Today I took my first post-France trip to an American grocery store. After nine months of piping hot baguettes, fresh organic farm vegetables and full-on cream yogurts, I was not at all prepared for what I found at my local Rainbow Foods.
Upon walking into the store, the size alone shocked me. The ceiling nearly touched the sky and I couldn’t see from one end to the other. But that was only the beginning.
As I entered the vegetable aisle, I was bombarded by oversized squash, mammoth watermelons, bin-busting tangles of grapes and enormous bags of lettuce. How could one, even four, people consume that many legumes before everything began to rot? I was momentarily reminded of the two small tomatoes, three carrots, one head of lettuce and three mushrooms that were the result of my market shopping in France.
Avoiding the salad dressing section (I never was much of a ranch fan), I moved towards the organic foods. Ah yes. I had discovered what I had been missing since I’d come back to my homeland six days ago. Soy drinks and cashews, self-serve granola and yogurt-covered protein bars. Thai noodle mixes, wafer crackers and vitamins to the sky! Perhaps American cuisine wasn’t going down the tubes after all.
But then it happened. The snack aisle.
I hadn’t even been back in the country a week and the culture shock was too much for me. I nearly had a panic attack as I saw bags as big as my head of sour cream n’ onion potato chips, Doritos in eight bazillion flavors, chocolate chip cookies galore and at least three new kinds of Oreos. Before I knew what was happening, I was walking towards the entrance of the store to find myself a shopping basket.
In went Cheez-its, Mint n’ Cream Oreos and two different Doritos. No fat was to be spared, no flavor either. When I reached the end of the aisle, that old familiar pang of American guilt plunged into my side and I almost turned back to return everything to the shelf, but I held strong and carried on.
Next was the dairy section, a sight to behold. After being endlessly chastised by the Frenchies for eating pasteurized everything, I willingly grabbed packs of cheddar, havarti, and string cheese. I found my precious lactose-free milk, Philadelphia’s original cream cheese and a decent “thick and creamy” yogurt. The French would have been cynical about my selection, but I was already imagining my first book: “The Hundred-and-One Ways to Prepare Dairy.”
Nearing the end of my trip, I walked past the bakery section, skeptically eyeing the “croissants,” and “baguettes.” Did those people at Rainbow Foods really think they could replicate some of France’s true masterpieces? Only one way to find out, of course, and so I piled a few baked goods into my basket for good measure.
On my way to the checkout counter, I gave one last look around. What else did I need? Meat? Don’t eat it. Dairy? Got it. Fruits and vegetables? Don’t need ‘em. Snack items? Got ‘em, got ‘em, and got ‘em again. Got ‘em? Plural? Panic attack beginning.
After unloading most of my stash onto the shelves, I walked feebly back to the front of the store, dropping BBQ sauce and a pack of Wildberry Frost gum into my basket. I almost got lost finding my way back, but with an employee in practically every aisle and easy-to-read signs hanging overhead, I made it to the checkout counter with my sanity intact.
“Hello, there. Did you find everything okay today?” the checkout girl asked in a sickeningly sweet Midwestern accent.
“Yep,” I said, half-smiling. Were we friends? Did we need to be so jolly towards one another? I realized then how entirely Frenchified I had become. The “Minnesota nice” was going to send me into hysterics.
I paid $12.41 and leisurely packed up my goods into a brown paper bag. There were 15 other checkout lanes, so why rush myself? When it was all said and done, I had purchased a box of Cheez-its, Banana Nut Crunch cereal, cream cheese, two packs of gum, soy milk, one yogurt, a bottle of Perier and BBQ sauce. If there was a correlation between everything in my bag, I was too dumb to find it.
As I got into my car, the guilt-trip already beginning about the tantamount of fat grams I had stowed away in the trunk, I began to think about the fat crisis in America versus the slender trend in France. It’s not so much that the question should be, “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat,” but instead, “Why All Americans Aren’t Morbidly Obese.” With potato chips, fatty cheeses, and sugary soft drinks galore, it’s really a wonder how anyone has control over their waistline. When a majority of the food is power-sugared (and most of it carefully hidden) how can people not get fat? Talk about “three meals a day” and “enjoying your food” as much as you want. If you’re eating chemically fabricated and altered foods all day long, you probably won’t fit into your pants by the end of the year, much less the month.
Yet, the question remains, how do Americans adapt the ever-expanding sugar industry to their wannabe healthy diets? Is it possible to replicate the French and trim our waistlines while eating whatever we want? I say no, if only because the food is so very different. If we were comparing apples to apples, the theory would apply. French or American, we are just people, after all. The tried-and-true “diet and exercise” philosophy should work. Unfortunately, the food is not the same, and this is where Americans are in trouble. If a French person eats a piece of bread from their local bakery, they won’t gain as much weight as an American will when he bites into his pre-packaged white bread roll. While the French are piling homemade sausage and aged cheese onto their plates, Americans are eating processed pepperoni and Kraft singles. In order for Americans to get healthy, we have to get back to our country roots and stop eating so much junk. Enough with “thiamin mononitrate,” “pyridoxine hydrochloride” and “yellow 5.” Give me ingredients that exist in nature—and that I can pronounce.
When I arrived home after a 15 minute car ride (oh, how I missed France’s walking culture already!) I unpacked my new American groceries and deliberated over what to eat first. Going on instinct, I opened my much-missed Oreos and bit into one with a burning passion. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor was, how incredibly rich and chocolate-y. Just one more, I decided. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor…. ok, just one more.
After my fourth delectable sandwich-cookie, I felt happy, satisfied and increasingly bloated. If only someone could just pop me, then I could eat some more. I was so full, so very, very “double stuffed,” yet I wanted another one. Maybe if I just had two more cookies, in fact, it would be okay.
I checked the Nutrition Facts on the back of the bag and considered putting the cookie down, but the offender in question was already in my mouth, working its way around my re-virginized palate. As the sugary goodness burned its way down my throat, I knew then and there that my pants size would never be the same.