The Ontology of the Grocery Store

Posted on August 24th, 2009 by

A recent conversation about the location of kielbasa prompted me to haul out this piece, from one of our 2002 issues.

Last summer, I went to three grocery stores in Maine, looking for cornmeal, before I finally realized I was looking in the wrong place. This experience solidified for me the realization that grocery stores (supermarkets, convenience stores, all of ’em) embody certain ontological principles–but that in fact these principles are not independent of space and time.

Oh, I suppose I always knew that.  From a very early age, I recall that grocery shopping was one of the principle forms of recreation in which our family engaged when we went on our annual car trip.  Since those car trips frequently took us to Canada, we derived particular delight out of reading the French names for familiar products.  (Our all-time favorite was the name given to Goofy Grape drink mix–Rigolo Raisin.)  We also marveled at the way those darn Canuks changed the perfectly English names we gave to things; whyever did they rename Canadian bacon back bacon, for heaven’s sakes?

But the fact that the same foods have different names in different places isn’t really an ontological issue–or at least it’s not the kind of ontological issue I’m interested in pursuing.  An example more relevant to present purposes comes from a trip I took with my parents, to the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, where, for the first time, I encountered self-rising flour.  For years, recipes had been instructing me to “omit the baking powder if you use self-rising flour (sold in some parts of the South),” and now, suddenly here I was in some part of the South. And lo and behold, here sat self-rising flour, there on the shelf as bold as you please.

My childhood training should have prepared me, really, for the Cornmeal Incident, but it just didn’t.  For heavens’ sakes, who would ever have thought that the cornmeal wouldn’t be right in there with the flour and the baking powder and the sugar?  What do you do with cornmeal after all?  You bake with it, that’s what!  You make cornbread.  Or corn muffins.  Or maybe, if you got one of those yuppie cookbooks, you make pancakes.  Or if you haven’t yet been bullied out of frying things, you make corn dodgers or hush puppies or some other little balls of cornmeal dough that you fry up in deep fat.   Cornmeal is a baking item.  It belongs on the baking shelf.

Not, apparently, in Maine.  In Maine, that familiar cylindrical box with the picture of the smiling Quaker was (as Sartre might say) present in its absence among the baking supplies.  In not one store, not two, but three.[1] It was not until the third store that it occurred to me that there was no way for three groceries all to be sold out of a grocery store staple.  For surely, even in the land of the blueberry muffin, some people used cornmeal–for breading fish, if nothing else.

Ah.  Breading fish.  Reorienting my navigation device, I went in search of Things to Use On Fish, and found them, on shelves above a row of those old chest-type freezers that are the energy-use equivalent of standing with the front door open in January.  Various spice mixes, crumbs, batters…and cornmeal.  Same old box, same old Quaker.

Why had it taken me so long to catch on?  Like a person who repeatedly tries on clothes in “her size” and finds them ill fitting, I was incapable of considering the possibility that other grocery store universes might order their contents according to some other, utterly incommensurable, organizing scheme.  Who knew you could just put cornmeal wherever you wanted?  Of course I should have known, but despite my early vacation training sessions, I still believe that a grocery store should exhibit the clear, unambiguous, unvarying order of Plato’s universe, in which even the intestine is–and always will be–exactly where it is for precise reasons (to keep the noise of digestion away from you while you’re trying to think).  The cornmeal episode left me shaken.

But not as shaken as when I returned to my home turf, and began to realize that, not only are grocery store ontological categories not invariant over space, they aren’t even invariant over time.

It all started when Peg and I went to do our annual ingredient shop for our Feast of St Cholestera party, a cookie extravaganza in preparation for which we use bags and bags of flour and sugar, and–of course–pounds and pounds of butter.  It’s the one time of the year when, a bit shamefaced, we eschew our beloved food coop and venture to the giant food warehouse in Mankato.

Who knows why the change hit me this year?  It surely hadn’t just happened.  But for whatever reason, it wasn’t until this year that I realized the baking aisle has shrunk. It’s not even a whole aisle anymore–it’s just part of one.

When I was a kid, the National Tea store had a whole, long aisle–both sides–of flours, sugars, spices, and all the other elemental ingredients with which one could bake.  The aisle also included a hefty number of cake and brownie mixes (though nothing like the variety that exists today–none, for example, that could be made in a microwave and came with their own baking pan).  And you could buy gigantic bags of flour–there was always more than one brand of flour available in twenty-pound bags, for instance.  Not anymore.  This Gigantic Food Warehouse didn’t have a single twenty-pound bag of flour for sale.  Not a one.  And its baking ingredients were tucked, almost apologetically, into a part of an aisle that was filled up with refrigerator magnets or disposable diapers or microwaveable breakfast cereals or some such thing.  They had become inconsequential in the ontological schema of this store.

Perhaps, I consoled myself, it was just this store.  Perhaps one of the other gigantic food stores in Mankato had such a fantastic baking section that this store decided it just wasn’t going to compete, and had decided to do a bang-up business in the kitty litter department instead.

Nothing of the sort proved to be true.  I perused the other stores in Mankato, and the supermarket in St. Peter, and found the same discouraging sight; a puny, emaciated little baking section, mostly taken up with “just add water” mixes, and tiny, cute bags of flour–the kinds of bags that we used to buy on vacation, because we were only going to be gone one week and so we didn’t really need a decent amount.   In contrast, the chip rack had, when I wasn’t looking, expanded, and it now filled an entire aisle, plus various assorted end caps and center-of-aisle displays.

Now, obviously this shelf restocking dismays me because of what it says about American eating habits: most people don’t bake, many people derive many calories from highly processed, nutritionally vapid snack foods.   But as much as I’m disappointed on an ethical, nutritional and ecological level, I also find myself depressed on what I can only call the ontological level.  I want the grocery store aisles to be constituted the way they were when I was a kid.[2] Even if it means I have to go hunting down the cornmeal when I’m in a strange land.

[1] Now, I know some of you who shop in food coops think you’ve got this one all figured out.  “Those groceries in Maine store the cornmeal in the refrigerated section, just the way my coop does.  They must know that cornmeal contains oils that can go rancid over time, and so they put it in the fridge to protect it.”  Nice idea, but you’re wrong, pal.  Very wrong.

[2] Okay, maybe not the produce aisle.  I think I can live without cellophane on my apples.



  1. BJ Heldke says:

    Maybe baking will make a comeback along with the “cooking at home” that the economic crisis has fostered. Or at least “heating up” at home. The Chocolate Chip Cookie dough recall might send people to the baking aisle to acquire ingredients to make their own.

    But where are the toothpicks? Even if I give up and decide to buy round ones, they are not to be found. Is everyone running around with a piece of something stuck between every tooth?

  2. David says:

    I have noticed that as well. I do remember the days when the baking ilse were filled will a variety of items and as well as very large qaunities for the price. But I’m not really sure what has happened with all the baking supplies. Maybe because of the rations of new all ready to go mixes such as for brownies or they are simply carrying local products, rather than all the national lines for sugar, spices, and flour.

  3. Jim. says:

    “Rigolo Raisin”. Wow, I would love to see a French/English pack of old Funny Face!