In the introduction to her new cookbook, Chocolate & Zucchini, Clotilde Dusoulier, writes about her American gastronomic epiphany. The undisputed darling du jour among female food bloggers, she recalls her fascination with U.S. supermarkets, where she first saw entire, central aisles devoted to breakfast cereals.
Mlle. Dusoulier is not alone. We still marvel at the mega-market in Burlington, Vermont, where we paced off 50 feet of shelf space packed with salsas. We couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the après ski staples, raclette and fondue. Since then, one of us has been harboring entrepreneurial dreams of launching ‘Tia Maria’s Catamount Salsa.’ He reasons that no salsa-dependent Vermonter could resist a product featuring a South-of-the-Border auntie and the official state feline.
Go into almost any North American supermarket and you’ll notice that the goods occupying most of the floor and shelf space are packaged—in paper, plastic, glass or metal. A lot of these goods, at the very heart of the merchandise space, are not even food: paper products, cleaning formulas, medications, cosmetics, stationery, books, magazines, even toys.
What we’ve come to realize is that we are not the customers for whom those central aisles are stocked. A friend (and marketing consultant for one of those center-aisle items) recently observed with some disdain: “You guys are peripheral shoppers.”
We’ve never willingly considered ourselves to be on the periphery of anything. Quite the contrary, we think of ourselves as pretty hip about lots of things—food shopping in particular. Our friend was referring to our modus operandi in a supermarket. And she’s right: no matter what supermarket we’re patronizing, almost everything we purchase is indeed from the perimeter of the store.
That’s because we do something that increasingly fewer Americans do: we cook from scratch. Furthermore, we don’t buy a lot of packaged food, and we get our non-comestibles elsewhere.
Think about it: fresh produce, breads, meat and fish, dairy products, cut flowers …
Sure, from time to time, we need the odd can of chickpeas, cannellini, or San Marzano tomatoes. We hit the pasta, rice, and olive oil when they’re a good buy. And we do need to turn down one of the aisles for the house wines we favor. But by and large, yes, we are peripheral shoppers—and completely unrepentant.
We’ve been thinking that peripheral shopping might actually have a certain amount of cachet. We can imagine a New Yorker cartoon featuring the familiar pair of Bowery bums sitting on a sidewalk. Leaning against a building, one says to the other, “I used to be a peripheral shopper until I got hooked on Chef Boyardee.”
We tested ourselves and found that our friend’s peripheral label sticks, even when we venture into the hallowed aisles of our local Whole Paycheck. Whether they’re organic or not, we give canned soups and “ready-in five-minutes” pad thai kits a miss as easily there as we do at our local supermarché ordinaire.
Somehow, you never hear the PA systems at K-Mart blast: “Attention Peripheral Shoppers…!” But if they ever do, they just might get our ear.