On affordability and ingredient snobbery.
Trying to understand what is supporting small, local independents, and what is just feeding an unnecessary guilt trip.
Another short essay today focusing on another ingredient related topic I’ve had thoughts about over the past few weeks, usually whilst shopping for and prepping ingredients for my day to day recipe development: why I’m constantly trying to apologise for my use of supermarkets, even though they’re what almost all of us rely on - at least in part - to source our meals.
I’ll be back after the Jubilee Bank Holiday Weekend with the slightly later than normal (for which I apologise, but I have house guests!) June edition of ingredient. As ever, be sure not to miss out by becoming a subscriber here.
As a food writer, I often find myself qualifying why I shop at supermarkets, even though it is the norm for the vast majority of the population.
Usually the explanation I give is that I’m a professional recipe developer: when I might have to cook a recipe upwards of 10 times before I get it right - for example for one job recently all I had to go on from a client was a YouTube recipe video in a foreign language - it would be financially crippling to shop all of this independently (especially if the recipe includes meat). Obviously I still shop at supermarkets day to day.
I’ve said various things - both in my introduction to my book One Pan Pescatarian and generally online - about how I’m trying to break up with supermarket meat, and how I want to encourage people to eat more veggie and vegan dishes on weeknights so that they can plough the savings into better meat on the weekends. I’m still committed to this, but I also don’t think it is right that I keep preaching this whilst not admitting to how much I struggle to do the same, both because of work commitments, and down to affordability.
I know I’m not the only one noticing how rapidly the food bill is creeping up with each and every shop at the moment.
I know someone who has not stepped foot in a supermarket for years, and honestly I don’t know how she does it. Yes I do like to get my fruit and veg from local vendors, and as well as visiting local butchers and an online butchery for less popular cuts, as well as big ticket items that are costly like beef and lamb, but almost all my chicken for example comes from a supermarket (while buying better beef for example adds a few pounds to the bill, better chicken costs staggeringly more - it is a red letter day when organic, field reared poultry appears in the flash sale section, slashing the price from over £6 a piece to something a little more manageable), and I still get Ocado1 once a month.
Asparagus season has arrived and you bet I’ve been buying local whenever I see it on offer, but I also made use of my mother’s early tip off that they’d already got English asparagus in our local Waitrose - the cost of fuel has also been skyrocketing, and if I’m already in a supermarket, I’m going to get everything on my list there.
We’re a late twenties, early thirties couple with a mortgage and one of us (me) works in the creative industries. But it’s a creative industry that seems hell bent on shaming me for the words I use in recipes where I do think higher quality ingredients matter: use the best that you can afford.
I know all the arguments. I absorb enough food media every day to be well aware of the problems with our food system and how supermarkets feed into this. The idea we demand strawberries in December is frankly mental, and this is supermarkets fault. I’m also aware I come at this argument from the lucky position that I’ve never had to worry about how I’m going to manage to eat my next meal or feed my family.
I do the best I can. So why do I feel so guilty for not doing better?
A potted history of the British supermarket.
By this point, the good old supermarket has been with us in Britain since the London Cooperative Society decided to replicate Clarence Saunders’s 1916 self service store Piggly Wiggly bringing the idea that people should be able to choose their own groceries to Manor Park, East London all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. At first, the concept was simple: allow people to choose their own products and serve themselves, rather than having to ask the shopkeeper to parcel out your goods for you (though I had to do this in a pharmacy in Croatia recently and there was something freeing about simply walking up to the counter and asking for what I needed with the choice of stacked shelves being removed from me.)
Obviously, with lower prices (due to the power of volume buying) than the independents and the ability to choose your own goods, the idea caught on, and a quick Google maps search of where we used to live in France has confirmed to me for the entirety of my life the behemoth of grocery shopping, a hyperstore like the ‘Hyper’ U in the nearby town of Combourg or the Tesco ‘Extra’ near my childhood home has never been more than 20 minutes away. I found the inner-city but still palatial Ralphs in my old Los Angeles neighbourhood of Westwood staggering the first time I shopped there (I also had a Trader Joe’s across the street, and a Whole Foods a few blocks away).
No one can argue that greater choice and affordability is a bad thing for consumers, but when did too much choice and too much affordability become a problem?
Well, it was always going to be a vicious circle. Bulk buying power and a business’ natural drive to find the lowest possible wholesale price for something sent them abroad, where more out of season produce was available, which made it onto shelves, which fuelled demand… you already know how it goes. We’ve broken our food system, supermarkets were part of the problem, and as they’re businesses who need to make a profit it is on us to be part of the solution. Again, we already know this. But, I’d argue, we also already know that you usually get better results using the carrot, not the stick, you usually catch more flies with honey than vinegar… What I’m saying is, I think advocates of trying to do better who guilt us into not doing ‘better enough’ are hindering, not helping the solution to many of our food issues here in the west.
In 2018 as part of a sponsorship with water filter brand Brita I attempted to do a week of food shopping without generating any single use plastic waste. I was living in Parsons Green, West London at the time and I was quite successful, but only because I lived somewhere with a big everyday loose goods food market within walking distance on a road lined with independent grocers, a Whole Foods, an independent butcher, and because I had the money to spend at these places and the time to move between them all as a full time food writer. If by this point I’d already returned to Kent, it would have taken even longer to drive between all the required destinations, the spiralling cost of fuel further exacerbating the cost of shopping ‘virtuously’.
These problems with shopping 100% how we’re told we should simply can’t be fixed overnight, so rather than feeling bad about it, I want to tell you (as well as myself) that it is actually okay to shop at a supermarket. What made supermarkets so successful was it extended the franchise of choice, and I think if we exercise that choice in supermarkets to the best extent of our personal circumstances, we don’t need to feel guilty about shopping in them.
Whilst there are still some very scary things for sale in British supermarkets (like in America, these are mostly found in the frozen section) there are also some wonderful things, like for example said British asparagus which usually has the name of both the farmer and the county on it, so you can do your best to support farmers and shop as locally as possible. I picked up a tray of strawberries from just down the road in Tesco’s the other day which, no, did not have the same perfume as those from the farm shop, but were great for baking.
Yes, there are more issues that need to be discussed about supermarkets paying farmers fairly for their produce, but by indicating to these big corporate entities you want this information available because you’re buying more of that particular product is a step in the right direction.
Supermarkets are so successful because they solve one of the greatest issues of modern life, and if it were easy to shop independent for absolutely everything, they’d go out of business. Yes they are what killed most neighbourhood grocers in the first place, but now supermarkets are here to stay I think as long as we’re conscious about what we’re buying, wherever we’re buying it, we should not feel bad about it. We’re the ones with the buying power after all; supermarkets won’t sell something if we won’t buy it.
Last summer I was sent down the rabbit hole by brand new sustainability website The Mindful Fork to investigate how sustainable the dried herbs and spices we buy in British and American grocery stores are, and to look into if more sustainable options are actually readily available to the consumer.
Do click through to read the conclusion I came to at the end of the piece, but to summarise the answer was whilst obviously you can do better shopping small and independent, this won’t work for everyone and is a little less than practical, but if you do your research and be conscious of what you’re buying, you can still shop sustainably at a supermarket. This applies across the board, but people in the food industry who want us to all be perfect won’t admit this as often as I wish they did.
My first non-monthly ingredient feature here on ingredient tackled the question if it made me a failure as a food writer for making homemade stock exclusively from leftovers, rather than ‘wasting’ fresh ingredients on the perfect broth, and I also came to the conclusion there that as long as we do the best we can we should spend less time stressing about what we’re told we should be doing, versus achieving what is actually manageable.
I think all we can do is try and do better, and if everyone tries to do a little better in their day to day lives, within their own limits be they on time, location or finances, things will, hopefully, get a little better for all of us.
For US readers, Ocado is the UK’s only exclusively online supermarket, selling branded, own brand and Marks & Spencer (think like Trader Joe’s, all their own branded products of a good quality, some with a cult following) foodstuffs.