What’s your favorite London monument? Big Ben? Westminster Abbey? The Tower? Buckingham Palace?
Tesco sets my pulse racing. (Yes, I’m serious.) My first summer in London, I had the good fortune to be a stone’s throw from the gargantuan Tesco on Cromwell Road. It was my first stop after unpacking, which took about thirty seconds because the flat was precisely the length of both of my arms outstretched. The addition of a bathtub doubled the square footage – a bathtub for which I was truly grateful, as it was private, mine-all-mine, while other flats in the building had to share. As it was, the coved ceiling over the tub meant that (a) only hobbits could stand upright in the shower and (b) the curtain rod was actually lower than the shower head, so any attempt at showering produced a flood. My solution: crouch in tub with shower head detached and angled down, into tub; rinse; turn off water; lather soap; rinse; turn off water; shampoo; rinse; turn off water; feel leg muscles going numb; massage calf cramps. Dress.
Then it was onto Tesco. Living in England, chapter 1, page 1.
You can learn so much from the grocery store. For all its beauty, Westminster Abbey doesn’t tell me much about what it’s like to live in London. If I want to get to know an country, I need to know what fuels it. And the sheer fact that there was an entire aisle dedicated solely to bacon told me that this was a country that would never run out of surprises.
Bacon was a revelation. In America, hickory or maple flavor notwithstanding, bacon is just bacon. But within this British cathedral of food, bacon had its own chapel. Streaky bacon, bacon rashers, back bacon, smoked and unsmoked, lardons – it was a cornucopia of cured porcine sacrifice. Then there was the dairy aisle. “Cream” in America means either heavy cream or heavy whipping cream, which aren’t appreciably different as far as I’m concerned. But the magical wonderland that was my nearest Sainsbury’s had a veritable nave of cream offerings, outfitted with a clerestory of labels in jeweled tones proclaiming “single cream,” “double cream,” “extra thick double cream,” and “clotted cream.” A solemn walk down this holy aisle was a meditation on fat itself. I bought one of each.
Streaky bacon, bacon rashers, back bacon, smoked and unsmoked, lardons – it was a cornucopia of cured porcine sacrifice.
And we’re not even close to finished! Moving onto condiments – a rather mundane aisle in America, mostly just rows upon rows, in Warholian fashion, of mustard, ketchup, hot sauce that isn’t very hot, barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise. But in Britain, there are sauces and “table sauces.” In these early days, before I had so many bacon sandwiches under my belt, it was all I could do not to flag down the nearest shopper and ask where exactly they stored all the other sauces not designated for the table – on the floor? In the glove compartment? Where did sauces go if not on the table? It was wonderful.
Pretty much any grocery store will do, but I am partial to Tesco and Sainsbury’s for reasons both emotional and practical. (I lived across the street from the former on my first summer in London, and across from the latter two years later.) Neither offers a particularly luxurious shopping experience. Whole Foods has been in London for some years now, but I couldn’t care less. If I feel the need to buy chocolate buttons I don’t need and overpay for cheese, I can do that on this side of the Atlantic. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer food halls are perfectly fine but simply cannot compete with the vastness of Tesco or Sainsbury’s.
American supermarkets are, on average, bigger than the Vatican, but for all that space, you’ll only find a few different shapes of dried pasta. There is a whole pasta universe out there, and American grocery stores only scratch the surface. If you’re looking for spaghetti, linguini, or rotini, you’re cool. Maybe even orecchiette announced by a fancy, sepia-toned label featuring an Italian nonna (but it’s going to cost more). But bucatini? Not likely. Radiatore? Probably not.
There is a whole pasta universe out there, and American grocery stores only scratch the surface.
A dear friend of mine who is originally from Yorkshire but has spent enough time in America to have his accent thoroughly fucked up put it best. He’d expected American grocery stores to have the endless variety that cathedrals of capitalism should proffer – boxes of bavette and conchiglie falling over each other – and found instead about six different kinds of pasta made by twenty-six different companies. The only variety was in the name on the box.
So British grocery stores thrill me. The cathedral-like expanse of aisle upon aisle of foodstuffs in Tesco and Sainsbury’s is utterly awe-inspiring. Honestly, I might as well be in Westminster Abbey.