horizon, I needed to lie down.