French Friday: Everything Was SO-O Big in American Supermarkets

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Besides learning about American cooking when I clipped recipes from magazines and newspapers, my field trips to American supermarkets were true hands-on experiences that taught me a lot about my adoptive land.

In the months that followed my move to California I spent a lot of time inside supermarkets and any grocery store, even when I didn’t really need groceries. Remember that the early 1990s had yet to see lots of changes, in all areas. The contrast between countries was greater. Paris and the San Francisco Bay Area had little in common back then. Since so much was totally new or just different I had to satisfy my curiosity.

The cereal and freezer sections as well as the products’ sizes impressed me the most. I had never seen as many different types of cereal, although when I looked more closely, they seemed very much alike, except for the name of the food company. I stuck to Cheerios – the list of ingredients was the shortest – and to Muesli – there was something reassuring about a Swiss product.

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The frozen products took at least two full aisles in most supermarkets. I realized, with a mix of admiration and wonder, that Americans could eat frozen meals from breakfast to dinner, including countless snack options. Microwaves had entered French kitchens only recently. My neighborhood store had carried a selection of frozen, traditional French dishes, which were really close to the “from scratch” version.

The American frozen food section was far bigger, but the buttermilk pancakes, the hash browns, the egg-sausage-bacon muffins, the double-crusted pies, and the TV dinners couldn’t compete with the quality of their French counterparts. The French, though, lost when it came to ice cream. Who else but Americans could have thought of creating so many ice cream companies and imagined flavors such as chocolate chip cookie dough, banana split, rocky road, half-baked, or butter pecan? There was vanilla, natural vanilla, extra creamy vanilla, vanilla bean, homemade vanilla, and French vanilla. And every kind came in different sizes, the biggest one appearing gigantic to me.

I was equally impressed to see that an American soda bottle was twice the size of a French water bottle and that a gallon – more than four liters – filled a typical American water bottle.

Evian is now easily found anywhere in the US. In pretty small sizes too.

Butter came in four sticks – each stick barely smaller than a whole French butter package. An individual yogurt container weighed eight ounces – almost 227 grams versus the French container at 125 grams. American fruits and vegetables weren’t bigger than their French fellows. I noticed that their life expectancy was also far longer. I stumbled on products sold in bulk. Where would French people have stored them?

Everything was so-o big in these American supermarkets.

Besides drugstores, supermarkets carried medicine. I noticed people in line, either dropping their prescriptions or picking up their medication. The pharmacy aisle was in fact the equivalent of a French pharmacy without a pharmacist behind a counter. This is how I learned the expression “Over The Counter.” In these American pharmacy aisles everything was sold without a prescription. In contrast, almost everything would have required one in France.

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Starting this year and only in two regions in France, pharmacists are allowed to provide flu shots

Don’t assume that French, though, take less medication than American people. France is a highly medicated country. But it’s impossible to get most drugs without a prescription from a physician and then by meeting in person with a pharmacist. In the 1990s, only a pharmacist could sell ibuprofen for example. Nowadays, the steroidal and anti-inflammatory drug is available over the counter in France for 200 mg, but the 400 mg is sold in much smaller bottles than in the US.

On the other hand, the American beauty products aisle in supermarkets and also in drugstores was prehistoric when I remembered my neighborhood Monoprix that carried dozens of face moisturizers, shampoos, and body lotions for women, men, children, and babies. However, I had never seen shampoos sold in such large bottles before moving to the US.

Over these first exploration/discovery weeks I was often alone with my one-year-old daughter. At night, my husband and I shared our discoveries du jour. My vocabulary grew faster than his in all things domestic and children related. His was vastly superior to mine in everything business and finance. Seems a little cliché and even archaic? I wasn’t able to work when we arrived, so we split the tasks. It wasn’t a bad idea to trade info. It was often funny too.

For example, when I found it strange to see a sign directing to a nursery along busy, commercial El Camino. Nurserie in French also designs a room for babies and infants, but never a place to buy plants and flowers. Or when I believed that a bodyshop was a spa. My husband, on his side, had endlessly searched for ground coffee at Safeway, until he spotted someone using the coffee grinder. In France, you either grind your coffee beans at home or visit your local torréfaction, a shop where coffee is roasted and sold. Now, of course, they have Starbucks 🙂

The French press and the American coffee grinder team up

This is around dinner that we traded our newly acquired knowledge and exchanged our impressions, our baby girl between us. Perhaps even more than food the rituals that surround meals matter to the French. This is why most French children eat with their parents and share the same food at a very young age.

In our sunny California bungalow, our daughter always ate dinner with us.

Miam, miam,” she said as we tied a bib around her neck.

When she learned some English, “yum, yum” was one of her first words.

She not only shared the same food as her parents but she also quickly used a real spoon, fork and plate.

Only smaller in size.


P.S. With Veterans Day falling on a Saturday this year, schools, many government agencies and court systems are observing the holiday today to honor anyone who served in the United States Armed Forces. In France, November 11 celebrates l’armistice or Armistice Day and mark the anniversary of the end of WWI. So whether we live in the U.S. or France, we can all relate to this holiday. 


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