Posted by Adam @ 2:03 pm on February 17th 2007

The US for limeys, part 1: supermarkets

A hard-hitting series providing a penetrating look at the dullest parts of life and how they differ between the US and the UK.

You find yourself in an American supermarket. The trolley only has two steerable wheels and won’t steer like you’re used to (this is why wearing a gun into a supermarket is frowned upon, since the Great Dubuque TrolleyRage Mass Shooting*). People are much more polite to each other in supermarkets than they are in the UK, although old ladies are as irritating as they are everywhere. When you find the thing that you are looking for, stand back; there be may be 10 different brands, nearly identically priced for the same size. Pick the one with the packaging that speaks to you, as an individual. Remember, it’s not just a choice, it’s a lifestyle accessory. Today, the wrong gravy granules, tomorrow, divorced and refused credit. Don’t just take my word for it; watch television advertising.

Crisps here generally only come in big bags with no cheese and onion. There are Wotsits analogues, but no Monster Munch. The packaging on the various crisp brands promises variations in flavour that are clearly too subtle for your coarse, oafish palate to discern. You can also get 10 different sorts of identical-tasting taco-ey things for dipping in unpleasant tasting salsa in jars bearing an expiration date 5 years into the future.

And that reminds me. Milk and bread here lasts what can only be described as a spooky amount of time. Sliced bread is expensive and generally not that good; milk is cheap and good, with your choice from a wide range of fat contents and cow locations. Orange Juice is also cheap and good, but I have never been able to afford enough of it in the UK to have any idea how long it is supposed to last. Eggs are bizarrely cheap and they last for ages. I suspect radioactively mutated chickens that live in boxes that are smaller than their own physical volume. Vegetable selections are often good, and the vegetables last for a long time. I prefer to think that this is because they are so fresh.

Most of the time, the supermarket will have so few customers that you wonder how they make money. The huge carpark outside will be mostly empty, apart from 3 cars prowling around waiting for someone to drive away from one of the spaces nearest the store. You may see people get in their car and drive 500 yards to the other side of the parking lot to another store. This is normal.

Important: Depending on which state you are in, you may find problems locating booze. In New York state, for example, you can buy beer pretty much anywhere (including petrol stations) but have to buy wine or spirits at a liquor store, which seem to be about the only places that aren’t allowed to sell beer. In NJ, you can’t buy any booze in a supermarket unless they have a separate section that sells it and you have to pay for it in there. Cider here is generally non-alcoholic, unless it isn’t. A US cup is 8 fluid ounces, not 10, and a US pint is 16 fluid ounces, not 20. American beer is, in fact, stronger than you think it is.

Don’t be confused by the lack of screaming children being angrily smacked by harassed parents; it’s still a supermarket. Just wait for an old lady to veer sideways and run her trolley into your legs if you don’t believe me.

For those moments when you really don’t have time to make mashed potatoes but you have to have them, you can buy mashed potatoes. Also fried chicken, 4 different sorts of potato salad, family-sized steaks and 50 different sorts of cookie. Biscuits here are more like scones, but fluffier. Chocolate doesn’t taste the same, but you’ll get used to it. Under no circumstances buy American tea; they tend to drink it without milk or flavour, so you’ll need to try and locate some English or Irish tea (many supermarkets have a section for filthy foreigner food, that may stock the tea that you are more used to). Of coffee, you’ll have more choice than you’re used to; I’ve never even seen Instant Coffee here, Praise the Lord (unless you normally refer to the Lord as Allah, in which case, bite your tongue).

Sugar and flour come in 5 pound bags. Sugar doesn’t taste as sweet, to me, but I might be imagining that. You can satiate every taste desire in a US supermarket apart from the need for vinegary crisps and, I am afraid, British-style bangers, as the Americans insist on a meat content as high as 100% in their sausages. And by ‘meat’ I mean ‘material of animal origin’.

Prepare for a pleasant surprise at the check-out. Most of the time, they will bag your shopping for you, sparing you the traditional UK supermarket excitement of trying to keep up as the disinterested old harridan serving you scans faster than you can bag the stuff up while the rest of the queue look at you as if you are mentally defective. The checkout staff in US supermarkets are also much more polite and helpful and, but this may just be me, often rather prettier. The female ones, I mean. Don’t expect this trait to carry across to the Walmart checkouts.

You may be asked if you are Canadian, German or Australian.

*You couldn’t make it up. But I did.

11 Comments »

  1. Very funny. I always remember that huge empty parking lot in Virginia and the lack of customers in a store the size of three Asdas put together.

    Comment by dizzy — 2/17/2007 @ 3:38 pm

  2. You might want to mention, for the benefit of our guests/invaders, that the reason all of the food lasts so long is that it has been 1. irradiated and 2. spliced with the DNA of various immortal prokaryotes. No need to worry, as upwards of 75% of the food-engineering involves species nonfatal to humans when consumed.

    You also left out the rampant violent crime. Seldom do two days go by at an American supermarket without an attack by a torch-weilding mob of leather and denim-clad visigoths. Although, as you mentioned, they are expected to leave their guns in the bin outside.

    You also failed to mention the fat people, although previous experience with your writings on America suggests you’ll be getting around to that in due course.

    Also: what the hell is a “crisp”?

    Comment by Rojas — 2/17/2007 @ 6:03 pm

  3. Damnit, I knew I’d forgotten something. Fat people.

    Yes, limeys, you’ll be standing in an aisle thinking ‘why the hell are these aisles so godamn wide?’ and then, moving with the steady grace of a 500 000 ton oiltanker, will drift into view a person so fat that they are using the trolley as much for support as to hold their shopping, someone appearing to have eaten the person who ate the person that ate all the pies. And then, it’ll all become clear.

    ‘Crisps’ are what you chaps call ‘chips’, apart from when you’re talking about ‘fish and chips’, when you are talking about what we call ‘chips’.

    Comment by Adam — 2/17/2007 @ 6:11 pm

  4. Perhaps in honor of the horde Dizzy sent our way, we should change our co-admin’s name to “Paint CRisPs?”

    Not that the strange phenomenon of having actual readers is altering the nature of our comments at all. Heavens no.

    Comment by Rojas — 2/18/2007 @ 1:37 am

  5. We require that people register to comment, which most people won’t bother to do. We might look into easier commenting requirements along with spam control.

    We do have readers, however.

    Comment by Adam — 2/18/2007 @ 8:03 am

  6. Go vegan.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/18/2007 @ 5:05 pm

  7. You forgot to mention that they are open 24 hours a day and that the selection of boxed, canned, and frozen foods is deep enough that you can only go shopping once a month (monthly shopping makes it easy to calculate monthly budgets too) and never eat the same thing twice. Unless you want to, which I often did, because in spite of the 4,346 varieties of frozen pizza, there are a couple that are just better than the others. I can only imagine how much better it all has gotten in years since I left.

    Comment by Nute — 2/19/2007 @ 8:14 am

  8. A lot of British supermarkets, the bigger ones, are also open 24 hours a day (although not as many as do here). I guess that it’s not much more expensive to operate like that because there are people in there all night anyhow, restocking. Be prepared to hunt around to find someone to operate the checkout, of course.

    The freezer compartments do, indeed, look voluminous. All I ever get from them, though, is frozen peas and veggie burgers. I should have a look at them next time; I wouldn’t want to be missing any of the greater experience, particularly not if it offered the chance to buy a new sort of food that isn’t very good for me but tastes great, nevertheless.

    Comment by Adam — 2/19/2007 @ 10:00 am

  9. […] on the heels of Part 1, here is Part 2 of our hard-hitting limey’s guide to the most tedious aspects of life and how […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » The US for limeys, Part 2: the DMV — 2/22/2007 @ 10:39 pm

  10. My wife says you may be buying beet sugar; if so, try to find cane sugar. She also says that they use a lot of castor sugar in the UK, which dissolves faster (and hence tastes sweeter).

    And you can too get vinegar crisps! At least in California.

    Comment by Talarohk — 2/25/2007 @ 12:50 am

  11. Caster sugar is normally for making cakes (although, yes, I wish I could find it here for baking with).

    I have had some vinegary crisps here, but they’re not very vinegary, really (nor are the pickles I’ve had here, either).

    Comment by Adam — 2/25/2007 @ 5:38 am

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