Friday, June 06, 2003

Odorless Supermarkets

Tuesday night I went with my wife and two daughters to the supermarket. We were in the neighborhood and decided on a whim to get some ice-cream to make sundaes, and a few other odds and ends. We entered the store and diverged in teams of two. I trailed along behind my 12 year old, who made a beeline for the bread section; she loves crusty breads, baguettes, that kind of thing. It's a favorite snack (along with snap peas, go figure).

So as she ran ahead, towards the bread, I flashed on an image of me having done the same kind of thing when I was her age, skittering ahead of my mother to where we were heading in the grocery store to select and make a case for the variant of the staple that I liked best (or disliked least in some cases). The flashback was strong, I remembered the store, a neighborhood market, with worn and warped wooden floors, and shelves that seemed more loosely grouped than regimented by product rows. But the thing I remembered most in that flashback, were the odors from that old store.

When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time in grocery stores that had odors, places where you could smell the food the minute you walked in. So on Tuesday night, as I stood there in the supermarket, with its garish lights, and abundance, was the absence of scent. Even in the bread section, there was no smell of fresh baked bread. Even in the vegetable section, where fruits and vegetables are laid out, there was no odor of fresh vegetables. And forget about meats and cheeses, which are shrinkwrapped, boxed, cellophaned and styrofoamed into odorless units. Between the packaging, the cavernous size of more and more supermarkets, and the air conditioning, 1/3 of the intimacy and sensuality of food shopping (texture and taste being the other two thirds) evaporates. I think it literally evaporates into the large cavernous spaces of the modern supermarket, with its broad expanses and conditioned air. The odors are either locked in plastic or pushed out by filtered air.

Stores should be clean, of course, but shopping for food shouldn't be so sterile, so plastic, so distant from the olfactory pleasures food can offer.

This summer, if you find a small neighborhood grocery store with good produce, meats, and cheeses, breathe deep, and remember that scent, a mixture of earth and green and fruit, the smell of tomatoes, of an orange's pectin, of arugula, of corn, the flavors of cheese in the air, that sort of tangy sweet muskiness of combined meat odors, that all together mix and give the store its own perfume. Remember that scent the next time you stand in a large supermarket and can't smell anything.

Small stores with fresh vegetables, with cheeses and meats that hang by cord above the counters where you order your slices and cuts, with baskets of beans that you scoop into bags on your own, with stacks of potatoes and beets; small stores with lower ceiling, narrower aisles, those are places where you can still smell food when you walk in, where you can look at it, ask about it, get small tastes of this and that. If you've a store like that in your neighborhood, visit it often.

And shop there too, buy something, keep it in place. Your food will taste better if you do.

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