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Then and Now

Freda Isaksen

For the past fifty years I have shopped for my own household needs in four different countries so I have seen many types of stores with diverse foods according to the needs of different cultures. Thinking back a half century I can remember when refrigeration was not so prevalent, so it was necessary to shop daily and food was mostly sold in small mom and pop stores and displayed in a manner that would be considered shocking today and probably prohibited by the authorities. I remember seeing whole carcasses of meat and poultry hanging in the stores so that anyone passing by could brush by them or touch them. Bread was displayed unwrapped in open cases, if one wanted to feel it, pick it up and put it back no one objected, and oh how good that bread tasted, real old fashioned flavor and texture.

Where I lived in Scandinavia most fruits and vegetables were imported and considered a luxury, melons were sold by the slice and very expensive. But the limited amount of local produce was fresh picked and sweet and then dried or preserved for the winter months.

Grains were often sold in open barrels and no one mentioned calories or low fat, it was deemed that food should taste good, no one thought it should be good for you because very little junk food was available. In those countries there were some costly packaged cereals and luxury foods that were imported, mostly from the U.S. where it seemed that everything must be readily available.

The customer in those days was personally acquainted with the store’s owner so their patronage was appreciated and the friendly shopkeeper would address and greet them by name, then recommend some freshly purchased items.

Of course in America the food stores at one time were also owned individually and had the customer’s needs in mind. For some years during the time that most housewives were home during the day, traveling food vans would traverse the streets sounding their horns to attract business. These hawkers usually carried such foods as bakery goods, milk, and fish. The supplier was like a friend coming on a weekly visit.

Over the years in the U.S. the local grocery business has been taken over by large corporations. Some ethnic markets are still offering selected merchandise, but the majority of customers prefer the supermarkets where everything is stocked under one roof. Nowadays a person can do their banking or buy prescription medications next to the groceries; some of the larger stores even sell clothing. Household staples are considered as necessary as food purchases, so the homemakers can save time by finding all they need at one locality. In modern times this convenience is a boon to the busy consumer.

Many delicacies from foreign lands are stocked to please the customer who has traveled and is anxious to repeat the dining pleasures of other places. Packages of foods from virtually every industrialised nation are displayed to tempt the appetite.

Competition between the different supermarkets is very competitive. The customer is lured with extensive advertising, but very little personal service is offered.

Today the supermarkets are also prevalent in foreign countries and likewise very large and impersonal. They are more or less alike everywhere. All the foods are wrapped by modern methods and prepared to accommodate the needs of the present way of living. Produce is often sold in the street at stalls, even in the large cities. Because transportation and refrigeration have become so universal, food is easily available from far away countries and is marked in different languages. For instance I have eaten ice cream from California six thousand miles away in Europe.

By far the largest and most impressive food market I have ever been into was on a recent trip to Latvia in the Baltic States. After the breakup of the Soviet Union I was under the impression that food was scarce in that area, but after being there I know that there is plenty to eat, maybe the problem is that the average person has no money to buy it. The market I visited consisted of many halls where different kinds of foods were stocked in separate buildings. I was amazed at the abundance and variety of fresh, dried, pickled, canned, and prepared foods, all very orderly and well displayed in glass cases.

In the fish section the fish were swimming in fresh water and taken home in plastic bags still alive. Cats were roaming around there and sleeping on shelves. Only fresh produce was scarce; in that area of the world potatoes, onions, beets, cabbage, tomatoes, and cucumbers are most easily available. Watermelons and apples were about the only fruits to be seen.

In Thailand I saw floating markets where the native people barter and sell their edibles to one another from small boats which they paddle along the canals; they carry mostly produce, grains, prepared foods, and flowers.

In England the large department stores have food emporiums on the lower floors where beautiful displays of luxury delicacies both fresh and cooked are for sale. Obviously these edibles are not for the average working man.

Walking through a modern local supermarket is like a travelogue; I can choose my meal from any country in the world. Should it be England, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, China, Japan, Mexico? I can just pick a package from the case, and use my imagination.

Enjoy, bon apetit, takk for matt.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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