Supermarkets and Society

New Year’s Day the fair maiden and I were at a friend’s new house perched on a hill that overlooked the northern part of the San Francisco bay. (In truth: it was just over 2 weeks ago, but we agreed that it feels like ages have passed.) Even though it was intended as a New Year’s get together, a way for friends – some new and many old – to get together, enjoy each other’s company, and welcome the new year with snacks and mimosas.

I found myself in the kitchen – even in high school, I always found myself in the kitchen at parties – talking with another friend. I don’t see him often, but when I do, it’s always a good time. (We decided to get together in April once I’m back; I hope he remembers.) He offhandedly commented that the first thing he does whenever he goes to a new country is visit the grocery store.

I was kind of taken aback because I thought that that was, I guess, my thing. (I should have known better. When I was in Israel this past summer, I met several people who found the same type of enjoyment in supermarkets, and one who aimed first at the fruit in each country.) I think, instead, that I just gravitate towards or attract people who share this fascination.

You can learn a lot about a culture by their grocery store. For example, at my “friendly” neighborhood Safeway, produce is lodged back and to the left, half obscured by prepared foods – mostly fried chicken and potato wedges and quarts of creamy soups. The geometric middle is occupied by the frozen foods section: easy-bake pizzas, microwavable burritos, chicken nuggets, and quick-freeze fruits and vegetables. From there, grains and dairy by-products spiral outwards, punctuated by paper products, cleaning supplies, light bulbs, dog and cat food, candy.

When I go into my California grocery stores, I see avocados, watermelon, stacked plastic bags of sliced bread, salsas, bananas piled high, chips both potato and tortilla, and pizzas.

And the size. Americans, when we shop, shop for the week – maybe more. There are few times when I feel as satisfied as when I have completed a “holy trinity” (a grocery trip involving Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and a stop at our local co-op grocery store, Rainbow) and the fridge and pantry runneth over with bounty. This is probably a generally American value, I think. I mean, I’m not the only one who fills their fridge on a weekly or biweekly basis. It seems to point toward some need to be prepared, a just-in-case mentality that the history teacher in me can trace to colonial times.

In Finland, I found something different.

Our first day, we visited an Alepa market, a sort of mini-mart crossed with a bodega and a shrunken sort of a grocery store. The next day, with the help of of the Fulbright Teachers from Finland who just returned from Indiana (and who had visited my school in California), we visited one of the larger, more traditionally Finnish grocery stores – K. (The other major variety is S, and both come in a range of sizes, all the way up to something you can find in Finnish suburbs that’s roughly just shy of an American Target.)

And it was wonderful.

First of all, in both cases, it was impossible to find your way into the main aisles without first navigating the fruit and vegetables. In terms of varieties, I think Americans probably experience a far wider range of produce. But Finnish produce, especially green vegetables, seemed nearly farmer’s market fresh.

The breads are nearly all the dark Finnish rye that we have fallen in love with. (Not to be confused with the caraway rye for deli sandwiches that I was expecting. This denser, darker loaf is, apparently, one of the keys to the Nordic diet.) And the size was much smaller. The largest we could find was the equivalent of those half-loaves of wheat bread you can find in the states.

In fact, that was the dominant trend: size. There were metal shopping carts, but they were in use far less than the plastic baskets, and a sort of basket with wheels and a telescoping handle. The packages contained smaller portions and fewer of them. The impression I got was that, especially in the capital area in and around Helsinki, grocery shopping was a regular errand.

And of course this says something about the culture too. Using this as an example, the Finns seem to only purchase what you need to use. Use as much of a resource as you can. Avoid waste. And if there is waste, manage it. (This is reflected in the many ways in which trash and recycling are sorted.)

Okay, that’s enough reflection. Now, I’ll show you our haul.

This was the result of our hour wandering up and down the aisle. It’s a mix of foods we recognize and things we can’t even imagine.

7 thoughts on “Supermarkets and Society

    1. Jill:
      I can imagine they were wonderful. Because of the season, the farmer’s markets are not fully in action. We shop seasonally generally, but presently most local produce is herbs and the potted lettuce they prefer here. Eagerly awaiting the strawberries,



      1. Urmas:

        Thanks for those recommendations! We have already visited the vanhakauppahalli near the bay, but we were looking for the one in hakaniemi. Thank you for the reminder. And the Abattoir seems like something right out of San Francisco. We’ll be sure to visit. Any other places you think are a “must eat” in Helsinki? (We’ve really been enjoying the food and plan to eat ourselves through the country.) Thanks,



  1. Hakaniemen halli (the 1st floor where the food is, that is) is what Vanha kauppahalli used to be before it got… seriously übergentrified. I love it. Great produce (and then some), great atmosphere. Be sure to find the booth of Eromanga bakery and buy a lihapiirakka (meat pastry). Or two. Your arteries won’t thank you, but…

    There are many “ethnic” food stores in Hakaniemi. Vii Voan ( ) is worth mentioning. Another goodie is Ararat Bazaar ( ) in Itäkeskus.

    Lidl. “Everyday groceries” tend to be a good bit cheaper in Lidl than in K or S stores. So… Lidl.

    Now… which part of town is your home base? Good public transport yada yada, walkable city yada yada, but it would be seriously uncool to ignore a gem two blocks down and across the street.

    Also: if we are talking about restaurants/eateries/speakeasies… any criteria to narrow things down? If not…

    “105 must-eat portions in Helsinki” — sorted by districts (in Finnish, email me if you need help):

    “2014 vote” (yup, in Finnish):


  2. New, and hopefully well thought out question (this one’s for MSEL):

    You mentioned that they are conscious about waste and using the most of their resources. I assume that as a smaller country they are probably more able to be environmentally conscious. Do you think you could explore how much more advanced they are as a whole country (as in, the industries, communities, and government action) to take care of our poor little earth, than the United States? Also, if you find specific policies and actions, do you think we could reasonably adapt them here? I guess where I’m pointing towards is (stupid) theories like “free public university is impossible in the U.S., even though almost all of Europe does it,” and if this applies to the environment, and can we contradict that?

    P.S., I’m pretty self conscious about my language now that we’ve read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I interpreted it as we basically bs our way through smart sounding words and phrases with no deeper purpose or meaning, so now I’m always scared that I’m not being sincere enough. I don’t trust my writing!!!! Help!

    P.P.S. Ms. O’brien is doing great and very cute. Just some reassurance. However, we miss you. A lot.


    1. Julietta:

      Thanks for this response. Actually, this month I’ll be going to Oulu, a town in the northern section of Finland called Lapland. There, I’m hoping to not just learn about Finland’s environmentalism, but about specific things they are seeing as a result of climate change.

      In terms of industries, I don’t think they are “so much more advanced.” Instead, I think they have a different attitude toward consumption, which I kind of explored here. Because they have so fewer resources, especially compared to the United States, they need to encourage responsible and thoughtful consumption. We do that in the U.S., but our resources are much greater and our population much larger. Which gets toward one of the ideas we touch on in MSEL: the technologies we need to change our system are already here. It’s much more about encouraging behavior and supporting policies that meet those goals.

      I think a question all societies need to ask is how much personal wealth, freedom, or resources am I willing to give up for an improved system as a whole? In Finland and other Nordic countries, they seem (at least for now) willing to give up nearly 40% of their personal wealth for free education, regular and updated public transport, public medicine, etc. I’d say that your generation in the U.S., I think, is becoming more and more amenable to those policies and their accompanying cost. If that’s the kind of system you want, I guess, it’s up to you to advocate for it. That’s part of the beauty of the American system. It’s entirely flexible and dependent on the will of the people. That’s your will.

      Orwell is maddening. Even I get paranoid and self-conscious when I’m in this unit. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Vigilance is the only way to avoid “bad language.” I knew Ms. O’B was going to do a great job. She’s talented and bright and earnest. Those are the most important things. My best to everyone, please. I miss you all too. A lot.

      – D.A.T.


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