My cousin is keeping a blog, in Swedish (he's calling it 'The American Dream', which I think is way frigging cool, by the way). His first-blush impressions about the trip, the countryside, and settling in to his apartment in SLO makes a great addition to this thread about food.
He's engaged in puzzling through the little daily-life differences between Sweden and the United States. This bring some parts of our taken-for-granted Californian daily lives into sharp, critical focus. I've not mentioned to him that we are working on food things, but food (along with getting his mobile phone set up and getting a car) is top of mind for him, as he settles in at Cal Poly. His eyes are the eyes of the outsider and those are the eyes that ethnographers work to develop. We have to work hard to see things afresh as Niklas is doing so naturally and effectively, up the coast in beautiful SLO.
After finding his way up from LA, and into his apartment, one of the first orders of business for these students was finding food, which meant finding Albertsons. Uh oh. Here's what he had to say (google translator helped my crappy Swedish, here):
After we were all checked in we took a bus back. . .and went to Albertson's, a big grocery store near my place. We were desperate to find some decent, real food so we went crazy in the vegetable section. Tried to find as much as possible that was like what we have at home, but damn it all, there's so much processed food and general crap here! One becomes afraid, looking around at the shelves. Sure, you can find some decent stuff, but you have to search. . ." He included a photo, reproduced here with his honest caption, "Shelves full of shit!
That mirrors my ethnographic sentiments, exactly. That's partly because I'm up to my hips in food and shopping research this month, and partly because I generally avoid Albertson's, Ralphs, and even Stater Brothers because they don't have what I want. And if Trader Joe's numbers are any indication, a rapidly growing number of Americans are in the same boat with me. Trader Joes racks up triple (wow) the sales per square foot of mega-grocer WalMart, and that was way back in 2006! The big chains are loosing market share to TJ's, thus saith the LA Times.
One concept to throw out here: the idea of markedness. Languages (or cultures, or both, if you are reading Mike Agar, which you should be), generally mark, or signal, the things that are not taken for granted. This happens at the morphological or phonemic level, at the semantic level, and perforce, at the cultural level. The culturally taken-for-granted stuff is "unmarked."
So people who speak Vietnamese will refer to (or directly address) a person who is younger than the speaker as /em/. Doesn't matter if they are male or female. If the person is male and older, they refer to (or address) the person as /anh/. If they are female, they use /chi/. That's all an oversimplification but the point is that age is marked but gender isn't always marked; generalize that a bit and you may say that in this remarkably bilateral cultural world, gender don't count as much as relative age. So the anthropologist can figure out just where and when and how that works out and what it means.
Extend this to the semantic/cultural or languacultural food sphere and consider "organic" produce. In a country like Sweden, is organic marked? Do you have to call it out, signal it with signage, in the grocery store? Or, is produce expected to be organic? If it isn't organic, what is it? Processed shit, perhaps? (Helena's upcoming trip to Sweden may help sort this out).
This is a broad brush but it is interesting to consider what is marked and what is not, what is worthy of special mention about a food or an activity, and what doesn't get special mention. Sometimes this stuff gets political or structural and formal. We don't label GMO foods, so the marked category is non-GMO.
What is marked and what is not signals what is out of the ordinary and this has consequences for what we do and what we think. About food, for example.