Today I took my first post-France trip to an American grocery store. After nine months of piping hot baguettes, fresh organic farm vegetables and full-on cream yogurts, I was not at all prepared for what I found at my local Rainbow Foods.
Upon walking into the store, the size alone shocked me. The ceiling nearly touched the sky and I couldn’t see from one end to the other. But that was only the beginning.
Daily Planet contributor Colette Davidson is currently living in France. This essay was written during her most recent return trip to Minnesota.
As I entered the vegetable aisle, I was bombarded by oversized squash, mammoth watermelons, bin-busting tangles of grapes, and enormous bags of lettuce. How could one—even four—people consume that many legumes before everything began to rot? I was momentarily reminded of the two small tomatoes, three carrots, one head of lettuce, and three mushrooms that were the result of my market shopping in France.
Avoiding the salad dressing section (I never was much of a Ranch fan), I moved towards the organic foods. Ah, yes. I had discovered what I had been missing since I’d come back to my homeland six days ago. Soy drinks and cashews, self-serve granola, and yogurt-covered protein bars. Thai noodle mixes, wafer crackers and vitamins to the sky! Perhaps American cuisine wasn’t going down the tubes after all.
But then it happened: the snack aisle.
I hadn’t even been back in the country a week, and the culture shock was too much for me. I nearly had a panic attack as I saw potato chip bags the size of my head, Doritos in eight bazillion flavors, chocolate chip cookies galore, and at least three new kinds of Oreos. Before I knew what was happening, I was walking back towards the entrance of the store to find myself a shopping basket.
In went Cheez-Its, Mint n’ Cream Oreos, and two different flavors of Doritos. No fat nor flavor was spared. When I reached the end of the aisle, a pang of guilt plunged into my side and I almost turned back to return everything to the shelf, but I held strong and carried on.
Next was the dairy section, a sight to behold. After being endlessly chastised by the French for eating pasteurized everything, I willingly grabbed packs of cheddar, havarti, and string cheese. I found my precious lactose-free milk, Philadelphia’s Original cream cheese, and a decent “thick and creamy” yogurt. The French would have been cynical about my selections, but I was already imagining my first book: 101 Ways to Do Dairy.
Nearing the end of my trip, I walked past the bakery section, skeptically eyeing the “croissants” and “baguettes.” Did those people at Rainbow Foods really think they could replicate some of France’s true masterpieces? There was only one way to find out, of course, and so I piled a few baked goods into my basket.
On my way to the checkout counter, I gave one last look around. What else did I need? Meat? Don’t eat it. Dairy? Got it. Fruits and vegetables? Don’t need ‘em. Snack items? Got ‘em, got ‘em, and got ‘em again.
Got ‘em? Plural? I had a panic attack, and returned most of my stash back onto the shelves. Then I walked feebly back to the front of the store, dropping BBQ sauce and a pack of Wildberry Frost gum into my basket.
“Hello, there. Did you find everything okay today?” the checkout girl asked in a sweet Midwestern accent.
“Yep,” I said, half-smiling. Were we friends? Did we need to be so jolly towards one another? I realized then how entirely Frenchified I had become. The “Minnesota nice” was going to send me into hysterics.
I paid $12.41 and carefully packed up my goods into a brown paper bag. There were 15 other checkout lanes, so why rush myself? When all was said and done, I had purchased a box of Cheez-Its, a box of Banana Nut Crunch cereal, cream cheese, two packs of gum, soy milk, one yogurt, a bottle of Perrier, and a bottle of BBQ sauce.
As I got into my car, I began to think about the fat crisis in America versus the slender trend in France. It’s not that the question should be, “Why don’t French women get fat,” but instead, “Why aren’t all Americans morbidly obese?” With potato chips, fatty cheeses, and sugary soft drinks galore, it’s really a wonder how anyone has control over their waistline. When a majority of the food is pre-packaged and power-sugared, how can people not get fat? Talk about “three meals a day” and “enjoying your food” as much as you want—if you’re eating chemically-altered foods all day long, you probably won’t fit into your pants by the end of the year.
Can Americans tame the sugar industry? Is it possible to replicate the French and trim our waistlines while eating whatever we want? I think not—the food we Americans choose to eat is so very different than the food the French choose. While the French are piling homemade sausage and aged cheese onto their plates, Americans are eating processed pepperoni and Kraft singles. (Okay, maybe the cheese is low-fat.)
In order for Americans to get healthy, we have to get back to our roots and stop eating so much faux food. Enough with “thiamin mononitrate,” “pyridoxine hydrochloride,” and “yellow no. 5.” Give me ingredients that exist in nature—and that I can pronounce.
When I arrived home after a 15-minute car ride (oh, how I missed France’s walking culture already!), I unpacked my new American groceries and deliberated over what to eat first. Going on instinct, I opened my much-missed Oreos and bit into one with a burning passion. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor was, how incredibly rich and chocolatey. Just one more, I decided. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor…okay, just one more.
After my fourth delectable sandwich-cookie, I felt happy, satisfied and increasingly bloated. If only someone could just pop me, then I could eat some more. I was so full, so very, very “double stuffed,” yet I wanted another one. Maybe if I just had two more cookies, in fact, it would be okay.
I checked the nutrition facts on the back of the bag and considered putting the cookie down, but the offender in question was already in my mouth, working its way around my repatriated palate. As the sugary goodness burned its way down my throat, I knew then and there that my pants size would never be the same.