Thursday, January 9, 2014

Supermarket Mayhem

Lesson #1: British markets carry many items not found at home!

I like to think of myself as a grocery shopping guru. As a home-schooler from a family with 6 kids, I spent a lot of time perusing the produce. And I will never forget my mom's delight when the Grocery God came to town and she could consolidate from two normal-sized Safeway carts to one giant Costco caboose.

Suffice it to say that I feel totally at home (heck, it's like a second home) in a grocery store. I can shopping list, meal plan, store-map and coupon with the best of them. Well, maybe not the crazy ladies on Extreme Couponing, but close.

Yet American supermarkets did nothing to prepare me for the other-world that is British grocery shopping.

What's different about this photo? What are you not used to seeing on a shelf next to sauces and snacks?
For the first few weeks, partly from the fear of British driving, I stayed on base and shopped at the commissary. I knew those days were limited, however, as we would be moving far away from the closest base. So with GPS in hand (literally, my phone doesn't have a windshield display) and prayers in my heart, Avinly and I headed to Sainsbury's, a popular UK supermarket. How bad could it be?

Well, for starters, my Honda Odyssey compared to most British vehicles looks like Shawn Johnson standing next to Yao Ming. For some odd reason, all parking spaces in the UK (and if you can find a store with a parking lot, latch on and never let go) accordingly cater to the Shawn Johnsons of the auto world. Meanwhile, poor, awkward Yao is left straddling two non-existent spaces and praying little Shawn has good insurance.

No percentages -- or gallons -- here! Just levels of skimmed and pints.
Once I got through the heart palpitations of parking, with Avinly strapped into the front pack, I tried to find a cart. Except I discovered that most stores here charge for that privilege (I have a running theory that, between their money-grabbing carts, pitiful sidewalks, and no-gun and no-stopping-for-school-buses rule, the Brits are not fond of women and children). You get the money back, but did this rookie know to bring change with her? I'll let you guess.

So I may or may not have snuck one out of the corral before the cart cops could catch me.

What we call candy, they call sweets or confections.
Once I made it inside, a whirl of activity greeted me. Everyone knew where they were going and what they were doing, except me. Thankfully, I am pleased to report that British toddlers hate grocery shopping just as much as their American counterparts, though the punishment and rewards promised by their mothers is different.

"Harry, sit up right now or no biscuits [translation: cookies] for you tonight!"

"Emma Jane, if you don't stop that rousin' about, Father Christmas will turn off your telly!"

They don't sell ice cream in cartons. They're tubs.
Otherwise, everything is foreign from my beloved Lancaster Safeway. Carts are smaller or shaped differently. Checkers sit down while ringing up your purchases. Hand-held scanners (like those for wedding and baby registries) are options. Coupons are non-existent (just writing that hurts me!). And so are bag boys and nice men who carry your load out to the car for you while you try to strap every small human in as quickly as possibly in the driving rain. It's like Winco service with Whole Foods prices.

The Brits are a hardy lot, I'm thinking.

I know "Cornish" refers to the area where it comes from...but all I can think of is corn ice cream.

In the States, no matter what store you visit, most items will be similarly grouped. So the baking aisle will always have pie crusts, chocolate chips, flour and sweeten condensed milk, for instance. Not so here.

The map of a grocery store in Great Britain isn't even related to its American counterpart. Hence, the vinegars on top of a freezer chest, for starters. But hey, at least I am getting plenty of exercise here.

It never fails to make me laugh: "Wonky wheels? Please let us know."
Though we have similar diets, Sainsbury's and Tesco's ("I believe Tesco's is our Wal-Mart," a mother at play group told me. "Isn't your Wal-Mart a wee low class?") do NOT carry many items that Nick and I consider standard. Like chocolate chips, ranch dressing, minced garlic, salsa verde and rice rusks for Avinly.

So to get around that, I make two lists: one for King's Lynn (the larger town near Gayton where I shop weekly) and one for the far-flung commissary (a monthly trip). And thanks to some home-sick Canadians, I might start tacking on a few extra items on my base trips.

What we would call "X's & O's," they call "Noughts & Crosses." It's never simple with these Brits, but always proper.
And even when they do carry the same items, they often call it by a different name. Cilantro, for instance. It took me weeks to figure out it goes by the term coriander this side of the globe!

Similarly, coconut isn't flaked, it's "desiccated," oatmeal is porridge, wheat flour is "stone ground" and English muffins are crumpets. Oh, how the light bulb went off on that last one.

Nick was so grateful that his beloved Golden Grahams live on, though through Nestle instead of General Mills. I had to burst his bubble, however, when I told him that unless the price drops by a whole heckuva lot, this will be the only box he eats for the next four years.

They're really English muffins!
And the cost! Holy Moses, you can't even blame the exchange rate on the sky-high food prices here. I can't believe I ever thought Safeway was ripping customers off for charging 54 cents a pound for bananas. How I long for those naive, carefree days...

To the old lady who was worried I was having an asthma attack on Aisle 5: I was merely hyperventilating. I had just realized the price tags were using pounds instead of dollars.

Can you imagine what Gloria Steinem would think of this?!

No longer is the fruit from Mexico. Instead, we find exotic, spiky things from Morocco, Greece, Spain and even South Africa.

Jack and I have yet to figure out what this is, as labeling things isn't a real high priority here.
One brilliant invention that America should definitely copy: carts with platforms for infant car seats. Much safer than the "try to lock it onto the cart handlebars" dance.

Like I mentioned earlier, they have different names. Another twist: different spellings for those different names. I present to you...Pyjama Pants! AKA night-time pull-ups.

Since Europe is so international, England's grocery store are appropriately international. As in, they have aisles for Poland, Italy, Russia and Mexico.

Well, a small section of an aisle for Mexico, anyways. I never realized how often I cooked Tex-Mex until we moved here. Though I know I won't find them, for some reason I keep scouring the shelves for the refried beans, chili peppers and enchilada sauce that just don't exist.

The largest jar of salsa I could locate (which turned out to be a thin, watery red sauce) is 300 grams. That's about 10 and 1/2 ounces, folks. I'm seeing a marathon salsa-canning session in my future...

What England lacks in American standards they make up for with incredibly unique (to me) treasures...

Not recommended, by the way. :-)

My mom would dig this.
Several times, I've had to ask people for help. "Can you tell me what this is?" I ask. They hear my American accent and smile. Sometimes, they know the answer and sometimes they don't. Sometimes, I end up buying laundry detergent solely because there is a baby on the box, and well, I have a baby, too.

It's a very humbling experience. I feel a sudden sense of understanding and connection with the fresh-into-the-country Russians and Mexicans back home in Salem.

But hey, they're free range!

The Brits, I have learned, put anything and everything in vinegar.

Because tap water just won't do. I, on the other hand, can't remember the last time I turned my iron on.
The best part about being a British consumer? Easy access to Cadbury's products. The variety thrills me, though I may have to up my miles to compensate.

You haven't lived until you have had this spread on toast. Or rice cakes. Or a spoon.
The States has at least four different names for pop (can you tell where I'm from?). None of them, however, rival the Brits' word for it:

Remember how the world mocked us for certain restaurants and consumers changing French fries to "Freedom Fries" in the year after 9-11? Well, apparently we're not the only ones who have a little national pride over a product that we didn't make famous.

Until now, you thought that delicious green veggie was a Brussel sprout. Think again.

Even the aisle signs identify their contents just a little differently.

Did you know British cows have super-powers? They are the Tuck Everlastings of Livestock.

This milk isn't powdered, or made of something like rice, almond or soy. It's actual cow's milk, unrefrigerated.
But hey, the Brits are nothing if not honest.

"Did you see that Tesco's has an American section now?" someone asked me the other day. Yes, I had seen. And nearly fainted when I saw the price of Oreos. (Okay, the price of everything. Apparently my body can handle natural childbirth but not European food pricing).

Remember, a pound is worth about $1.65 right now!
Avinly and I successfully made it home. "That was seriously one of the more stressful experiences I've had in a long time," I told Nick. But then I remembered my friends Kim and Jed who moved from Salem to Ukraine just a few days after we moved here. They grocery shop without the benefit of a car or even speaking the language!

Seeing as how I'll go grocery shopping approximately 192 more times while living here, I'm sure I'll get used to it. And then when we get stationed somewhere in the States, I'll probably go through this all over again.

Year: 2018. Setting: a Piggly Wiggly in the South.

Me: "What do you mean you don't have any marmite?!?!" 

Until then, I'm sticking (and stockpiling, shhh) my Cadbury's.