Must Every Question Have a One-Size-Fits-All, Yes/No Answer?

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Or: In Defense of Ethic/International/Specialty Food Sections in Stores

In Boston, it helped to learn that what I bought as Swai was a kind of catfish. Blame regulators, not grocers. (Image by Brücke-Osteuropa, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
Over at the The Counter, a self-described "non-partisan" site that investigates "the forces shaping how and what America eats" is a short post that asks Do grocery stores really need an ethnic aisle?

The piece notes the origins of such aisles and concedes that customers and suppliers don't have a settled answer on whether such aisles are necessary:
After World War II, grocery stores created ethnic aisles to provide returning vets with foods they had eaten overseas in countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan. But as The New York Times reports, while European cuisines like Italian food have moved into the store's general population of items, others like Indian food can't seem to shake the ethnic label.
The reasons for that last observation would seem to be straightforward to just about anyone familiar with the original heritage of -- and historical patterns of immigration to -- the United States. There are simply many more people of Italian descent than Indian descent here, on top of there having been a large influx of the former long-enough ago that their food does not seem unusual to most of the people here.

Put another way, someone from what the coastal establishment might call flyover country probably already knows what spaghetti is and where to find it. No so with even common Indian ingredients, to carry on with that example. I love Indian food, but I had no idea I could buy ghee (clarified butter) in the local grocery store until I happened to spot jars of it in the section specializing in Asian cuisine. (I was looking for ingredients for a Thai curry that day.)

On the flip side of the experience, I was thrilled back in my Boston days to find a Southern Cuisine section in the ethnic food aisle of the grocer there. While I was happy to dive into what the locals ate, it was nice to know I could very easily find more familiar things when I was in the mood. There were even jars of roux (a thickening agent I find tedious/impossible to make well) on offer, for example.

It would never have occurred to me to ask -- much less hunt around -- for roux up North than for ghee here, in southern suburbia.

Of course, it would make no sense for an ingredient to be sequestered in an ethnic foods aisle in an area where such things are well-known. Consider Houston, where I enjoyed living for seventeen years. The Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana are common enough there -- but not in some other areas even of the South that it would be silly to place some of those items in an ethnic aisle there, while it wouldn't elsewhere. Double for Mexican food: It didn't have its own section where I shopped in Houston, but it does, rightly, in Florida.

Depending on the context of what a given store's customers may or may not need help finding, placing items on an ethnic aisle can be extremely helpful. What isn't helpful is to question the motives of a practice that started with an attempt to help Americans find things they discovered abroad and wanted to try again:
Others question the motivation of corralling ethnic items into a single aisle in a country where about 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. If everyone has an ethnicity, why is it that only some products carry the label? The former vice president of grocery at Whole Foods described the practice as "a legacy of white supremacy and colonialism."
I think the motive is not only more innocent, but positive, akin to the delight that Steven Johnson speaks of in his excellent Wonderland, which discusses the origins of the spice trade, which long pre-dates the mixed legacy of European colonialism, for what it's worth.

And, while we're on the subject of jerks looking for excuses to find offense, I would have to ask the former grocery executive quoted above what the strange appearance of a British Foods section in a store I frequent would be an example of: white supremacy or colonialism? Call me crazy, but there might be a British expat population around here. And has he ever heard of the Asian condiment known to some as ... soy sauce? Last time I checked, that's frequently in the regular condiment aisle everywhere, even when there is also a specialized aisle with Asian cuisines.

Whether a store has an ethnic food aisle/international cuisines/specialty foods section, what to call it, and what it decides should go there depend on many factors that grocer will know about best. It is ridiculous to ask from afar whether "grocery stores" "really need" to help customers find things this way and insulting to insinuate bigotry in the bargain. The real answer to this question is: "It depends, and the market will reward or punish the answer accordingly."

Over the years, I have found that ethnic food aisles have been both a great way to experience other parts of the world and to take a short trip home. I, for one, am grateful they exist.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I didn't see it mentioned, but my wife and I have found an additional benefit of having ethnic aisles: you can find the stuff you need to make the meal more or less all together. Asian cuisine uses different ingredients than, say, British or Mexican--even if some are the same, there are enough differences that having the ingredients clustered is helpful. I know where to find fish sauce, short-grained rice, bean sprouts, and rice paper; I don't need to hunt through the whole store to find these.

Broadly speaking there are two ways to organize ingredients: by type or by use. Ethnic sections of grocery stores organize by use. There's nothing wrong with that--it's just a different way to put stuff on shelves.

As an aside, when we were living in CA we found whole stores segregated by cuisine. I loved going to the Middle Eastern or Chinese or Korean grocery stores--the sheer breadth of potential foods was amazing. I never realized just how many types of flat bread there were, for example. We'd go to these once a month or so and try random things. Some were good, some not, but the experience was always worth it. We'd ask the folks shopping there what they'd recommend, and almost every time the person would be excited that we were taking an interest in their culture.

Gus Van Horn said...


Great point about ingredient clustering.

Back in Maryland, I found myself using a Chinese grocery sometimes for spices: Their selection was much better than in more run-of-the-mill stores and I could buy large amounts for much less. I also tried using one in Boston when I learned that I could buy crawfish there -- but they were whole, so I went with an online Cajun Grocer for pre-cooked and shelled whenever I wanted etoufee, instead.

Money -- including next-day shipping of frozen merchandise -- vs. time and tedium there.