At a time when farmers' markets, boutique grocers, and artisan bakeries arethe go-to places for food-savvy shoppers, supermarkets get a bad rap assymbols of corporate homogenization and the dumbing-down of taste. That maybe true to some degree, but if the two of us have learned anything from our travels around the country to research our Roadfood books and website, it's that a stroll through atown's local supermarket can be every bit as enlightening as a visit to an open-air marketin an exotic, faraway place. We like supermarkets because they're practical and big and easy to navigate, sure; but more than that, we love them because, like all markets, they are portraits of the way people cook and eat.
For one thing, consider this: there is hardly a more revealing way to study human nature than to look into customers' loaded shopping carts. Call it culinary anthropology or just plain voyeurism, but over the years, the act of extrapolating life stories from supermarket shopping carts has become something of an obsession for us. The contents can make as unequivocal a statement as whole grains scooped into recyclable bags with biodynamic vegetables or, conversely, Wonder bread, Sno Balls, and family-size jugs of Pepto-Bismol. There's the lazy cart (nothing but frozen dinners and deli salads), the square-meals cart (pot roast, potatoes, a brick of ice cream, a can of Maxwell House), the multiple-personality-disorder cart (Fruit Loops and actual fruit; Weight Watchers desserts and Double Stuf Oreos), and so on.
If the contents of a shopping cart are a portrait of a person, then the contents of the store reveal something even bigger. Browsing the aisles of even a seemingly cookie-cutter ultra-mega-market can serve as a sort of edible GPS. If you doubt that, just look at what takes center stage in the cured-meat cooler: country ham? Andouille sausage? Scrapple? Goetta? Streak o'lean? Chorizo? Or is it smoked whitefish and lox, or maybe vegan soysage? Does the store smell of chocolate chip cookies or garlicky old-world salamis? Of smoldering alder wood from a smokehouse out back or of briny seawater from lobster pots in the fish section? Check out the chips, soda, candy, and bread; we'll wager that, next to the Cheetos and Baked Lays, there are brands on the shelves that you can't get a hundred or two hundred miles away.
We are firm believers in grocery store sightseeing, and we seldom leave a place without a trunkload of edible souvenirs purchased at the local Safeway or Piggly Wiggly or Jewel-Osco or Pathmark. If we're in Clarksburg, West Virginia (one of the best places in America for Italian food, thanks to the Italian miners and railroad workers who settled there), we head to Oliverio's Cash & Carry (427 Clark Street; 800/296-4959) and stock up on the peppery olive salad, the pickled vegetables, and the pasta sauces made by the family that runs the place. In Louisiana Cajun country, it's common for butchers in supermarket meat departments to make pork and rice boudin sausage on tables directly behind the meat section's display cases. They sell it by the link from hot boxes near the cash register, and many customers snack on it as soon as they buy it, chitchatting with one another as they walk to their cars.
Indeed, supermarkets can be fine places to eat, too. One of the best, in our opinion, is the West Point Market of Akron, Ohio (1711 West Market Street; www.westpointmarket.com), which combines the high-end panache of London's Harrods with the personal charm of a Midwestern town grocery store. The ceilings are low, the lighting is soft, the room is quiet—an ideal setting for enjoying the market's downright delicious chicken pot pie, mac and cheese, and other home-style comfort foods at the in-store café. And at Lunds & Byerly's, the Minnesota-based chain (www.lundsandbyerlys.com), you can belly up to a table and have eggs with wild rice sausage for breakfast or local broiled walleye for lunch. At Stew Leonard's supermarkets around Connecticut (www.stewleonards.com), we've enjoyed many a lobster roll with buttered corn on their breezy patio. And in Austin, Texas, the Whole Foods Market flagship store (www.wholefoodsmarket.com) contains a slew of eateries, from a barbecue stand to a raw bar; you can even pop open a bottle of wine, as long as it's one you bought at the store. A member of the staff will pour it into a nice glass for you, and there's no corkage fee, which is more than we can say for many of our favorite restaurants. —Jane and Michael Stern, SAVEUR contributing editors and authors of Roadfood.com