By: Jacob Mattie, Peak Associate
I have a few small grocery stores close to where I live — not small like that Safeway without a decent bakery section, or even the Buy-Low Foods you can fully explore in a few aisles. I mean the kind of small where the employee stocking the shelves also runs the cash register and the company uniform is whatever they decided to wear that day.
I was drawn to one by the surprisingly affordable produce laid out in front and was surprised by the products offered inside. Rather than being faced with eight different types of peanut butter (almost all of them identical, and yet somehow lacking crunch without added sugar), the shelves were stocked with ingredients I’d never seen before. Cactus slices in oil; more types of pickled foods than I’d ever imagined; arrays of spices (I’d had no idea you could buy whole curry leaves); and fruits, vegetables, and meats I’d never seen before in grocery chains.
It brought to mind a conversation I’d had with a friend a long time ago. She’d been doing policy work, trying to protect the exact types of stores in which I was now standing. She’d emphasized how much of a culture is drawn from the foods we eat. More than just a food source, a culture’s recipes provide a link to peoples’ histories, and their sharing has offered a way to connect with elders.
There are plenty of discussions around the importance of food to culture — to the point where several culinary practices have been recognized on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, and such practices are formally studied under the field of food anthropology.
Of course, central to a recipe is the ingredients used. Standing in the local grocer, surrounded by unique ingredients, really drove home the number of foods people have learned to use and the number of recipes that exist beyond what can be made with foods bought from the common supermarket.
As customers migrate from local grocery stores to supermarkets, small store owners are forced to either close or raise their prices — making specialty ingredients less accessible to those that would be looking for them. With the erosion of food culture, the history that can be passed between generations is reduced, and so too does the richness of the cultures that make our city so vibrant.
When you next find yourself out shopping for groceries or looking for a way to add a bit of variety to your pantry, stop by an independent grocery store. They play an important role in the cultures that surround us and would really appreciate the financial support.