Sunday 22 July 2012

Shopping before supermarkets

One of the nice things about living in a suburb full of wogs is that there is a good selection of wog shops. As in places that sell wog food. Cramped little emporiums crammed with cheese, hams, pasta, bread, olives, funny wog drinks, canned tomatoes and so forth. And also crammed with little old wogs speaking in tongues.

Unfortunately, due to things like having to go to work, I get to visit these places a lot less often than I'd like. I managed to squeeze in a visit to one shop this weekend, and it was just as I remembered it from my last visit. I couldn't pronounce the names of any of the goods properly, I was about the only English speaker in the place, and it took about half an hour to get served. Even though I was third in line.

Which leads me to my thought of the day - how time consuming shopping for food etc was before the rise of supermarkets. 80% of what I wanted was behind the counter - I couldn't select it myself. I had to point at what I wanted, dictate the number of slices/weight/length of cheese, and wait for the ham to be sliced, packed, weighed and the cost written down; wait for the cheese to be hacked off the wheel and weighed, packed and costed; wait for the buffalo bocconcini to be drained, packed, weighed and costed; etc etc etc. Then the cost of the whole lot had to be tabulated - the cost of each item was written down on the wrapping of the first item I selected, and they were then added by hand. Buying 8 items took 10 minutes - after a half hour wait.

I have no problem with doing that once a month or so. It's worth the wait for the excellent hams, the great range of olives, the wood fired breads and the interesting cheeses. And if you aren't sure which cheese you want, they'll slice samples off each one and let you have a taste. You can easily burn through 10 minutes just doing some cheese tasting.

But imagine shopping like that every single day. Imagine how much time it would eat out of the time between getting up and going to bed. Especially if you had to visit 4 or 5 shops to get everything you wanted.

Compare it with a trip to the supermarket, where you can select dozens and dozens of items yourself; it's a one-stop shop; everything is bar coded for rapid tabulation at the check out; almost everything you select is pre-packaged in a can, bag, carton or shrink wrap. There is no bespoke service. If you want 16 slices of ham instead of 12, you're out of luck. But the trade off is the convenience and speed. And the lower cost - a supermarket can sell millions of dollars of goods with minimal staff costs, because they don't need to devote one staff member to each customer. 

It's amazing how innovation in retail has given us lower cost food and freed up that most precious commodity of all - our time. That is something we just take for granted these days. The Soviets never allowed this sort of innovation in retail - they had queues, whilst we had convenience. 

The downside of course is having to shop in a pretty soulless environment, and having to put up with whatever the conglomerate decides to stock. They choose what you'll buy, how you'll but it and in what quantities (depending on what the market dictates). But that's how most people want it - they've chosen cost and convenience over the alternative of the old style shops.

I bought some mortadella this time - I haven't been able to face this sort of sausage for about 25 years. In WA, it's called "polony", and we used to joke that it was produced from lips and arseholes. I was fed large amounts of it as a kid - usually thickly sliced on white bread with tomato sauce. During a sojourn on a wheat bin in the middle of nowhere, I discovered that blue tongued lizards don't mind it either (when you've got sod all to do between trucks, catching and feeding lizards with flies and polony is a good way to pass the time).

Sunday lunch at boarding school consisted of a few slices of polony, a bit of iceberg lettuce, a scoop of cold, grainy, grey mashed potato and maybe half a tomato. That pretty much put me off it forever. (Interestingly enough, some years ago, I visited a relative in an old people's home. He was fed the same stuff for lunch. I had to say my goodbyes and leave at that point before I threw up).

But mortadella is to polony what Grange Hermitage is to cask wine. They're both pink and supposedly made from pigs, but the similarities end there. I bought it for the kids, but I had to try a bit myself. I think the mortadella drought is over. Good wog mortadella from a good wog emporium can conquer ancient food phobias.

One last thing - we've got a nice variety of pastry shops out this way too. Trouble is, there are so many, I always have trouble remembering which one does the best vanilla slice. There are two Vietnamese bakeries and several wog pastry shops, so the choice is pretty broad. I fluffed it and ended up in the wrong Vietnamese bakery this time - the vanilla slice was a double decker (in the style of a mille-feuille), but the pastry was soggy and it lacked an essential ingredient; passionfruit icing. I didn't even think to check for the presence of icing before purchasing - a very stupid move. I give it 2 out of 10.


Jeff said...

I think this is an interesting critique. I certainly do shop at a grocery store for most of my home food needs. However, I've also lived in and near cities (in Europe and Central America) with functioning open-air markets. The sensations were overwhelming, especially in El Salvador. And it took more time. But I talked with more people.

Perhaps, there is something to your statement about "having to shop in a pretty soulless environment." We may waste more time in the separate shops and walking around, but maybe it's better to waste time with the community than being inside. Maybe the slower model builds happier communities. Just a thought.

TimT said...

Not that I want to take much-needed custom away from those nice ethnic delis but, BOAB, you ought to try making some bocconcini or mozzarella at home. It's fun and shouldn't take too long. There's a recipe here - basically all you'll need is some milk, rennet, and starter culture. (You'll have to make starter culture a day or so before you do the cooking but that part is easy).

On the other hand, making cheese at home nicely undercuts the need to spend time in large, crowded supermarkets - and making your own cheese turns out to be a good deal cheaper, too.

TimT said...

Actually this link is better I have decided. Don't need to worry about starter for this one after all...

Boy on a bike said...

The smaller shops certainly have the community angle down pat. The staff behind the counter knew every customer by name (except me) and pretty much knew what they wanted. The customers chatted amongst themselves whilst waiting to be served. I'm sure they were all cousins.

As for the bocconcini, I do want to give it a go one day. So long as I don't have to milk an buffalo.

The buffalo bocconcini was excellent - quite different to bocconcini from a cow. It was very creamy, and had a sharp tang to it. I'm kicking myself for not buying double the amount.

Anonymous said...

You are quite right, a vanilla slice without passionfruit icing just isn't kosher. Same too with doughnuts - a doughnut without pineapple icing is only half a doughnut.

I remember polony quite well, can you still buy a similar sausage called devon in Sydney. It's very similar to polony if memory serves correctly.