Whenever I visit a foreign country, I go to the supermarket. I’ve found myself pushing carts through supermarkets in countries, from Mexico and Lebanon, to Italy and Portugal. Not only does it help with my vocabulary, and provide a little glimpse of how the locals actually eat, but I invariably find a number of things to stash in my suitcase which are better souvenirs than t-shirts and refrigerator magnets. (Although someone once gave me a set of wooden refrigerator magnets depicting French foods, like tubes of Dijon mustard and canisters of grey salt, that I kinda love.)
Even though America isn’t really a foreign country to me, it’s interesting to see what’s available in the grocery stores when I visit. Sure, there’s no shortage of cookies, snacks, and soft drinks, but it’s also nice to see things like goat milk from nearby farms, tomatillos and plantains, raw honey, live seafood in tanks, bundles of stewing greens, and locally roasted coffee. On my current trip, I found it interesting to also scan the meat aisle because every once in a while, when I’m writing up a recipe for something – like cassoulet or beef bourguignon, I need to know what’s available elsewhere so that readers outside of France can actually make it.
Although there still are butchers in some places in America, they’re not as common as they are in France. (There are three within a 2-block radius of my apartment in Paris, not including the ones that are at my outdoor market.) If you don’t know what you want, or don’t speak French, it can be intimidating to have to stand there and make a decision when people are lined up behind you.
No matter. I’ve learned to ask a lot of questions and engage with butchers, since it’s the only way to learn. And most people who are good at what they do are proud to help customers make the best selection, so I take my time and don’t worry about it. And I often compare waiting in line in France to the lines for the restrooms on airplanes: You wait and wait and wait. But your turn comes around, suddenly you have all the time in the world. And I take it.