Hear me out. I know that to understand Irish culture, you need to visit the pubs, but for me, the most underappreciated establishment for any culture is the grocery store. It’s the commonality between almost everyone in every country around the world.
Roam the aisles and cast your eyes on the foreign variety of biscuits and beer, frozen foods and chocolate bars. I absolutely love experiencing the local Lidls and Tescos, the Carrefours and Aldis. Food is at the heart of every culture and these shops are where your average Juan and Maríah Sixpack grab their essentials.
I’d argue that you learn as much about a culture by visiting their food marts as you do from their museums. Sure, museums will teach you their history, but the grocery store will tell you who they are.
Among my favorite pastimes in Ireland, for example, is to hit the petrol stations and peruse the sheer volume of crisps: gammon and cheese; scampi; buffalo; Irish stew; Wuster sauce; chorizo and cherry tomato; bacon and cabbage. It seems endless and that’s before considering the styles like chipsticks, hula hoops, potato puffs and waffles.
And it’s not just what the stores stock, it’s what they don’t. I searched high and low through store after store in Romania before I found a container of maple syrup. It made me appreciate not only the different offerings they stocked, but what I had back at home. Speaking of which, I’d like to offer a shout-out to the cashier lady at our local Carrefour in Sebeș, Romania. For three months, the other half and I saw her almost every day and not once did she crack a smile. After months, the shop’s security officer wouldn’t stop following us around through the aisles. I wanted to pull him aside and explain that Libby and I probably spent as much in the store as a family of eight. But I digress.
Anyhoo, a grocery store will tell you what the average home puts on their plates day after day. In Spain there’s plenty of rice and seafood, in Germany, local sausages and infinite beer, in Puerto Rico, tropical fruits and corn flour.
I was in a small shop on the island of Curacao. The shop wasn’t busy at all, but there were four lanes, each with cashiers and baggers. There was no waiting. I zipped through. When I made an off-hand remark to one of the locals in the parking lot, he informed me that that’s common down there.
Conversely, he said, you can’t always find what you want. There might be days without salsa, or seasons where certain produce just isn’t available. One just needs to be ready to adjust based on the offerings. It dawned on me that that’s not the worst thing.
There was a child running a corner store in Córdoba, Spain, probably ten-years-old. I was looking through packages of biscuits and she pointed to a container of butter cookies, a selection I likely wouldn’t have chosen. But she was right. I brought them home and Libby and I devoured the entire package with cups of tea.
Are international flights not in the cards for you? Not to worry. The offerings in the southwest are quite different from the northeast, from dried hatch chilis to local wines to beef tongue. One of my favorite shops is in Abiquiú, New Mexico. Called Bodes General store, it serves a small community of 231. It’s a gas station that sells just about everything you can imagine, from cattle feed to hats, local wine to frozen meals.
There’s a food takeout window inside Bodes where you can grab a cup of chili or freshly made tamales, load up on their baked pastries and snack as you drive past craggy red rocks and desert. It’s an experience, let me tell you.
And for those of you not in a traveling mood, may I suggest you make use of import shops and Irish bakeries, some of which you can find advertising in iIrish. If you’re new to Irish cuisine, here are some of the items it is compulsory to start with: Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps, Irish sausages, vegetable soup, Cadbury Dairy Fruit and Nut bars, and Smarties. I’m not saying you want to make a diet based on these things, but…well, if you add potatoes, you should be okay.
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